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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Between Shades of Gray

Heading off to the 9th IBBY Regional Conference “Peace the World Together With Children’s Books” this weekend seems like the appropriate time to talk about Ruta Sepetys BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. This came home in my glut of reading from ALA Annual.  I recall setting the stacks of a couple of dozen Newbery-eligible books and galleys by my reading chair and reading the first 3 pages of each, in order to prioritize them.  This is the one that I did not want to put down.

Looking back at those 3 pages, I see nothing fancy about Sepetys writing style.  But the opening voice is arresting and captivating. Lina, her brother Jonas and her Mother quickly unfold as characters, and the amount of time spent in setting the scene is perfect: we spend just enough time with Lina’s family in their “normal” home setting to feel the frightening otherwordliness when they are stuffed into a train car and sent…who knows where, for who knows why?  Lina’s inklings of understanding and memories of home are savored throughout the narrative as she grows from a headstrong artist to a survivor.

Martha P asked if no one remembered Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe (1968), acknowledging that we aren’t to compare BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY to it in this discussion, but reminding us of the book, and suggesting that it’s told with “so much more nuance.”   I haven’t read Hautzig’s book, but as soon as Martha said “nuance” I did hear in my head the same broad note that is struck over and over whenever Lina is passionately riled about politics, or art.  I’ll have to go back for a second reading to see if I’m remembering right.   Still, though these parts seemed “flat” to me, I’m not sure how deeply they flaw the appreciation of the story for its intended audience, if at all.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. Bad timing–I just posted my review of this under Girl Power Goes Global. I said the same thing about Martha P’s comment, nuance, and art… I hadn’t thought about the politics much, but yes, that too.

  2. Christopher says:

    I’ve always thought of this book was being more of a Printz contender myself. Isn’t this the book that is being published as adult in England?

  3. Sounds like the opening of Bigger than a Breadbox, which I felt the same way about.

  4. I found the ending of Between Sades of Gray particularly unsatisfying. It doesn’t end–it limps to a halt, even with the epilogue. The epilogue suggests that Lina has come to terms with her experience, but the reader doesn’t get to watch any of real character development from Lina.

  5. Alison, I’m not sure that I’d expect a book telling this kind of story to have any different ending. I’d imagine that Lina’s coming to terms is a whole different story, of many years. We do see her character develop through this book, into a person who can leave this situation when it does end and go on to live a life in which she comes to terms with it. I don’t need to see her come to terms with it. As a reader, I just need to believe that she will.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    This book features some lovely sentence-level writing, particularly images that are incorporated quite naturally into the first person narrative. I haven’t read THE ENDLESS STEPPE, but I do think it fits nicely in the Holocaust genre because of the similarities. I also think this book sits at the edge of the range, but seems more likely to engender consensus than, say, CHIME. There was something about the book that felt flat to me, and I’m not sure whether it was plot or character. Hmmm.

  7. Elizabeth Bird says:

    Dunno. The mom forced to have sex with the soldiers in order to protect her son makes this pretty clearly upper YA in my book.

  8. There’s no definition of the difference between children’s and YA that I really like, but I’d argue hard against a definition that says that any book that has any reference to sex in it must be YA. It’s especially unsettling to have a Holocaust book bumped into the YA category because of, you know, shhh, sex.

  9. A mere “reference” to sex, sure. I agree with you. But otherwise, I’d draw the YA line at “sex” any day.

  10. Nina Lindsay says:

    Mr H and Betsy, I don’t understand. Why does a blanket reference to sex make a book YA?

  11. Not only YA, but UPPER YA? I, too, would have to see that defended (and I doubt I’d agree). What might make something like that “upper YA” for me is if the teenage protagonist, herself, was the one who had to have sex with the soldiers, especially if it was spelled out, or her deep trauma was spelled out. Both Lina and her brother react to this situation the way kids react (or so it would seem to me). Quite a few middle grade and probably almost every “early” YA about the Holocaust reference sex in some way. One of my childhood favorites, As the Waltz was Ending, has a kidnapping/rape scene. There are references to sexual harassment in The Devil’s Arithmetic (and sexual harassment carried very high stakes with it in death camps, especially when one is thirteen). But more than that, this is the absurd MPAA problem all over again. These are books about GENOCIDE. The book has a tragic scene of a baby’s death, a young mother’s death, brutal beatings of main characters–do I need to go on?–but what makes it “upper YA” is non-explicit sexual situations?

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Wendy, this is priceless!

    These are books about GENOCIDE. The book has a tragic scene of a baby’s death, a young mother’s death, brutal beatings of main characters–do I need to go on?–but what makes it “upper YA” is non-explicit sexual situations?

  13. A blanket reference to sex? Maybe I’m missing something, but a son’s knowledge that his mother is being forcibly raped to save him from genocidal soldiers isn’t your average blanket YA sex reference. Just sayin’. I agree with Betsy, not MG to me.

  14. Elizabeth Bird says:

    Okay okay! Too blanket a statement then, eh? Well, folks, I concede the point.

    Now about these dead babies, dead moms, brutal beatings, etc . . . . . .

    Can it be upper YA now?

  15. In our school district, the Holocaust is briefly studied by students, along with WWII, first in 6th grade (11-12 years old). The gory details of the Holocaust are not studied and approached until at least 10th grade (15-16 years old). YA territory. Is that the norm? Are 5th and 6th graders across the country learning about soliders raping women?

  16. I personally never want my children to read about sex, or rape, or any kind of sexual violence. Like, ever. If it were entirely up to me, and it’s good that it’s not, they’d be G-rated until they were 30. I’ve inherited my culture’s Puritan-rooted discomfort with all things sexual. It is at odds with my intellectual position which says that sex, and even rape, are subjects children are almost certainly aware of by the time they are eleven or twelve. I haven’t read the book, but I can say that I believe these subjects CAN be in a children’s book, though it would necessarily be a limited audience. The same is true of the Holocaust, and all the subject matter Betsy mentioned. They CAN be in a children’s book, though it would be a challenging one.

    One thing to consider is that readers will pass right over content they aren’t ready for, if the author allows them to do so. So, I would ask in this context, can the immature reader fail to process what is going on and still continue with the book? Or is this event in center stage and so prominent that the reader is forced to deal with it? That might be the difference for me between children’s and YA. Many times I’ve gone back to read children’s books and found things in them that I didn’t see as a child and that doesn’t make them not children’s books.

  17. Ros: I don’t think anyone has suggested that this book is middle grade.
    Betsy: do those elements also make The Devil’s Arithmetic and–oh, I hesitate to go there, BUT–fairy tales (including versions written for children) “upper YA”? Some Oregon Trail books (and other pioneers n Indians books) include similar elements, as well.
    Mr. H: it’s natural that as a teacher you look at Newbery books through a teacher’s eyes. But it actually doesn’t matter whether these things are being taught in schools, or when they’re being taught. The Newbery is about children and books. That said: I have an ongoing conversation with several people about when we first understood what the Holocaust meant, especially what books we read when. I have a friend who went to a Jewish day school who thinks it was always part of the conversation (early/mid 80s). All of our mileages vary.

    As MarySue says (very curious about who you really are), these incidents can’t make a book YA by default, without respect to how they’re treated in the book. After all, these are things that happened (and are happening) to actual children.

    I am fairly comfortable with the idea of this as a Newbery book. When I thought about whether the Printz committee would be looking at it, my immediate thought was that they might find it too young. I had no such thoughts about Chime. This is one of the best examples I’ve read of Nina’s thing about whether a book appeals to the child in the young teenager or the emerging adult.

  18. I’m just speaking in terms of many other Holocaust books I’ve heard of or read that are squarely middle grade fiction. They approach the Holocaust in a different manner. Milkweed, Number the Stars, etc. Sure there is violence, but it seems if I remember correctly, much of the truly intense (graphic) violence occurs off page, or out of scene, or is inferred entirely.

    Now to be fair, I haven’t read this book. Don’t shoot me down! I never said I did! I entered this conversation on the brief talk of “sex” in children’s books. It just would sound to me like A+B+C+D = too old. If many of the horrifyingly graphic details of the Holocaust are on the the page in this novel, for the reader to soak in, NOT infer, then I’d have to say it’s too old. However I actually trust your opinion Wendy, and it intrigues me that you thought CHIME was easily too old but this one not. So what do I know? As I said, I haven’t even read the book!

  19. Nina Lindsay says:

    Well Mr. H, that’s my point, and my question, which still hasn’t been answered. As Mary Sue said, the importance of judging whether the book is for children is the context in which difficult material, of any sort, is presented. Sex itself doesn’t make a book YA, nor violence, necessarily. Children experience these things, or observe them, and want to find a way to come to terms with them, as children. Does a book help them do that? I think BSOG does. Read it.

  20. It’s been a while since I read this book, so my comments will be general, but apart from the age considerations what keeps it off of my own personal Newbery list is the characterization of the mother, who was altogether too saintlike to be believable, and the relentlessness and constant pitch of the horror; the lack of common everyday experience (as opposed to Hautzig’s memoir, in which she eventually went to school, argued with her mother about clothes, etc.). But then Hautzig was writing for a younger audience, and years ago, so maybe that’s the difference?

  21. Mr. H, I haven’t read the book, either. : ) Mea culpa. I jumped in because I worry about kids missing an opportunity to read a book because well meaning gatekeepers think the book is too much for them or because definitions of YA are driven by fear of over sensitive parents (like me, yes, I know. I’m conflicted).
    Wendy, Hey! No poking in the pseudonymity!

  22. I read this earlier this year and struggled with it because I am not a personal fan of the Holocaust literature canon – I would not pick this up for pleasure on my own normally. Books that focus on humanity’s inhumanity always seem more disturbing and to skew older in my head than anything with sex. The scene that stuck out to me as raising the audience’s age was when everyone was forced to strip naked and some brief violence ensued (I think? I hope I’m remembering this correctly!) rather than anything related to the mom protecting her son by having sex with the soldiers – nudity + violence + “onstage” (in the main character’s viewpoint) were what bumped it up agewise for me. In terms of character what I remember is that I thought Lina was pigheaded and willful and annoying, but that maybe that seemed about right for a teenager and that teen readers would react differently to her than I did. I was definitely thinking in terms of a teenage audience rather than younger kids, but I think this could still work for mature middle school readers despite some of the harsher material. Lina’s starting with a limited view of the world around her and then opening up to a wider view works for the younger crowd – realizing that adults aren’t infallible and the world is ridiculously complicated often (or even usually?) happens before high school, I think. Just because I would have been unable to handle the violence at that age doesn’t mean there aren’t readers (or even the majority of readers) who can handle it. I don’t think I’d champion this as my first choice, but I’d definitely be willing to give it an honor and would also be open to persuasion.

  23. The outstanding element in my mind is Lina’s descriptions of her surroundings–“Wrinkles formed an atlas” on a woman’s face; her hair “poked out of her kerchief like black straw.” Sepetys’s language is strong and unadorned, and this completely appropriate to her subject. There is also a flatness to Lina’s voice when she talks about brutality, which reflects the deadening of feeling that would accompany such an experience. But Lina, with her artist’s eye, is never completely squashed. I wouldn’t argue that BSOG is more distinguished in these elements than other contenders, but this seemed to me to be its strongest point.

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