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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 2: Between Shades of Gray vs. Bootleg


Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
by Karen Blumenthall
Flash Point/Macmillan

Judged by
Gayle Forman


When I hear the word “historical” in the vicinity of the word “book,” especially when we are talking about a young-person’s book, I tend to react like your average 12-year-old reluctant reader: eye-rolling, yawning, maybe some foot-stomping. I recognize that this reflex is unfair. Many historical YA books—fiction and nonfiction—are gripping and moving. (Waves to Charles and Emma, Marching for Freedom). But I’ve read enough that are wheat germ—healthy, chock full of good intention, flavorless—to bring out my inner 12-year-old.

Thankfully, my two selections, two very different kinds of historical books—Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition by Karen Blumenthal and Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys—had nary a hint of wheat germ.

Let’s start with the booze. I must admit, I was skeptical about Bootleg. A book about Prohibition? Would teens care? But then I realized that when you’re a kid, everything is prohibited, and so much of Blumenthal’s lively and often-funny book is about how everyday folk skirted Prohibition’s strictures and how hifalutin folk didn’t have to (during the height of Prohibition, upstairs at the White House was lousy with whiskey). Rule-breaking and hypocrisy? A glossary that includes terms like blind pig? What’s not to love?

Bootleg cleverly chronicles the buildup and fallout from Prohibition by focusing on specific characters. And lordy, what characters they are. We meet Carrie Nation, the Temperance radical who famously went to town on a number of saloons with a hatchet. Then there are Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith, New York City prohibition agents who brought an element of vaudeville to their police work. We see a young Al Capone, who got his toehold in this gangster business all thanks to Prohibition. At times, I wished that more space—an entire book, even—could be devoted to one of these characters, to look at Prohibition through a single narrative, as opposed to jumping from one to another.

Apropos of this being a children’s book Blumenthal takes care to show children’s place in Prohibition. Temperance advocates wanted to ban liquor to protect children. But once the law went into effect, because it was the sale of liquor, not its consumption that were illegal, many households became distilleries, which was dangerous, given the equipment and high temperatures needed to make moonshine. The book is filled with great period photos, including one showing youngsters drinking (pre-Prohibition) and another showing kids scooping up wine that cops have dumped into the gutters after the law went into effect.

Prohibition lasted about 14 years. In about the same time period, Joseph Stalin deported (and imprisoned and murdered) millions of Europeans and Central Asians, the particulars of which are brought to vivid and horrifying light in Ruta Sepetys’s gripping, if sometimes grueling, debut novel, Between Shades of Gray. Fifteen-year-old Lithuanian Lina Vilkas is roused from her bed one June night by Soviet agents. Along with her mother and brother, Lina is deported, first by freight-car-of-death (Stalin and Hitler apparently had similar transportation ideas) to a work camp in Siberia, and then later on to an unbelievably remote and inhospitable camp above the arctic circle, where the polar night means 180 days of darkness.

Lina’s story would be compelling enough if this were pure fiction. Lina is such an appealing character from the get-go, a spitfire of a girl who uses the artwork she creates as a means of both remembering her ordeal and communicating with her missing father. In the brutal Siberia, survival is hard enough; maintaining your humanity seems near impossible, but Lina, with the guidance of her mother—a character almost too perfect under these harsh conditions, one of the book’s few flaws—does come to understand that nothing is black and white, not the bleak gray Siberian landscape, or the sacrifices some people must make to keep others alive, or even the cruelty of the young Soviet guards.

Sepetys’s writing is both lyrical and harsh in a way that sneaks up on you and kicks you in the gut. A guard barking orders crushes a cigarette into the wood with his boot. “We were about to become cigarettes,” Lina thinks. Lina’s romance with a fellow deportee, both underscores and leavens their ordeal, which is as brutal as any Holocaust account.

And perhaps that’s what elevates this book. While there is an abundance of Holocaust literature, the stories of the millions whom Stalin deported and killed—essentially cleansed— have yet to be told in any kind of significant way, and certainly not in YA literature. In her author’s note, Sepetys says that the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia lost one-third of their populations during what she calls “the Soviet annihilation” and then were essentially wiped off the map until 1991. Lina’s story, though fiction, becomes all the more important because it represents a million stories that will never be to be told.

The Winner:

It’s not really a fair fight, is it? Bootleg is a wonderfully written, colorful history book, but it still reads like a history book. Between Shades of Gray is a harrowing, page-turner of a novel that shines a light on a piece of history too long shrouded in the darkness.

The winner: Between Shades of Gray.

— Judge Gayle Forman


And the Winner of this match is……

In contrast to Matt, Gayle did not have a natural affinity for her pair of historical books—and I think we are all eye-rolling, foot-stomping 12-year-old reluctant readers when it comes to particular genres. The challenge is to set those prejudices aside and appreciate the books for what they are (as Gayle does here). For me, this match was more competitive than it was for her, and I actually would have given the nod to BOOTLEG, not necessarily because of a fiction/nonfiction bias, but more because of a single/multiple narrative strand bias. The writing in BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY is so lyrical, the character so fully realized, the suffering so palpably affecting that I cannot fault anyone who goes with this choice—and I think most people probably would—but, being the plot-driven reader that I am, I found the narrative arc simplistic. Lina’s resilience will be further tested in the next round. Can she get past Amelia?

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

This “average twelve-year-old reader” loves history. That may be the reason why I thought of this match as a tie: Bootleg was (and still is) a really good HISTORICAL non-fiction book, while the HISTORICAL fiction Between Shades of Gray (somehow!) didn’t quite get me. After reading Ms. Forman’s review, however, I truly realized how important Ruta Sepetys’s debut is. Not only is it a beautifully sad story, but it is one with a powerful message and raw emotion. Lina’s tale must be heard. A very good match, and a worthy victory by Between Shades of Gray.

 — Kid Commentator RGN



  1. So far I’m 0 for 2. I really liked Between Shades of Gray but I thought Bootleg was the better book. I think Amelia Lost will have an easy second round — I’d love to have seen how a battle between Amelia and Bootleg would have turned out.

  2. HALLELUJAH! Between Shades of Gray is my true-book-love of the entire battle and I’m thrilled to see Lina, Andrius, and the bald man move on! For me, it was never a fair fight. And I’m thrilled Gayle Forman agrees 🙂

  3. I want my students to know both of these parts of history, and I expected to prefer Shades of Gray, but I really thought Bootleg did a better job. I even thought it might take out Amelia.

  4. I might be a bit biased, seeing as I haven’t yet been able to get my hands on Bootleg (but after Gayle’s remarks I’m definitely going to make the effort), but I’m quite pleased that Shades of Gray got the nod. I’ve been wanting to re-read it for a while now, but I keep remembering how it made me cry like a little girl. Very powerful story and one that I am glad was finally told.

  5. I don’t actually have a favorite this year, and I missed reading most of the books, but I definitely want to read these now!

  6. I was so hoping for a non-fiction head to head. But now I have my first “must-read” before the next round.

  7. I’m 2 for 2! Yay for me. (Won’t last. I know it won’t.) That said, I haven’t read Between Shades of Gray. Now I must.

  8. If given the choice between historical fiction and historical non-fiction I will usually always go with the non-fiction. However in this case Between Shades of Gray really captured me and I totally agree with what Gayle Forman said about the prose kicking you in the gut. I think my preference for this one is because I am a character driven reader. I do agree with Jonathan that the narrative is simplistic and, I think, too abrupt in its conclusion. The next round will be interesting as it goes up against Amelia with its almost perfectly constructed plotting.

  9. I was hoping for Bootleg–I don’t see it getting enough votes to come back as the Undead (a Prohibition zombie contender!), so it’s sad to think it’s dropped out already.

  10. I’m two for two too! But Gayle Forman’s points about the character-driven narrative and emphasis on children in Bootleg makes me think maybe I would put it on top after a second read. I kept going back and forth on these books all the way through. Both standouts.

  11. Jennifer H says

    Yay! Two for two as well here! I didn’t expect to enjoy Bootleg, but when I read Gayle point out how the story was told through various characters, I realized that was precisely what I enjoyed. But it couldn’t compare to Between Shades of Gray for me. I agree with Jenn above that it was a very powerful story, all the more so knowing that even though this was a work of fiction events such as these actually occurred.

  12. Hooray for Shades of Gray! Bootleg had interesting moments, but I agree with Gayle that it did read like a history book. After reading/viewing several accounts of the Holocaust, I’m shocked to find that similar things happened to people in the Baltic region.

    And I’m 2 and 0 so far on my guesses! Tomorrow is my birthday and I’m hoping for a birthday miracle in that Sy Montgomery will choose The Chesire Cheese Cat, which I adored more than I can say. Due to its critical acclaim and buzz, I am choosing Chime as my official guess, but would love to be wrong.

  13. Steffaney Smith says

    I, too, am such a character-driven reader. Really hard for me to choose nonfiction over fiction, but I see many more reasons for my library collection to include Bootleg now — not just because of the quality writing and needy historical topic. The comments on these 2 books were very helpful for me in my collection development mode!

  14. OK, how do we get books into the Undead contest? I haven’t read Shades of Gray yet but loved Bootleg!

  15. Yes! 2 for 2! I finished Between Shades of Gray the night before last, and for me, it knocked Bootleg right out. A lot of the same reasons as Gayle Forman. It feels like an important story. And it hits hard.

    Tomorrow the matches start that I really care about. Go Chime! Go Daughter of Smoke & Bone!

  16. Echoing those that are 2 for 2. Great start to the battles! I forget just how awesome the judge’s commentaries are.

  17. I was really impressed with Sepetys’s research for BSoG, including some time spent in a reality-TV -style prison camp (best quote from her YALSA panel: “If you’re ever in a situation like that, I am not your wingman.”) But although I appreciated the emotional detail and the evocative setting, I think Amelia is a stronger book.

  18. Battle Commander says

    Joan, due to the scheduling constraint, we had to run and close the Undead Poll before the battle even started — so our final judge will have ample time to consider all three titles and polish the write-up for April 2nd. Although it is not revealed to the rest of the world — we have submitted the Undead title to Mr. Stroud and I am sure he and Bartimaeus are having some witty discussions over tea and biscuits over who deserves the final win!

  19. I’m 2 for 2 also. I applaud Gayle Forman’s ability to make such an interesting comparison of such different books.Between Shades of Gray was such a mature work, I thought of it as Teen to crossover adult vs Bootleg which could easily be read and enjoyed by a middle school student.

  20. The best thing about this “battle” is that it introduces all these wonderful books. I admit that I haven’t yet read either “Shades of Gray,” or “Bootleg.” But I will do so now . . . and in a hurry.

  21. I’m 1 and 1. I enjoyed both Bootleg and Between Shades of Gray but my students LOVED Between Shades of Gray! And so did the teachers! Yay!

  22. Oh, well done! My bracket is holding strong. I went with BtSoG in solidarity with my students who gave the top honor in our Mock Newbery. They found Lina’s story riveting and tragic.

    I agree that both books, even in a wheat germ kind of way, opened up areas of history that have not been covered much previously in YA literature. A savvy teacher could use either or both to explore the role of government. One book shows the danger of government without checks and balance and conscience. The other shows the futility of government intervening in complex human appetites. (I hope I didn’t just sound like I was planning on voting for Ron Paul.)

    So happy to have both these books. Thank you judge Forman for pointing out their strengths and deliciousness beyond wheat germ.

  23. I was not knowing that BOB has started. I admit that i haven’t read both of these books but after these review i’ll surely go through them. And it is really hard to compare these kinds of books, hats off to judges.

  24. To all Shades of Gray lovers I recommend reading “The Endless Step: Growing up in SIberia” by Esther Hautzig. It is for a slightly younger audience, but it is a true account, and in m y opinion, it is a more compelling read.

    Booklist reviewed it this way:
    “The author of this deeply moving personal narrative spent her years between ten and fourteen as a Polish deportee in a remote, impoverished Siberian village. Taken prisoner by the Russians in 1941 and shipped by cattle car to a forced-labor camp, Esther, her mother, and her grandmother managed to stay together and to keep each other alive through near starvation and arctic winters.”

    Esther’s family was Jewish, but they were deported because they were “capitalists” . It is a memorable
    book, and, for kids especially, not as unrelentingly sad.

  25. I LOVED BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY one of the best books I have ever read. It was a real page turner that kept me up all night wondering what was going to happen next. It was one of the best books I have read in awhile. I just knew it was going to win. At first I won’t lie I was very mad I had to read it now I tell everyone who is looking for a great book. All schools should have to read it. It was the total opposite of bootleg (good). I hope it goes all the way. I cherish Ruta sepetys for writing such a great book on her first book. PLEASE WRITE MORE RUTA PLEASE. It is not boring at all it will have you up all night wondering what will happen. PLEASE GO ALL THE WAY ALL OF YOU JUDGES BETTER VOTE FOR THIS OR I WILL NOT BE HAPPY AND YOU WILL BE SORRY IF YOU DON’T VOTE FOR IT OR READ IT. PLEASE. READ IT IT IS AWSOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  26. I truly enjoyed between shades of grey. Even though it had lots of sadness there was just enough excitment to balance it out. Between shades of grey is a wonderfully terrifying page turner that will keep you crying for every character. 😉

  27. Mary Catherine Crumley says

    I am 1 for 2 I tried reading Bootleg after a few of the pages I just quit. When you write a book you are supposed to make it interesting in the beginning even if it is a nonfiction. In the beginning of bootleg all they talked about was the main character and alcoholism. I really couldn’t even tell what the book was about and where the hec it was going. Between shades of gray on the other hand ( total opposite of boring and weird). Between shades of gray is about a family who is deported and made to work in a camp for the NKVD! This book is a real page turner and is suspenseful on every single page! I was sure that between shades of gray was going to win against bootleg and it did. I recommend this book to people who love lots of suspense and page turners!

    Mary Catherine Crumley

  28. Kate fitzpatrick says

    I thought bootleg was too dry slow and boring. It was unfair that it had to go up against a book as good as between shades of grey;)

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