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Battle of the Books

Round 3, Match 1: Between Shades of Gray vs. Chime

Between Shades of Gray
by Ruta Sepetys
by Franny Billingsley

Judged by
Maggie Stiefvater

When I first agreed to be a judge for this, I thought it would be straightforward, but just in case, I immediately read up on previous battles. Strangely, many of the judges said things like “this was harder than I expected” or “unexpectedly complicated!” But the idea seemed simple. You read two books, and you like one of them better. You explain your thoughts in a coherent way, and then you retreat to your kitchen to make cookie dough.

But then it was my turn. And it turned out that I had read both of the about-to-battle books. I know that you’re thinking, yahtzee! Her job’s already done! Only it wasn’t. Because even though I’d read both of them (Between Shades of Gray on a plane from Chicago to Boston, and Chime while sitting on my sofa with a runny nose), I hadn’t been in a judging mindset when I did. I was just doing what readers do. You know. Reading. Moreover, my reading environment could have biased my feelings toward them. Everyone knows that having a runny nose is better than sitting in the middle seat of an airplane next to a man who’s just had tacos before take off. HOW COULD I TRUST MY PREVIOUS JUDGMENT? The simple answer: I couldn’t. So I read them again.

I picked Chime to read first, for reasons I’ll explain later. It’s a vaguely historical, first-person fantasy novel that put me in mind of Madapple. Did any of you guys read that? Like Madapple, the narrator of Chime is an unreliable one, and like Madapple, the timing/pacing felt rather dreamlike. I could tell you what Chime is supposed to be about: a minister’s daughter, Briony, who believes herself to be a damnable witch guilty of multiple crimes, including consorting with swamp spirits, burning down her family’s library, and crippling her stepmother’s body and her twin sister’s mind.

But I’ll tell you what it’s really about: Briony. Just Briony. It is a “voice-y” first person sort of novel, which means we get Briony’s opinions of life in a very stream-of-consciousness way. And she has a lot of them. Thoughts on how the villagers have an idealized view of her family. How she hates herself. How lovely London must be; how she will never see it. How she hates herself. How Eldric, the new boy in town, is shiftless but likable. How she hates herself. How she wishes she could stop pretending that she can’t see the vaguely fey creatures that inhabit their swamp. How she ha— you get the idea. Briony has a long way to go as far as accepting herself, and that character arc is what Chime is all about.

Once I had Chime firmly in my mind again, I picked up Between Shades of Gray. I’d been putting off rereading this one because, like I said about it on my blog, “Even though I found this novel exceptionally well-written, it was not a pleasure to read.” Ostensibly, it is a first-person novel that tells the story of just one of many Lithuanian families who were displaced to Siberian work camps during World War II. In reality, it is about… just that. Not many Americans are aware of this version of the war, and the reveal of the horrors the Lithuanian prisoners endured is the most breath-taking part of the novel.

From the first page of Between Shades of Gray, the reader knows what they’re getting into. Officers arrive to take 15-year-old Lina and her family from their house; Lina says “They took me in my nightgown.” When Lina’s mother realizes what is about to happen, she encourages her two children to pack bags full of essentials and then begins to smash all of her fine china. Lina asks, “Mother, why are you breaking your beautiful things?” And her mother says, “Because I love them so much.”

Lina’s mother was my favorite character in the book. She remains the person we all hope we can be in a disaster: kind, resilient, ultimately decent. Lina, on the other hand, is a fairly passive character. Unlike Briony from Chime, who changes hugely from beginning to end, Lina is mostly the vehicle for the story of the prison camp. If Chime is actually about Briony, Between of Shades of Gray is actually about Lithuania. In some ways, I felt as if Lina’s true purpose in the story was to represent Lithuania itself. She is an artistic, proud, educated girl who maintains her sense of national pride even as her dignity is stripped away. In the end, she has, like Lithuania, permanently lost a certain sort of innocence.

Ultimately, these two books both have their own sort of power. Chime’s is a personal sort: showing just how much damage we can do to ourselves. And Between Shades of Gray is about collective power: how filling yourself up with personal identity can be armor against everything but death, which is only the most obvious of enemies.

Between Shades of Gray wrecked me and changed the way I looked at things, not just the first time I read it, but also the second. Not many novels can accomplish that. And when they do, they definitely get my vote to go to the next round of Battle of the Books.

Now I’m going to go make cookie dough.

— Judge Maggie Stiefvater

And the Winner of this match is……

While I like both of these books very much, I had always hoped we’d see AMELIA LOST vs. DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE in this round. Ah, well. I’m a bit surprised by this decision because I always figured the winner of CHIME vs. DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE had a free pass to the finals because Maggie writes those kinds of books, too. It just goes to show—yet again—that that kind of logic is not only flawed, but inconsistent. MADAPPLE? Yep, read, remembered, and loved—not least of all for its striking cover, something I would have wished for both CHIME and BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY. Neither their hardcover or paperback covers really do justice to these books. BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY has surprised me in consecutive rounds and becomes the first book to make it to the finals where it will face either DRAWING FROM MEMORY or LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM—and the winner of the Undead Poll.

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt


Ms. Stiefvater provides excellent insights into the powers of both Between Shades of Grey and Chime, and in an extremely conversational way. These “powers,” Briony’s hatred and the Lithuanian power of identity, along with the love that drives them, create both the themes and the characters in the book.  Sure, I didn’t like Chime, but Briony’s character of self-hatred and love was almost perfectly made. The pride of the Lithuanians is a great contrast to Sepetys’s harsh writing, and also makes the story just a little bit hopeful. (Billingsley’s book is not hopeful, because of Briony’s self-hatred that continues even when everything ends up being okay.)  Because of this conveyance of hope through emotional writing, I am very happy that Between Shades of Gray is in the final.

— Kid Commentator RGN


  1. Jennifer H says

    I’ll admit I really wanted Chime to go on here, and reading our wonderful judge’s decision, I started to become so confident. Another person who loved Briony! Or did she? There’s a fantastic critique of Briony, but it took a second reading to realize that it was very… neutral.

    I can’t complain, really; I loved them both and am happy to see either one in the finals. But now I want Chime to be the Undead winner!!!

  2. Maisie Mac says

    Between Shades of Gray sounds really good; if it could change Judge Maggie Stiefvater then it could probably change me. Also, the fact that it actually starts on the first page of the book it really good; I haven’t read one of those in a while. But honestly, from all that I have heard about Chime from the other Judges, I want to read Chime more and wanted it to move on, but o’ well. I will probably read both anyways because I have now heard good things about both of them.

  3. Hmmm…I very much liked Shades of Gray and if Chime had to lose at least it lost to a book that I have a great deal of respect for. I liked Chime more for the same reason Stiefvater seemed to like it less. I love that it is a story of a person and Briony’s character arc is amazing. I didn’t fall in love with Shades of Gray because of Lina’s passivity and lack of development. All the characters read as flat to me.

  4. Sara Ralph says

    Hooray for Between Shades of Gray! This book had the greatest effect on me as a reader and like it did for Maggie, it changed the way I look at the world. Excited to find out the winner of the undead poll…I’m hoping for A Monster Calls or Wonderstruck!

  5. Steffaney Smith says

    Battle after battle, we are hearing what a powerful read “Between Shades of Gray” is. This will be the first BOB selection I am going to read and hope I was wrong thinking I wouldn’t find kids to read it..hey, I will pass it on to their moms if necessary to get this story told. The set-up for Stroud is starting to reveal…what a time he will have! Suspense is def. mounting!

  6. I’m finally starting to understand why some people love Chime and other people don’t. When I was a teen, there were a lot of times I hated myself, so maybe I can relate to this character. And I definitely appreciate her strong voice. (Amen to what Brandy said.) But Between Shades of Gray sounds intriguing–another book for my TBR pile! I will say (ruefully) that I think Shades has more of an awards pick feel. Historical fiction just seems so Important.

  7. I think Maggie put her finger on what annoyed me personally about CHIME – that relentlessly internal view of the world. However, I am no longer 14 – thank god – and it’s true, 14-year-old brains work that way. It was truly authentic. But annoying.

  8. I know Chime is well-written but I had two problems with it. First, I spent half the book feeling like I was too stupid to read it because I couldn’t follow what was happening. By the time i understood what the book was all about, I had a really hard time caring. I also just didn’t like Briony and that made it difficult for me to enjoy the book. I’m thrilled that Between Shades of Gray won, but I fear that Chime may bump Doug out of the undead poll. If that happens, DeNae may have to make room in her tent for me.

  9. Oh, Maggie! You never disappoint your readers even when you judge!

  10. I’m not a *huge* fan of CHIME but I didn’t find Briony annoying at all. I can see what Stiefvater (and others) are saying about the annoying internal voice, but I really liked Briony the character. Briony’s not really what nagged at me about CHIME. I think it’s the ‘wordiness” of it all that bothered me. Some might call it “overwritten”. Obviously there were some pretty incredible sentences in there, but I felt like the “writing” overshadowed the “story” and the books that stick with me are books that can balance both.

  11. And Paige, I share your fear. I think many are operating under the pretense that OKAY FOR NOW is the sure fire winner of the Undead . . . I agree, it would surely seem as if it’s the one title with fevered support, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see something else sneak in . . .

    I’ve put the marshmallow gun away for the day. I’m sleepy.

  12. Boo-hoo! All 3 of my favorites are now knocked out, and only one can win the Undead Poll! I’m going to fondly hope the winner is one of those (Okay for Now, Daughter of Smoke & Bone, or Chime). For the finals, I’ll still pick First Half winner over Second Half winner, but I really really hope that Wonderstruck losing just gives Drawing from Memory a better chance! But if the Undead poll winner is one of my three favorites, I hope it will pull an upset and win it all!

  13. I did not find Briony annoying – just desperate to delay what she believed to be her inevitable exposure and execution. And with a great sense of gallows humor, too. I was not as moved by the characters in BSG, but maybe because I was already familiar with the history of the Baltic Sea states. A worthy opponent, none the less.

  14. Sondy, that’s exactly what I love about the Undead. I’m not sure you could consider it an upset if the Undead winner was chosen as the overall winner in the end. Just because one judge knocked it out of the competition . . . come the Big Kahuna round, it’s on just as equal footing as the two that have lasted a few rounds.

  15. Wow – Paige Y, ditto to everything you said! I kept reading Chime and thinking “What is wrong with me? This book is supposed to be amazing? Why do I not get it??” I am crossing all fingers and toes that Daughter of Smoke and Bone or Okay for Now make it back from the Undead! Still can’t believe that either of those novels lost their rounds. But Between Shades of Gray is making my whole week!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ruta Sepetys’ novel was my #1 favorite from the very begin, but it seemed like most readers felt lukewarm about it so I didn’t really expect it to get to far. In this instance, I love being proven wrong!!

  16. Yessss. See, this makes me happy. First, because I only read two books in the entire battle, and Between Shades of Gray was one of them, and it’s in the final, so I can continue paying attention. Second, I’ve never bought two common criticisms of the book, that a) the narrative isn’t flashy enough, or that b) the ending is unsatisfying or too abrupt. I thought the straightforward narrative fit the story perfectly, and probably would have been annoyed had Sepetys gotten too cute addressing such a sobering topic. Regarding the ending, the story was over, I felt, and that was fine; it was time to bring it to a close. But mainly I’m happy because now I will know about at least half (or, rather, a third) of what Jonathan Stroud is saying in the Big Kahuna Round. I almost never know what adults are talking about, despite being one, so this is exciting!

  17. I’m pretty happy about this decision; I think Shades of Gray is a worthy finalist. Can’t wait to see what two books it will face! (PLEASE be Life and Daughter of Smoke and Bone…)

    And by the way… Greg, the last sentence of your post made me very nearly spit out my drink of water. Hilarious! And so true, too.

  18. I have to say, I was a bit surprised by the outcome of this match. I liked Wonderstruck, liked Life, and still I feel as though the battle should have gone down a bit differently (Wonderstruck wins.) I do have to say the kid commentators are great! RGN, GI, their opinions always influence my emotions on the matches. Well done!

  19. Chime is writing that’s technically brilliant and you think judges will choose it. Between Shades of Grey is a book that sticks with you because it means so much–AND the writing is so so good. I would always pick the book I’m more passionate about–that’s what gets us in the door with teens too. Great choice.

  20. NOOO! Wow. I didn’t expect that. I figured Maggie would choose the fantasy, but wow. Seriously. I really need to read Between Shades of Gray now.

  21. I do like it when a judge picks the sort of book that they don’t write (or haven’t written). Again, I didn’t have a favorite in this match, but the outcome makes me think again about all the good qualities of BSoG.

    What’s up in the occupy tent? Probably Briony is taking up all the oxygen in there today…

  22. Well, Stiefvater made me remember why I liked both of these books way back a long time ago when I first read them. I’ve mentioned before that BtSoG reigned supreme in our Mock Newbery hereabouts. Much has been said about the importance of the historical subject matter, but without Sepetys compelling narrative it wouldn’t have captured my students adoration.

    And Paige, I know what you mean about Chime. I felt I really needed to pay attention so didn’t get lost in lovely-language-quicksand. A few times I felt Billingsley didn’t do enough to anchor her readers to the setting.

    Yeah, Rebecca, Briony showed up here at occupy BoB, but we tired of her mopiness really fast and sent her out for water. Now everything’s wet. At least the frogs are happy.

  23. Jonathan Hunt says

    Anybody notice that a couple BOB books–BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY and A MONSTER CALLS–got shortlisted for the Carnegie? Plus, TRASH from last year.


  1. […] Well, today the last of my three favorite books in School Library Journal’s Battle of the Kids’ Books was knocked out. […]

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