Booktalk: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Title: Between Shades of Gray
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Publication Information: New York: Philomel Books, 2011.
Age group: Middleschool and up
Topics: labor camps, World War II, holocaust, survival


Summary: On the evening of June 14, 1941, Soviet secret police tears through the door of the home of  fifteen-year-old Lina and promptly arrests the family without reason.  Separated from her father, Lina and her mother and younger brother are shoved onto a truck, and later, a train car marked “Thieves and Prostitutes”. They make their way to a Siberian labor camp, witnessing death and NKVD’s constant attempts to squash the prisoners’ spirits and forced to live under harsh, inhumane conditions.  Lina, an aspiring artist, fights for survival and vows to document the injustice that her countrymen is subjected to and the strength and hope they display.


Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?

How much would you give to spare your son, daughter, wife, husband, brother, sister, or parent from certain death?

Fifteen-year-old Lina is just a regular girl — a lot like you and your friends — who is ready for the summer to start.  She can’t wait to put on pretty dresses, makeup, and go on her first date, and is applying to art school to become an artist.

Lina is just a regular girl, but all that is about to change.  World War II has just started.

Here’s an excerpt on the night her entire world collapses:

(Read from Chapter 7)

They were taking Jonas.  My beautiful, sweet brother who shooed bugs out of the house instead of stepping on them, who gave his little ruler to splint a crotchety old man’s leg.

“Mama!  Lina!” he cried, flailing his arms.

“Stop!” I screamed, tearing after them.  Mother grabbed the officer and began speaking in Russian — pure, fluent Russian.  He stopped and listened.  She lowered her voice and spoke calmly.  I couldn’t understand a word.  The officer jerked Jonas toward him.  I grabbed on to his other arm.  His body began to vibrate as sobs wracked his shoulders.  A big wet spot appeared on the front of his trousers.  He hung his head and cried.  

Mother pulled a bundle of rubles from her pocket and exposed it slightly to the officer.  He reached for it and then said something to Mother, motioning with his head.  Her hand flew up and ripped the amber pendant right from her neck and pressed it into NKVD’s hand.  He didn’t seem to be satisfied.  Mother continued to speak in Russian and pulled a pocket watch from her coat.  I knew that watch.  It was her father’s and had his name engraved in the soft gold on the back.  The office snatched the watch, let go of Jonas, and started yelling at the people next to us.

Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?  That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.

Lina and her family get to stay together…for now.  Read Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys to see how they manage to keep faith in the travesty that is committed towards them and their people.

Personal Comments: Students who are interested in WWII, labor/prison camps, and the holocaust can read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2007), about a young girl living outside Munich during WWII and how she manages to learn to read and share stolen books with her neighbors.  Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps by Andrea Warren  (2002) describes the Holocaust from the point of view of a boy survivor…might be interesting to note differences between a) boys and girls during WWII, b) Holocaust vs. labor camp experiences, etc.  Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust by Allan Zullo (2005) is a non-fiction title consisting of a collection of true survivor stories.  Due to the subject matter, all of these titles are suggested for middle-schoolers and up.


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