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.


Booktalk: Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwar Wolff

Audio Version:

Title: Make Lemonade

Author: Virginia Euwer Wolff
Publication Information: New York – Henry Holt & Company, 1993
Age group: Ages 10 and up according to publisher, but I would recommend this for middle-schoolers and up
Topics: teen pregnancy, teenage mothers, single parent famillies, inner city poverty

Notes: Novel in verse form might appeal to reluctant readers; stream-of-consciousness style also makes text easy to read.  On several Best Books lists (YALSA, Kirkus, ALA, etc.) and winner of the Golden Kite Award, 1994.

Summary: Fourteen-year-old LaVaughn’s goal is to be the first person in her 64-apartment building to go to college.  She sets out to save for college and applies for a job babysitting for Jolly, a seventeen-year-old high school dropout with two kids by two different fathers.  When she sees the broken-down building (even worse than her own) and the disorderly and stinky apartment, LaVaughn is unsure how much she can help.  She takes the job anyway, and the two girls work alongside each other to reach their separate goals and build their own futures.

Booktalk (print version):

What do you do when life gives you lemons?  Make lemonade…right?  But what if your life is so bad you don’t even get lemons…in fact, what if you are handed only a few lemon seeds, and no matter how much you water them, talk to them, and give them sunlight, nothing grows?

Jolly’s life is bad like that.  In fact, she lives in a broken-down, smelly apartment, crawling with roaches and covered in grime and dirt, rotting banana goo and dried up creamed spinach.  She is sexually harassed at work and gets fired for it, so now she doesn’t even have money for the basics, like heat, electricity, food, and toilet paper.  Oh, and get this — Jolly’s only 17 and has two babies by two different fathers, both gone, and no, she can’t afford any diapers either.

This is how she describes her life (read from pages 107-108):

You know how the astronaut up there in space

he might have to go outside the rocket he’s in?

Like to make repairs or something?

Like they radio him up there

from down in Florida, they say he’s gotta go outside

and fix something?

Well, he’s hooked by his cord,

Like a big belly-button cord.


Well, spose the hatch closes while he’s out there.

By an accident.

It cuts his cord.  Slices it right off.  He floats away.

See?  He floats out there.  Just out there.  You know?

Just out there, on and on.

See, even if they wanted to send somebody after him, they wouldn’t know

where to look.

He ain’t connected.  See?

Sounds pretty desperate, doesn’t it?  And it is, until Jolly meets LaVaughn, a fourteen-year-old girl who dreams of being the first person in her whole 64-apartment building to go to college.  She answers Jolly’s babysitting ad so she can save up for school, but what do you think she does when she shows up and meets Jolly and her sticky, screaming kids?  Will Jolly’s mess derail LaVaughn from her plans for the future?  Or will the two of them somehow get those lemon seeds to sprout?   You’ll have to pick up this book — Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff — and find out for yourself.

Personal Comments: Make Lemonade is the first book of a trilogy, followed by award-winning True Believer (2001) and This Full House (2009).  Readers who enjoyed the first will want to read the rest of the trilogy to see what happens to LaVaughn.  Another book about teen mothers and poverty — Janet McDonald’s Coretta Scott King Award for New Talent winner Chill Wind (2002) — tells the story of 19-year-old Aisha, a high school dropout with two kids, find her way to support her family in New York City.  McDonald also wrote Spellbound (2001), which tells the story Raven, a teen mother living in the housing project, studying for a spelling bee that could lead to a four-year college scholarship.