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Between Shades of Gray is the heart wrenching story of Lina, a Lithuanian teenager, whose life is shattered in an instant when Soviet secret police arrest her father and force Lina, her mother, and brother onto to a cattle car bound for a brutal work camp. The horrific journey is just the beginning of the family’s ordeal. They face filthy living conditions, brutal labor, sadistic soldiers, and eventually a hellish exile to Siberia. Through it all, Lina’s mother is determined they will survive. Lina is determined they will see her father again. To cope with their nightmare and to stay connected with her father, Lina draws. Before Stalin, Lina had a promising future as an artist. Now, Lina will have to summon all of her strength to have any future at all.

I read Between Shades of Gray in one sitting. It was by no means a feel-good novel, but it was compelling, and I couldn’t put it down. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will say that this book is both hopeful and haunting. I’m glad I read it, but is it right for a young teen or tween? That depends on the kid. Between Shades of Gray contains some pretty heavy stuff. I recommend parents read this one too. Some kids might be disturbed by the brutality in the novel. But it is realistic and these stories must be told from one generation to the next. It’s up to parents to decide when their children are ready to hear them.

LANGUAGE

Despite the brutal nature of this novel, the language is quite mild.

VIOLENCE

People die in this story. Some are murdered. Some freeze to death. Others starve or end their own lives. Most accounts are not graphic, but they are disturbing.

SEXUAL CONTENT

To her horror, a Soviet soldier gropes Lina’s breast. Also, one of the women in the work camp is forced to “lay with” Soviet officers to save her son’s life. No details are given, and younger readers might miss the implication all together.

SUPERNATURAL ELEMENTS

Other than a few religious references, there are none.

FOR DISCUSSION

The cruelty of the Soviet soldiers is almost incomprehensible, yet we know these atrocities occurred. How do you think people get to be so monstrous?

From where do you think Lina and her mother draw their strength?

Even though this novel is about terribly cruelty, it is also about incredible kindness and goodness. Which do you think is stronger?

Some of the characters are both cruel and kind. Which ones? What accounts for this?

Ruta Sepetys encourages readers to research this period in history and to keep telling the stories of Stalin’s atrocities and the people who endured them. Why is this important?

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