Once a month, we choose an outstanding YA book to review. We want to spotlight books of interest to aspiring writers, as well as highlight some of our favorite books and authors!
This month's book pick is Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. While not a new book this season, it's so good I just had to write about it.
Synopsis (from Goodreads): Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.
Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously--and at great risk--documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father's prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives.Between Shades of Gray is a novel that will steal your breath and capture your heart.
Highlights: When historical fiction is done well, I love it, but it's not my first choice when out hunting YA fiction. That said, I read this book over a year ago and loved it so much that I gave it out to all my colleagues at work last year for Christmas. They may have initially been disappointed/surprised/confused when they heard the title (so close to another Shades of Gray, of course), but soon they were sold as well.
The most obvious highlight for me was that the historical story Sepetys tells here is one that is significant, but largely unwritten. We have many touching accounts of the horrors of the holocaust, but the Lithuanian purging of intellectuals hasn't had as much publicity, but is absolutely fascinating and heartbreakingly sad as well.
I also love Sepetys depth of thematic inquiry. When I heard her speak at SCBWI after the book came out, she talked about her research, and about spending time in a gulag recreation to prepare. She said that it had scared her how close to the surface we all are to becoming savage. Those questions about our humanity swirl around the characters, and keep bubbling up in even the setting descriptions they are so thoroughly engrained in the book as it keeps sweetly probing into what makes us human.
Notes for writers: Sepetys does a great job of understating the atrocities she presents. While many writers might have succumbed to the temptation to be dramatic and maudlin about the horrific conditions and experiences, Sepetys fleshes out the ordinary bits of life that occur in the midst of tragedy so well that the reader is forced to see the people as more human and the situation more complex. She also includes very ordinary thoughts on love and being a teenager in the midst of darker and harder questions, a balance that's difficult to get right, and that she nails.
A good read for: Fans of historical fiction (of course), but also anyone who enjoys deep thematic issues and subtle poetic writing.