Between Shades of Gray

Common Sense Media says

Harrowing, moving account of life in Stalin's labor camps.





What parents need to know

Educational value

The story of the Baltics under Stalin isn't well-known, and this book does a fine job telling it. Many of the key moments are drawn from survivor accounts, lending authenticity to an otherwise fictional tale. A map shows the immense distance Lina's family travels, and a personal note from the author offers more detail for interested readers.

Positive messages

Hope manages to stay alive, even in the bleakest of situations -- and it can be found in the most unexpected places. As Lina's situation worsens, she and others show how even very small actions can preserve their dignity and humanity.

Positive role models

Lina's parents are strong figures, standing up for what's right and trying to offer comfort and aid to those suffering around them. In the face of hopelessness, Lina's family, Andrius, and others find ways to help each other. Few characters are presented as all bad: Even seeming acts of selfishness are treated with empathy, and some of the most repugnant characters show flashes of extraordinary kindness and bravery.


This frequently horrifying account of deportation and forced labor doesn't sugarcoat anything: Deportees, from newborns to the elderly, are abused, beaten, shot, and worse by callous officers. Starved and overworked prisoners live with the fear of sudden death at any moment. A mother is forced into prostitution to save her son's life. A sadistic officer nearly buries terrified women alive. Corpses are found half-eaten by animals and are staked to a wall as a warning.


Lina is groped while standing naked in line for a shower. Andrius' mother is forced into prostitution by her captors to protect her son's life. Lina and her brother briefly suspect their mother has an inappropriate relationship with a guard. Some gentle romance with kissing.


Language includes "bastard" and "whore."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Andrius smokes regularly and gives cigarettes to Lina's 10-year-old brother. The Russian captors also drink and smoke. The prisoners -- including children -- share a pilfered bottle of vodka at a celebration.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that Between Shades of Gray is a story of horrific cruelty and violence for mature tweens and up. Babies, children, the elderly, and even grieving parents die awful deaths, and many more suffer terribly as they struggle to survive. Families are torn apart. There's just enough telling detail here to drive home the climate of terror in which the deportees lived, without lingering on the gruesome details. The novel illuminates an often-overlooked chapter in history, drawing comparisons to the misery inflicted by the Nazi regime. It's a very worthwhile read, but parents may want to make themselves available to discuss the troubling questions the book raises.

Parents say

Kids say

What's the story?

In the summer of 1941, 15-year-old Lina, her younger brother, and their mother are abruptly forced from their Lithuanian home by the Soviets and deported to a Siberian labor camp. Their father has already been arrested and sent to prison. The long train journey is horrifying, and there's little comfort upon arrival: Violence and death stalk the prisoners. Lina begins to build a friendship, and then a romance, with Andrius, a fellow prisoner. A talented artist, Lina records her experience in drawings, kept hidden from cruel guards, as she struggles to keep her faith in humanity and her hope for any future.

Is it any good?


Author Ruta Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, based BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY on the stories of survivors she met while researching the deportation of Lithuanians under Stalin. The result is a moving fictional story of extraordinary loss that nevertheless thrums with hope. Sepetys uses a light touch when describing the cruelty and violence suffered by Lina and her fellow travelers: These passages are brief and to the point, which make them all the more heartbreaking.

The horrors Sepetys describes are staggering, but it's an effective and sensitive way to bring history to life. Readers will readily identify with Lina, who's abruptly ripped out of her comfortable life. It's impossible to read Between Shades of Gray and not think about how you'd cope in her situation. At the book's end, readers may want to learn more about what happened in the Baltics.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about parallels between this story and accounts by Holocaust survivors. Why is the story of the Baltics so much less familiar to people in the West?

  • There's a great deal of misery in Between Shades of Gray and other stories of government oppression, such as the Holocaust. How do you feel after reading these stories -- anxious, hopeful, distressed, optimistic? What's the purpose of these stories?

  • Lina records her story in artwork and cryptic drawings intended as messages to her father. Talk about other examples of artwork as storytelling.

Book details

Author:Ruta Sepetys
Genre:Historical Fiction
Topics:Friendship, History
Book type:Fiction
Publication date:March 22, 2011
Number of pages:344

This review of Between Shades of Gray was written by

About our rating system

  • ON: Content is age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • PAUSE: Know your child; some content may not be right for some kids.
  • OFF: Not age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • NOT FOR KIDS: Not appropriate for kids of any age.

Find out more


Our star rating assesses the media's overall quality.

Find out more

Learning ratings

  • Best: Really engaging, great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging, good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging, good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging, okay learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

Find out more

About our buy links

When you use our links to make a purchase, Common Sense Media earns a small affiliate fee from Amazon or iTunes. As a nonprofit organization, these funds help us continue providing independent, ad-free services for educators, families, and kids while the price you pay remains the same. Thank you for your support.
Read more

See more about how we rate and review.

What parents and kids say

See all user reviews

Share your thoughts with other parents and kids Write a user review

A safe community is important to us. Please observe our guidelines

Kid, 11 years old December 28, 2012

Best book ever!

When i first read this book, i wasn't sure about it. but then it really gets into to the girtty deatils about how horrifing it was for the Lithuanians in their time war, i liked this book because even though it was not a true sotry, i enjoyed how it mentioned the everything that went on. Because their are TONS of books on jewish peolpe. And no one really gives in to what happened to the Lithuanians. Their is some action, a lady is shot in the head. While her baby is thrown down a sewer pipe. Some of the action in the book might be disturbing. For me the book was a tearjercker. With great role modles and messages. Lina's mom stands up for her family. Another chartacer, Andrius stands up for lina and her brother, Jonas. But Language is a little issue for me, I Am not allowed to use words such as ''Bas***d'' or ''Wh***e'' so then i doubt any child would. Overall i love this book. I Think 12 and up is good age. Or if your child is mature enough to read it. This was very long so thanks!
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much swearing
Educator and Parent Written byCafeolemom August 1, 2012

Terrific historical fiction

Great read with a lot of historical detail about a little known subject. I teach 8th grade literacy and plan on using this for a unit study.
What other families should know
Educational value
Kid, 12 years old November 5, 2013

A wonderful story that will go deep in your heart

This was a great piece of writing, and I loved it. But I think that it depends what your reading level is, and what language and material you're willing to read, because I will admit that this is a really harsh book, it deals with a lot of terrific matters, such as violence (mainly), harsh language, and more. So I do think it is a mature book, that some users and parents might find inappropriate and too mature for their kid. BUT, putting that aside, I have to say this is one of the best books I've read so far, it is a very emotional writing, and I enjoyed every single page of it. I personally love to read books like this, and I do read some books that are a bit more "advanced" than what my reading level should be for my age (and no, I don't mean that kind of advanced). So I my final thoughts on this book are that YES, it is a great book definitely worth reading, and it has a lot of educational meaning too, so if you think you can handle the content of the book, then definitely read it cause you will LOVE it.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking


Did our review help you make an informed decision about this product?

Essential Apps Guide