Between Shades of Gray

Book review by
Darienne Stewart, Common Sense Media
Between Shades of Gray Book Poster Image
Popular with kidsParents recommend
Harrowing, moving account of life in Stalin's labor camps.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 14 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 50 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

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 & Representations

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. 


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."

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.

What 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. It's the story of 15-year-old Lina, her younger brother, and their mother, whom the Soviets deport from their Lithuanian home to a Siberian labor camp in 1941. 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. The book was adapted for a 2019 film with the title Ashes in the Snow

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byAK M. April 11, 2018

Disturbing Sexual Content & Graphic Brutality

Definitely for High School. Mature adult sexual content and pervasive graphic and harrowing brutality throughout. Appreciated learning about this little know... Continue reading
Adult Written byAshleyWright February 18, 2019

Good for the Mature Teen

I recently read this novel, and was shocked that this was labeled as a kid's book. "Wh*re used once, b*stard used twice, and d**n used three times. In... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byEvabell618 March 27, 2020

So good!

This book is amazing! Highly recommended! One of my favorites. However, there is some content that some people may not care for...

There is a scene in whi... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byBraincoral June 11, 2019

Great book

For those who say this book is for teenagers, are horribly mistaken. Kids at age of twelve already know all about sex and brutal things in our world, unless the... Continue reading

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?

This is a moving fictional story of extraordinary loss that nevertheless thrums with hope. 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. 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.

Talk to your kids 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

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history

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