Salt to the Sea

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Salt to the Sea Book Poster Image
Popular with kidsParents recommend
Heartbreaking WWII novel shows power of hope, connection.

Parents say

age 12+
Based on 6 reviews

Kids say

age 12+
Based on 26 reviews

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Readers will learn a great deal about World War II, particularly about conditions on the Eastern Front as the Russian Army invaded. Historical details about what happened to the Poles and Prussians and Lithuanians and ethnic Germans throughout the area are explained. Thanks to Florian, readers will find out about the countless treasures the Nazis stole from other countries, such as Catherine the Great's Amber Room, once considered the Eighth Wonder of the World. Through Alfred's perspective, readers will learn about what Hitler Youth and Nazi true believers did to ensure loyalty to the Führer. And the entire book is a history lesson in the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff.

Positive Messages

The three main characters all have a lot to teach young readers about the nuances of staying true to your values and morals during difficult circumstances. Is it right to follow a law if the law itself is immoral? By subverting Nazi rules, these young characters (and a couple of older ones) are actually doing the right thing by humanity. The book encourages people never to lose sight of their humanity, their capacity to connect with others, and their chance to help someone other than themselves. It also shows how people who speak different languages and from different backgrounds can come together in solidarity against a common threat.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Plenty of role models, and others offer a realistic view of how self-absorbed most people can get in survival situations. Joana, Emilia, Florian, and the grandfatherly cobbler all act heroically and help, defend, or protect others. They do so even though they put themselves at risk by acting bravely. Ingrid, the blind refugee, sacrifices her safety to keep others safe. 


People die from bullet wounds, starvation, and other injuries. Most of the people on the ship drown as it sinks. A young woman is almost raped. A woman falls into a frozen river and dies. Characters shoot and kill a couple of different men threatening them or someone they're defending. 


A couple of passionate kisses and references to romantic experience. A young woman recounts a love affair she had while hiding with a Prussian family. A soldier reveals his all-consuming infatuation with a neighbor back home. 


Insults such as "stupid," "fool," "filthy Pole," and "untermensch," a term the Nazis used to describe "inferior people."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some drinking and brief cigarette smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Salt to the Sea is award-winning author Ruta Sepetys' (Out of the Easy) stirring historical novel set during World War II about a little-known maritime disaster: the 1945 sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ship filled mostly with civilians trying to escape the advancing Russian (or Red) Army. The author doesn't shy away from the horrors people faced during the war, such as references to the fact the army routinely raped (the word itself isn't used, but it's obvious) women in the countries they were occupying. People are shot at, drown, and die of injuries and sickness. Although there are only a few kisses, there's a teen pregnancy in the story. Readers will learn a great deal about aspects of WWII that aren't as frequently discussed, such as the Red Army advancing, what happened to ethnic Germans in the Baltic States, and the circumstances surrounding this wartime tragedy.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bylove2inspirereaders January 13, 2020

An engaging, dramatic, unforgettable story!

Sepetys skillfully creates unforgettable characters. I loved it!

*Spoiler*Readers find out that a female character was assaulted which resulted in a pregnanc... Continue reading
Parent of a 12-year-old Written bykelley.ilic July 2, 2019

Interesting story about the end of WWII

My 12-year-old really enjoyed this story. The different story lines of people fleeing the end of WWII and how they all connect is very interesting. SPOILER ALER... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written bygeekgirl34 October 25, 2019

Amazing, mature book

This is beautifully written and the characters are all thoughtful and fascinating. I love Ruta Sepetys quest to tell about unknown, important tragedies that des... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written bygildeagirl06 June 21, 2019

Great Book, Slightly Mature

This book is very good, a few mature things

What's the story?

Ruta Sepetys' historical novel SALT TO THE SEA follows four young adults harboring deep secrets. Their fates intertwine the winter of 1945 on the German ship the Wilhelm Gustloff, filled five times over capacity with mostly civilians as it attempts to flee the advancing Red Army on the Baltic Sea. Aryan-looking Lithuanian nurse Joana is around 21 and leads a motley group of refugees on foot; Polish 15-year-old Emilia only wants to stay away from the prying eyes of predatory soldiers; Prussian 19-year-old Florian is an art student and forger with a dangerous mission; and Alfred is the outlier, a young German soldier working on the Wilhelm Gustloff. After Florian saves Emilia's life, the two encounter Joana's group, and through a series of close calls and desperate situations they end up traveling together, protecting one another, and hoping the Wilhelm Gustloff will save them from the evils of the Russian Army, whose cruelty rivaled that of the Nazis.

Is it any good?

This powerful, gorgeously written exploration of a little-known WWII tragedy proves why with only three books, Ruta Sepetys has emerged as a preeminent historical novelist in young adult literature. Salt to the Sea, which includes meticulously detailed author's notes, maps, and research and sources, is an ideal blend of historical facts, riveting drama, compelling characters, and suspense. Similar to when you watch Titanic for the first time, you know the ship is doomed but not exactly how the fictional characters will fare within that tragedy. In Joana, Emilia, and Florian, Sepetys has created three diverse characters who ultimately bond and care for each other. Once again, Sepetys adds touches of humor and romance to her history, and it works beautifully. 

This is a book parents should read with their teens and recommend to school media specialists and English teachers. It has so much to offer teen and adult readers, and it's a perfect companion novel to Sepetys' Between Shades of Gray, set in 1941 in a Siberian forced-larbor camp. In fact, those who've read that novel will recognize one of the main characters in Salt to the Sea. By focusing on aspects of WWII that are less saturated in historical fiction, Sepetys provides readers with a way to connect to the day-to-day battle civilians had to fight on all sides. This is a story of humanity in the face of unthinkable horror, of love blossoming in the midst of hatred, of kindness turning strangers into family. Read it, talk about it, and treasure that authors like Sepetys have chosen to write specifically for young adult readers.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the horrors of war as depicted in Salt to the Sea. Is the violence necessary to tell the story? If so, why? Is historically accurate violence different from completely fictional violence?

  • Salt to the Sea is written in four perspectives, three of them from sympathetic characters and one from an unsympathetic character. Why do you think the author chose to include Alfred's point of view? What does his perspective show about Nazi ideology and rule?

  • Why do you think the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff isn't widely known or memorialized? Is it because it was a German ship and some of the passengers were Nazi party officers or members? Does the book make you want to learn more about the tragedy or WWII stories in general?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love history and World War II stories

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