Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Kadohata, Cynthia. A Million Shades of Gray. This book is for grades 5 to 8, or ages 10 to 14, depending on reading level (4 stars out of 4!).

Responsible citizens constantly question authority. Sometimes, it’s not clear exactly who is in charge, so it can be difficult to work for big changes. For example, as a school librarian, there are several layers of management I would have to wade through if I wanted an audience with the real boss, the school board. If there are problems in my building, whom do I blame? Is it the supervisors who may not have worked their usual 60 hours that week; the vice-principals who are usually too bogged down with discipline to do much else; the principal whose hands are usually tied by the superintendent, or the assistant superintendents who are necessarily obsessed with test scores because funding depends on them? Y’Tin, the bittersweet protagonist in Cynthia Kadohata’s latest gem, A Million Shades of Gray, wants to place blame, but his sense of innocence and guilt has been shattered by years of war. A member of the Dega, a group that lives in the jungles of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, he has no problem in blaming both the Americans for leaving (although he cannot help admiring Americans), and the North Vietnamese for persecuting them, mostly because they helped the Americans when they were present. To a young teen, right and wrong are not normally this skewed, to the point in which right has been destroyed. Cleverly, Ms. Kadohata’s title refers not only to the color of the elephants that inhabit this novel, but also to the only “truth” that Y’Tin and his peers find, tainted and “grayed” by racism and the terrible misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the middle of a civil war that does not end when the United States leaves.

Y’Tin Eban is determined to become the youngest elephant handler of the Rhade tribe of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Even though the war is still on, it is 1973 and the Americans are still present in the country. In fact, Y’Tin’s Ama (father) has worked with the Special Forces for a while; Y’Tin even gets to go on one of their missions. However, foreshadowing dark times for his people, it is on this ill-fated mission that Y’Tin witnesses and feels responsible for the first death he ever sees: “Soon he heard a soft, soft sound and realized it was his father crying . . . Ama had worked for the Special Forces for several years, but he’d been lucky—this was the first time anyone had been killed on one of his father’s missions. Y’Tin knew it was his fault . . . Was the guilt he felt part of war?” (18-19). Two years after the mission, Y’Tin’s world collapses. Having achieved his goal of becoming Lady’s handler, he may lose Lady and everything he holds dear if the NVA or VietCong attack. Even his lifelong goal of quitting school to handle his elephant full-time turns into a pyrrhic victory when he is finally allowed to miss school because of the impending attack from the North: “Then he remembered that he didn’t have to go to school today and might never have to go to school again. And all of a sudden, he actually wanted to go to school. School had been predictable, but now he wanted a predictable life” (65). Y’Tin must face the imminent peril of a hostile attack and save both his elephant (and her unborn calf) and his family as they struggle to find a haven from war. As Y’Tin’s father has said many times, “the jungle changes a man,” and if they must seek the jungle, Y’Tin must find a way to retain his humanity and morality while recognizing that he must forgive those close to him who may struggle to show true maturity, bravery, and compassion in the face of danger.

Some writers have an incredible knack for always using the right voice for their stories. Cynthia Kadohata has once again created the perfect voice for her champion, lyrical but pragmatic, full of insecurity but bold when necessary, thoughtful but goal-oriented. The story, straightforward and linear, is perfect for Y’Tin’s tale, because he can only move toward the future; his past dissolves before his eyes until all he has is now. His struggle is an excellent model for young people who want to know how to respond in an emergency: Y’Tin is compassionate, determined, and loyal, even in the face of betrayal. He is not perfect, and he certainly resents many things in his life, but he does let his resentments affect his abilities. Yes, he makes enemies, but the reader knows that a simple, sincere apology goes a long way. Despite oppressive circumstances, Y’Tin is able to potentially navigate a path to self-respect and accomplishment. A Million Shades of Gray is a poignant portrait of a tragic time and place in history, and one young man’s struggle to make sense of it. This is an excellent novel for readers who have faced uncertain times in their lives; in other words, everyone.

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Blogger Ms. Yingling said...

There was something about Shades of Gray that didn't appeal to me, but after reading this, perhaps I will have to look at it again. It seems like we read a lot of the same books but have different takes on them!

3:26 AM  

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