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2014 All School Read: Student Assignment

Enjoy Between Shades of Gray? Try these! All available at the MBA Library.


(by Jonathan Safran Foer)



Themes from the online discussion guide of Between Shades of Gray:

  • The story of the Baltic people's genocide is a relatively unknown but important event in world history. Discuss why such an event could have so little awareness.
  • Meticulous research is revealed in the vivid details providing many moments for discussion throughout the novel.
  • Themes of survival, sadness, hope and oppression provide clear topics for review.
  • The simple and eloquent voice of the narrator, as well as flashbacks to life before Stalin's invasion, allow readers an intimate portrait of the characters and proves an interesting topic for exploration.
  • The combination of the author's personal connection and the history promote discussion between personal feelings and response to the story itself.
  • Readers can compare the story and themes found in Between Shades of Gray with that of the universally known Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, including the distinctive qualities of each book, the use of art and journal to reveal history, and the settings.

Assignment for Students

Topics for Between Shades of Gray

by Ruta Sepetys

Directions:  Students have five options from which to choose to complete their project on the all-school read.  These projects should be completed BEFORE school begins on Monday, 18 August, so that they don't interfere with regular homework the first week.  However, the projects are officially due on Friday, 22 August, to the student's advisor so that the advisor can answer any questions about the project the first day or two of school .  The advisors will then post these responses on the Advisory Bulletin Board through Whipple Hill and create a dialogue in their advisory about Between Shades of Gray.
Here are the five options:
1.  A written response to a choice of questions about the book (see this list below);
2.  An artistic response to one of the same questions below, either in painting, drawing, photography, or music;
3.  A video, either a "face" response to one of the questions below or a reenactment of an important scene from the book;
4.  A slideshow which deals with one of these thematic questions;
5.  Any other response which would have to be approved in advance by the student's advisor.  This means the student would have to contact his advisor via email before school starts.

Topics for Between Shades of Gray   

If you choose to write an essay for your all-school read project, write a 500-700 word, multi-paragraph essay on one of these topics.  First, label your answer clearly by including the topic.  Then begin your essay with an introduction that leads to a thesis statement.  Your body paragraphs should have discernible topics as well and should be well-organized with details and evidence from the book to support your points. 

1.  The novel suggests that the will to survive goes beyond the physical, that a spiritual component is as much a part of being alive as food and shelter.  Explain the scenes that show how the characters nurtured their spiritual and psychological needs.  Consider family connections, memories, specific acts of kindness, letter writing, traditions, music, etcetera.

2.  As Lina’s family is first placed in the truck to take them to the trains, they meet the bald man, Mr. Stalas, who proclaims loudly, “We’re all going to die. We will surely die” (22).  Write an essay that analyzes Mr. Stalas’s role in the novel as a fatalistic, pessimistic, and needy character living in a community of people trying to survive through hope and cooperation.  Is he utterly unsympathetic, without any redeeming qualities?  Why did Sepetys make him so complicated and hard to grasp?

3.  Write a persuasive essay in which you argue the moral complications for the Lithuanian deportees in signing or not signing the NKVD’s confession papers.  Is there an absolute right or wrong in this situation?  Consider the experiences of Lina and her family and friends as well as those who signed.  Use textual evidence to provide specific examples to support your case.

4.  Analyze Lina as the first-person narrator of the novel.  Why is her perspective effective in portraying the alternating layers of horror, degradation, love, and compassion in this story?  You will need to analyze her characteristics to explain how her perspective creates various themes such as the will to survive, doing what’s right, and the importance of family.

5. Andrius and Kretzsky might be interpreted as foils for one another in the novel.  How are these two characters different from each other?   Are there any similarities that emerge as Kretzsky’s character becomes more complex?  How does Sepetys use each of them to create different themes and to create complications and crises that drive the story?

6.  Discuss the role that art plays in the novel.  Lina, a young artist, constantly draws for both for practical reasons and for her own enrichment or sanity.  Include a discussion of Lina’s favorite artist, the Norwegian symbolist/expressionist Edvard Munch, in understanding Lina’s view of art’s importance to civilization.  Conclude your answer by commenting on the way other oppressed peoples have used art to endure their hardships.

7. Write an essay that explains the importance of understanding the historical context of the Stalinist system to a full understanding of the story.  Connect episodes in the book with some of these events or topics: a. Stalin’s Purges, 1929–38;  b. Collectivization in the USSR; c. The Cheka/NKVD and State Terror; d. Cultural Life in the USSR under Stalin; e. The Five-Year Plans; f. America’s Lend/Lease Acts and the USSR; g. Forced/Coercive Labor in the USSR; h. Soviet Intellectuals in the Stalinist Era.