We never said Yes.
We weren’t even talking about next year’s book. Weeks still stood between us and summer vacation and we were busy with activities to wrap up our current adventure. Typically we discuss books for our school-wide reading initiative for the better part of a year. But when people ask us how we pick a book, we give an answer that must sound utterly obnoxious in its simplicity: We just do.
We read constantly. We go by feel, guided by what our kids are chattering about, what’s making noise on social media, and what catches our attention. We pick good books, ones that’ll get them reading and talking and reading some more. We pick ones we love. Between the two of us we read hundreds of books each year, and we never stop talking. That’s how we pick our book. And, though we’re somewhat ashamed to admit that it took five years for Between Shades of Gray to land in our hands, we won’t question its timing. Instead we’ll share the joy and tell you why we loved it and what it did to our school.
Between Shades of Gray chose us. We still laugh in acknowledgement of the fact that we never actually picked it. We read it, loved it, and started planning and scheduling and writing. We never sat down over coffee – as we had the past six years – with our lists and notebooks and questions and said, “This is the one, right?” Nope, didn’t need to. Between Shades of Gray just was.
And it was – without question – the right book at the right time for our students.
It was the one that awakened dozens of dormant readers, making them realize that they did indeed love reading, they just hadn’t found the right book yet.
It was the one that brought back the art of read-alouds in our middle school, courtesy of short chapters and the exquisite story-telling abilities of Ruta Sepetys.
It was the one that got everyone talking, giving teachers an opportunity to share an experience and a conversation with their students.
It was the book that inspired families to share stories and secrets, the one that guided children to their parents, giving them the courage and the context to ask probing questions like “Why?” and “How?”
It was one that inspired our adolescents to explore – to find places on a map and research the names and events from history almost forgotten.
It was the book some finished in a day, hijacking their attention and keeping them up way past their bedtime.
It was the one that made them cry; more importantly, it was the one that made them feel. Our students found something in common with a fictional fourteen year-old from Kaunas, Lithuania. By connecting with the characters in this novel, the injustices of history became personal. This book was the one that convinced them they had a responsibility to do something.
Between Shades of Gray made Ruta Sepetys a household name in our Massachusetts town.
And it was the book that broke records. Our initiative is an optional one – no one is forced to read; our goal is to select a book so enticing that five hundred adolescents feel like they’d be missing something if they didn’t go All In! and read along with us. And this year, because of Between Shades of Gray , every expectation was exceeded, every record obliterated. Over 70% of our school chose to read it, and they haven’t stopped talking.
To say a book is “life-changing” is hyperbolic at worst, rare at best…but it’s appropriate here. Between Shades of Gray is that incredibly intoxicating synthesis of essential history and engaging storytelling. “Do you have anything like Between Shades of Gray ?” is now a challenge posed to us on a weekly basis; they trust us now. With this title, we won readers. Now we must respond to the call and find others to satiate the appetite this book has created.
They don’t call us crazy for nothing.
Mary Cotillo and Erin O’Leary, “The Crazy Reading Ladies”
Horace Mann Middle School – Franklin, MA