Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel

If your family was torn in two, what would you do to try to find the other half?

When 15 year old Lina Vilkas and her family are taken from their home in Lithuania one night in 1941 by Soviet officers, the women and children are forced onto separate trains from the men. Lina, her brother, and her mother end up in a work camp in the frozen tundra of Siberia, far from the life she used to know, but her father’s destination is unknown. Terrified that she will never see her father again, and inspired by her love of drawing, she devises an incredibly risky plan: she will use her skills as an artist to draw secret clues on scraps of paper, in the hopes that they will reach her father, and bring him back to them. 

As weeks turn into months, Lina finds herself fighting for her life and the lives of those imprisoned with her as they try to endure the horrific conditions of the camp. And even as new connections are forged (and maybe, just maybe, even a little bit of love is found), one question still persists over everything: will her drawings be enough to reunite her family? 

Can art keep you alive even in the darkest times?

Ten years after the original publication of Ruta Sepetys’ young adult novel, writer Andrew Donkin and illustrator Dave Kopka have adapted it into a graphic novel format which will bring Sepetys’ story to a whole new audience. Though the original is over 300 pages long, the graphic novel does not lose anything by being a shorter length. Donkin’s written adaptation feels complete and whole, and Lina’s point-of-view narration translates well into the graphic novel format, along with longer panels of dialogue. In fact, any text that may have been “lost” in this reduced page count is gained back tremendously through Kopka’s evocative illustrations. 

Kopka’s choice to use a limited color palette that especially features shades of brown and the titular gray is a perfect one for this bleaker tale, as it sets a more somber tone right from the start. The combination of pencil line art and soft watercolor lend the illustrations a sketchbook-like look, something that can perhaps give readers a deeper connection to Lina and her own drawings and sketches, which are such a central part of the story. There is an almost frantic, harried look to the character design that feels tonally appropriate, along with vivid facial expressions that leave no emotion unexplored. 

Additionally, Kopka does not shy away from depicting the harrowing experiences of life in an NKVD (Soviet secret police) work camp, yet his illustrations do not feel exploitative or unnecessarily graphic. Instead, they are necessary to punctuate specific narrative beats.

So many stories set during WWII traverse the same ground that teen readers have read about often, whether by choice or in school, which is what makes Sepetys’ original novel and Donkin’s adaptation stand out. Lina’s experience as a Lithuanian prisoner in a Soviet work camp in Siberia is unfamiliar narrative territory for many teens, and though her specific tale is fiction, it is of course based in fact. Her struggles and her resilience will resonate with readers, as will her amazing ability to find hope and love even in the darkest place. Her desire to leave behind a message for the world that she was here, that this happened, will feel especially poignant to teens whose own stories are often unheard, or worse, are intentionally covered up. 

Recommended for teens ages 12 and up, Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel would be a worthy addition to any library collection, as it makes a recent classic young adult novel accessible to a wider variety of readers, as well as providing a window into a lesser known part of history. 

Between Shades of Gray: The Graphic Novel
By Andrew Donkin
Art by  Dave Kopka
Penguin Random House, 2021
ISBN: 9780593204160

Publisher Age Rating: 12+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)