A Million Shades of Gray

Cynthia Kadohata,
A Million Shades of Gray
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.

Ages 9–12

Cynthia Kadohata (Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam) once again writes about the bond between an animal and its owner in the context of the Vietnam War. With A Million Shades of Gray she introduces us to Y’Tin, a thirteen-year-old elephant handler from the Rhade tribe in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, and Lady, the pregnant elephant he swears to protect.

The story takes place in 1975, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The Paris Peace Accord signed to signal the end of the war has been broken and Y’Tin’s village is attacked by the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. The American Special Forces haven’t kept their promise to provide military support.

Following his father’s orders, Y’Tin flees into the jungle with Lady, where his resourcefulness and bravery are put to the test. Like the “million shades of gray” of the jungle itself, Y’Tin’s life is no longer black and white. Readers follow his thought process as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he may not be able to keep his promise to Lady: indeed, the heart of the book lies in Y’tin’s perception of the chaos around him, as well as his struggle to survive and protect his elephant friend.

The story reveals many moments of heartbreaking reality, such as when one of Y’Tin’s elephant handler friends is killed “for no reason”, or when Y’Tin is forced, after being captured, to dig a mass grave for the dead in his village.  For the most part, however, Kadohata’s poignant narrative rises above the violence and insanity of battle to focus on its emotional and psychological impact on Y’Tin, who is forced to grow up too fast and to deal with the horrors of war guided by little more than his commitment to his elephant.

Y’Tin’s ability to cope with all the hardships he faces, as well as the tough choices he is forced to make, are unthinkable for most of us, who are far removed from the realities of war. A Million Shades of Gray will touch the minds and hearts of mature young readers and older readers alike. A Note at the end of the book talks about the author’s research process and her inspiration for the novel, and as readers absorb the bigger picture, readers will be rooting for Y’Tin and Lady’s survival from beginning to end.


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