A Million Shades of Gray

Written by Cynthia Kadohata
Review by Colm O’Sullivan Patricia O’Sullivan

Thirteen-year-old Y’Tin is interested in one thing: elephants. His goal is to be his village’s youngest elephant handler and to someday open up an elephant trainer school. But the Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops keep harassing Dega villages, and life for both the villagers and the elephants is becoming increasingly dangerous. When Y’Tin’s village is attacked by North Vietnamese soldiers, he must make a choice between staying with his family and saving the elephants. As an elephant handler, his duty is clear, but will he ever see his family again?

Though the setting might be unfamiliar to young readers, Kadohata does a good job describing it without overloading her narrative with political details. Y’Tin’s inner monologues make it easy to sympathize with his character and to understand the events in his life. At its heart, A Million Shades of Gray is a story about family and friendship, themes any young reader can relate to. However, though the publisher suggests this novel for ages 10+, some of the more violent scenes and allusions to war crimes might be difficult for readers that young. This is a great story, but parental discretion is advised.

– Patricia O’Sullivan

There is a war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam and Y’Tin is worried about his family and his best friend, a pregnant elephant named Lady. After escaping from the North Vietnamese soldiers, Y’Tin and two other village boys, Y’Jeun and Tomas, herd the village elephants to safety in the jungle. But as Y’Tin’s father always says, “The jungle changes a man” and Y’Tin finds that after many days, all the boys do is argue and complain while trying to find the rest of the escaped villagers.

I thought the story was sad because so many people died. It was also violent, especially the parts with the soldiers. I liked the first half of the story best because this is when Y’Tin was happy living in his village and taking care of Lady. I learned a lot about the war in Vietnam and about elephants from reading this story.

– Colm O’Sullivan, age 10