A Million Shades of Grey by Cynthia Kadohata

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A Million Shades of Grey by Cynthia Kadohata

Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Well-told and researched story about a young elephant keeper in Vietnam blending the exploration of another culture with child's eye view of war. It's let down by occasional moments of heavy-handed political bias inappropriate in a book for its target age group.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 184738823X

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At just twelve, Tin is the youngest elephant handler in his village. Ever since he can remember, Tin has dreamed of working with elephants and he loves his own elephant, Lady, to distraction, even spending most of his nights sleeping by her side. Tin is much less keen on school, but his parents insist that he goes. Tin really can't see the point, as his sole ambition is to become a fully-fledged elephant trainer. His parents may talk about opportunities in the world outside his village but if they don't involve elephants, he's not interested.

But the world outside Tin's village is changing fast and it's becoming increasingly clear that Tin, his village, and his entire people will be affected, whether they like it or not. For Tin's village lies in the mountains of Vietnam, it's the 1970s, and the war is in full flood. Many of Tin's people, the Montagnards, are helping the Americans in their fight against the Vietcong. And when they attack his village, burning, looting and murdering, Tin must act swiftly if he's to save himself and his elephant...

A Million Shades of Grey is wonderfully researched and beautifully told. The Montagnard way of life is vividly explored with all sorts of homely details that truly bring Tin and his family to life - their culture, their homes, their attitudes, their diet - it's all here, worked seamlessly into the story with real flavour. Tin himself leads a very different life to the one his readers lead, but he inhabits an emotional landscape that's immediately recognisable. He has minor conflicts with his friends that are easily resolved by a quick game of football. He has slightly bigger ones - about school, for example - with his parents, and he's not above a little bit of manipulation when trying to get his own way.

But things change drastically after the attack. And Kadohata does a great job of showing war from a child's perspective, and also in portraying how normal lives - in any country or culture - can be turned upside down by violence and in a very short space of time.

For me, though, the book was somewhat spoiled by moments of heavy-handed and unnecessary partisanship. The story Kadohata tells is accurate - huge numbers of Montagnards fought alongside the US in the Vietnam War and many died doing so, and they are still a persecuted people today - but it's difficult to see how any side came out of that conflict with any pride. Yet children will come away from this book thinking the worst thing the Americans ever did was leave. They're portrayed almost as saintly. Here's one example:

Shepard squatted and put his cigarette out of the ground, then put the filter in a bag in his pocket. This way, he wouldn't leave a mess on the Rhade ground. The Americans were very considerate."

Um... ok. I'm sure many American soldiers were considerate. But in a book that shows nothing of the other side except torture, murder and arson, doesn't that strike you as a somewhat heavy-handed and needless insertion? Do I actually have to say hello? My Lai? Agent Orange? napalm?. This is not to say I think this book should mention any of those things, because I don't. But children are quite capable of judging a bad act when it stands alone, and I don't think it's at all helpful to portray angels and devils in books aimed at those in primary school, especially in complex political situations. If the story isn't enough (and in this case it is), then make it better - don't slip in some extra propaganda to make your point.

It's a shame, because aside from this, A Million Shades of Grey is absolutely super. As it stands though, I wouldn't give it to my children to read.

My thanks to the nice people at Simon & Schuster for sending the book.

For books that pick their way through politics to bring wonderful stories to middle readers, try Oranges in No Man's Land and Lost Riders, both by Elizabeth Laird, or The Kites are Flying and Private Peaceful, both by Michael Morpurgo.

Buy A Million Shades of Grey by Cynthia Kadohata at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Million Shades of Grey by Cynthia Kadohata at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy A Million Shades of Grey by Cynthia Kadohata at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Million Shades of Grey by Cynthia Kadohata at Amazon.com.


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