By Cynthia Kadohata.
A book review and commentary.
This young adult story takes place in 1975 in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. I wanted to read it because I have a fascination with history and untold truths and because I highly admire elephants. While I did enjoy the story, I couldn’t help wonder about it being categorized as young adult. The tale is told from a 13-year-old’s perspective, but it is in wartime with unsettling truths and hardships. This book not only tells an interesting story of a young Vietnamese dealing with war in his village but also stirs up other questions about how we educate and broaden the minds of our children.
One thing I wondered is what exactly constitutes as a “children’s book”? Is it simply the age of the protagonist? Is it the subject matter that is “suitable” for children? Or must it be the language used that directs it towards young readers? I believe it was Maurice Sendak who said “You cannot write for children. They’re much too complicated. You can only write books that are of interest to them.” This quote makes so much more sense to me than ever before. I’m not sure I would have had an interest in this story when I was younger even with the elephants but is that because I was conditioned to dislike history?
In school, history classes were names, places, and dates. Three things I was very bad at keeping in my brain. I’m still bad with names, terrible with numbers, and knowing where places were back then seemed unimportant since no one had taught anything about why I should care about these places. However, if this book had been required reading, perhaps I would have had an interest, had a care. I was taught about trade and commerce and dates of kings and rulers, nothing about the people or their lives. Yes, I do blame the school system for the extreme dislike of “Social Studies” I had in high school. Needless to say, I was very upset (and felt like an ass) when I went to college and confirmed how much my high school education lacked. I am now a history nerd and cannot get enough. Could this enthusiasm have been kindled earlier on with a book like “A Million Shades of Gray?”
It’s true this story touches on topics no child should have to know about, I have to say that. Hell, I don’t want to know about them. Unfortunately, war touches the lives of all ages and so do the horrors that incur. This story is about a child in a war-torn country, how his mountain tribe gets caught in the middle, and yes, the horrors he endures. This book has mixed reviews on Goodreads, most people disliking the pace and/or the ending. Some claimed it was boring and didn’t even finish it. It certainly is an odd book for YA readers when you consider the popularity of YA fantasy and contemporary dramas. That doesn’t make this story any less important it just makes it different. I understand that as readers we want to connect with and relate to the main characters, but isn’t there also value in seeing the world from a different point of view? We globalize our commerce and politics but not our children’s minds? This may not be a story you read for entertainment, or for an escape, but rather for a reality check, a slice of life from a person and place you know little about.
Connecting to the world is one of the most powerful things a book can do for someone. Connecting, understanding, relating, learning; these are all things books can do for us outside of our much-needed distractions and escapism. And trust me, I need my fantasy books and escape from reality just as much as the next person. This book may not fill you with wonder and magic, but it does paint a picture of someone else’s perspective on a very sensitive and sometimes glazed over piece of American history. Some schools read “The Diary of Anne Frank” while teaching about WWII. Perhaps this story (even if it is fiction) should be read while teaching about the Vietnam War. If schools even teach about it at all. My school may have mentioned it in passing, but only to teach me the dates and location. I think compassion may be the better lesson to learn. Like I said, my high school education was taught in such black and white. America and Them. Right and Wrong. The world is so much more than that and other people’s stories matter (especially of the innocent or forgotten), even if you don’t fully understand them. And if this book teaches you nothing else at all, it’s that there are A Million Shades of Grey.