Monthly Archives: January 2016

Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the SeaJoana is a Lithuanian girl whose nursing skills could be her passport home. Florian is a fancy name, but perhaps it fits this young art forger. Emilia has secrets: one is her Polish origin, and the other may be her only reason for living. Alfred writes imaginary letters to his beloved Hannelore. He is eager to show her that the other boys were wrong to make fun of him for not joining the Hitler Youth; he can be a better Nazi than all of them. All four of these characters tell their intertwined stories as they run with thousands of others to the ships that can take them away from war. Some run from Hitler, some from Stalin, but all of them pour down the Baltic states, away from violence and brutality, perhaps to hope and a future. But if they fail, they will become just so much salt to the sea.

Ruta Sepetys once again draws upon her grandparents’ stories of Lithuanian oppression under Stalin to bring us a story we need to remember: the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and the loss of over 9,000 lives in the Baltic Sea. These numbers dwarf those of the Titanic and the Lusitania combined, but we have heard the stories of these more famous shipwrecks repeatedly. Sepetys is passionate to expose the horrors of the Stalin regime, which have remained hidden through all the decades of the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. Her award-winning debut, Between Shades of Gray, describes the agonies of the Siberian concentration camps during World War II, camps that were not revealed to the world at the end of the war, as Hitler’s camps were. Salt to the Sea tells another story of young men and women with promising futures whose lives were forever altered—and some whose minds were forever bent—because of the actions of powerful people far away.

Besides her important subjects, Sepetys creates fully-realized characters and a compelling plot combined with writing that is filled with emotion, but eschews sentimentality. Her sentences are sharp, but beautiful. Here are some excerpts from the very end of four quick chapters. I won’t tell you who is speaking in each one:

Fate is a hunter.

Its barrel pressed against my forehead.


Guilt is a hunter.

I was its hostage.


Shame is a hunter.

My shame was all around me now.


You see, fear is a hunter. It encircles us when we are unarmed and least expect it. And then we are forced to make decisions.

Your decision… was the wrong one.*

This is a must-read for all middle and high school units on World War II, and for any adults who might think it’s not such a big deal that Putin is trying to reclaim the Baltic States. We all need to hear these hidden stories.

Very highly recommended.


*Pages 347, 349, 351, and 353.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which will be published on February 2nd. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Favorite Books of 2015

Newbery MedalThe Children’s Media Awards announcements will be this coming Monday, January 11th, which is amazingly early! I have not been able to read as much as usual this past year for many reasons, but some of the books that I have read are certainly worthy, so I thought I would weigh in with my faves from the past twelve months. Click on the highlighted titles for full reviews.

Hired GirlMy favorite children’s book was The Hired Girl, by Laura Amy Schlitz. This delightful historical fiction novel straddles that annoying fence between the Newbery and Printz age, but I consider it to be more suitable for the Newbery, so I’ll place it there. Other Newbery-age books that I found worthy of the medal are Echo, by Pam Nuñoz Ryan, and The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley.

Challenger DeepI found three teen books to be excellent this year, perhaps first of all Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, the story of his son’s struggle with schizophrenia. I am shocked to discover that I never reviewed this book! I think that I read it just before my mother passed away last summer. Please check it out. As you can see, it won the National Book Award. The second would be Most Dangerous, by Steve Sheinkin, a nonfiction title concerning Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. My third would be Mosquitoland, by David Arnold. Any of these would be eligible to win the Printz Award, in my opinion.

Orbiting Jupiter, by Gary Schmidt, is worthy of either award. Most blogs are tending toward Newbery for this title, but I prefer the Printz because of the theme.

WaitingMy two favorite picture books this year were Waiting, by Kevin Henkes, and Lenny and Lucy, by Philip and Erin Stead. The Caldecott Award is given to the artist of the picture book, but these two jewels appeal to me on many levels, not just for the brilliant illustrations.


Boats for PapaUpdate!— How could I leave out the poignant Boats for Papa, by Jessixa Bagley? This thoughtful picture book came into the library the week I returned from my mother’s funeral, so I interpreted the story one way, but the author left the reasons for Papa’s permanent absence open, so that children dealing with a parent’s death, divorce, or other change will be able to find solace and closure here. I passed this book around and brought a whole department to tears. Beautiful.

I enjoyed many other great reads this year, but the quality of writing may not reach to literary award status. No one reads fine literature all the time, and a steady diet of deep and serious books can be wearying, just as a daily regimen of spa food might be thrilling at first, but then the longing for ice cream sets in. I almost never review a book that I couldn’t recommend to someone, so please have fun with all the other books that I reviewed this year, as well.

Looking forward to a 2016 with less pain (of all kinds) and more reading. Let’s see how we do on Monday!

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