Shades of Gray

by Carolyn Reeder

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Literary Criticism and Significance

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Shades of Gray, published in May of 1999, is the winner of numerous awards, including the Scott O’Dell Award, an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book Award, the Jefferson Cup Award, the Jane Adam’s Children’s Book Award, and others. The novel was highly praised for its in-depth and thorough treatment of the moral complexities that come with war and its ability to be a catalyst to meaningful and mature discussions. Critics and readers alike have found it to be a very thoughtful novel that should be considered one of the most important in the genre of juvenile Civil War tales. Intended for an audience as young as nine years old, the story is told simply enough to be graspable by younger children yet relevant to older adolescents and adults alike. Although some of its more complex moral themes, such as the prejudice and judgment that people show those who do not believe as they do, might be harder to understand for younger readers, they are definitely relatable for older readers.

In addition to its insightful themes that serve discussion and debate very well, some critics also enjoyed the good characterizations that produced characters who were believable, well-rounded, and relatable. Some have found Will’s journey to maturation a bit contrived and stereotyped and that his character’s journey from prejudiced and bitter to accepting and open-minded a bit unbelievable, unrealistic, and too smooth. Real people would have had a much harder journey; it would have taken a lot longer than the several months that Will took to overcome the extreme grief associated with his family’s death and to overcome his hard-set beliefs about war and people. Along these lines, people feel that Carolyn Reeder used Will as a sort of prototype for the ideal situation and an empty vessel for important teaching moments that prompted the attitudes and morals that she wanted shown in the novel.

However, as most of the readers of this novel are very young, Will’s ideally developed story will work very well to promote the morals of not judging a person until you get to know them and not drawing conclusions about others based on society’s labels. Shades of Gray is a book that has timeless lessons about human nature, suffering, and war that will find a place in discussions through any time period and in any place; it packs a powerful punch in its slim pages and is well worth the read.

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