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A Million Shades of Gray

Read by Keith Nobbs
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Y'Tin is brave.

No one in his village denies that—his mother may wish that he’d spend more time on school work than on elephant training, but still she knows that it takes a great deal of courage and calm to deal with elephants the way that Y'Tin does. He is almost the best trainer in the village—and, at twelve-years old, he’s certainly the youngest. Maybe he’ll even open up his own school some day to teach other Montagnards how to train wild elephants? That was the plan anyway—back before American troops pulled out of the Vietnam War, back before his village became occupied by Viet Cong forces seeking revenge, back before Y'Tin watched his life change in a million terrible ways.

Now, his bravery is truly put to the test: he can stay in his village, held captive by the Viet Cong or he can risk his life (and save his elephant’s) by fleeing into the jungle. The Montagnards know their surroundings well. After all, this is why Y'Tin’s village had become loyal US allies during the war, having been tapped by Special Forces for their tracking skills and familiarity with the jungle. But that also means that Y'Tin knows how unsafe it can be—and how much danger he is in if he chooses to head out with no destination in mind.

At once heartbreaking and full of hope, Newbery Medal-winning author Cynthia Kadohata’s exploration into the depth of the jungle and the not-so-distant past brings us close to a world few people know about—and none will ever forget. Y'Tin’s story is one of lasting friendships, desperate choices and all that we lose when we are forced to change.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Discuss Y’Tin’s attitude toward school. Why is his mother so determined that he complete his education? Cite evidence that Y’Tin is willing to learn in spite of his rebellion against school. When the North Vietnamese become a threat to the Rhade tribe, Y’Tin’s family is forced to leave the village. Explain why Y’Tin suddenly wants to go to school when he no longer has to.

Y’Tin spends a lot of time daydreaming and thinking.  He explains the difference to his mother: “Daydreaming is thinking about things that aren’t true yet. Thinking is when you ponder matters that are already true.” What “truth” does Y’Tin ponder the most? Which “truth” hurts the most?  Debate whether Y’Tin’s daydreams come true.  Discuss Lady’s role in helping Y’Tin realize his dream.

Y’Tin says that next to his father, Tomas is the man that he most admires. What is it about Tomas that Y’Tin admires?  What causes Tomas to turn on Y’Tin? How does this change Y’Tin’s admiration for Tomas? When do Tomas and Y’Juen become “we,” casting Y’Tin aside? Y’Tin’s father has always told him that the jungle changes a man.  Debate whether it’s the jungle that changes Tomas and Y’Juen or something else.

Y’Tin thinks a lot about betrayal.  Debate whether the Rhade feel betrayed by the Americans. How do Tomas and Y’Juen have a different idea of betrayal than Y’Tin? Tomas and Y’Juen think that Y’Tin’s father betrayed his people.  Debate whether he was actually working on behalf of his people. Y’Tin says that he would rather die than betray his people. Discuss whether Tomas and Y’Juen would make that pledge.

Explain what Y’Tin’s father means when he says, “We must use the jungle as a weapon.”

At the beginning of the novel, Y’Tin is a boy, and at the end he is a man. At what point does he realize that he has become a man? Y’Tin feels sad that he is no longer a boy. What does he miss most about childhood? What might Y’Tin say was the toughest part about becoming a man?

Earlier Y’Tin refers to Tomas as a man. Discuss whether Tomas displays the qualities of manhood. How is Y’Tin a bigger man that Tomas and Y’Juen?

Fear overtakes the Rhade tribe as the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong threaten their village. Y’Tin’s father tells him that he has to face what’s happening. When Y’Tin says that he isn’t scared, his father replies, “Then you’re not thinking straight.” Why is it important for Y’Tin to feel fear?  How might fear keep Y’Tin focused and cautious? Discuss other times when Y’Tin comes face-to-face with fear. How does he deal with each situation?

Explain why Y’Tin’s father calls the war the American War. Why are the North Vietnamese especially interested in men like Y’Tin’s father? How does his father’s work with the Americans make the entire Rhade tribe vulnerable?

Y’Tin’s father worries that the North Vietnamese might capture Y’Tin, strip him of his identity, and put him in a reeducation camp. What do these camps teach?How might the North Vietnamese be more interested in someone like Y’Tin than in Tomas or Y’Juen? Discuss how these camps are really about revenge.

Y’Tin’s father is a wise man, and recognizes that different situations require different types of leaders.  Describe Y’Tin as a leader. Why is he more qualified to lead in the jungle than Tomas or Y’Juen? 

Y’Tin speaks a lot about fate, spirits, sacrifices, etc. How does this reflect the religion of his people? Explain the role of the village shaman. Y’Tin struggles to deal with the sudden anger and hatred that has filled his heart after the North Vietnamese bombs his village. Why does he think that lying on Lady’s back will cleanse his heart? How are their spirits connected?
Photo Credit:

Cynthia Kadohata is the author of the Newbery Medal–winning book Kira-Kira, the National Book Award winner The Thing About Luck, the Jane Addams Peace Award and PEN America Award winner WeedflowerCracker!, Outside BeautyA Million Shades of GrayHalf a World Away, Checked, A Place to Belong, and several critically acclaimed adult novels, including The Floating World. She lives with her dog and hockey-playing son in California. Visit her online at CynthiaKadohata.com.

Keith Nobbs has appeared on Broadway in The Lion In Winter and off-Broadway in Dog Sees God, Romance, The Hasty Heart, Bye Bye Birdie, Dublin Carol, and Four (Lucille Lortel Award, Drama Desk Nomination). His film credits include Phone Booth, Double Whammy, and 25th Hour. Television credits include The Black Donnellys (series regular), Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and The Sopranos.

  • CCBC Choices (Cooperative Children's Book Council)
  • ILA Notable Books for a Global Society
  • California Collections
  • Writer's League of Texas Finalist

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