The novel A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata is a thoughtful and compelling book, but I think it would work better with middle-school or high school students.  The book tells the story of Y’Tin, a boy who achieves his dream of becoming an elephant handler.  The story is set in Vietnam, mostly in 1975, after the US troops have left.

Some of the subject matter of this novel would captivate and charm students in the age range of 4th and 5th grade.  The early parts of the novel, while Y’Tin describes his relationship with Lady, his elephant, are lyrical and sweet.  For example, at one point, he thinks of how Lady greets him:  “He always thought of the trunk as being at the center of an elephant, just as the heart was the center of a human.  Sometimes, when Lady was especially happy to see him, she wrapped her trunk around him and squeezed, knocking the air out of him.  He should probably scold her for that, but he didn’t want her to think he didn’t love her.”

But the novel soon turns much darker.  When Y’Tin’s village is overrun by enemy troops, people try to flee, but he ends up among the captured.  He and his friends are forced to dig what will become a mass grave for all the captured people.  While Kadohata has most of this genocide occur outside of the character’s view, we are all painfully aware that is happening. 

This book would be great in a classroom where the students are learning about the Vietnam War.  But I think that the kids in 4th and 5th grades are just too young to handle this sort of material.  Middle-schoolers are more ready to cope with the moral ambiguities that Y’Tin encounters.