Award-winning author Ruta Sepetys visited Avenues New York (and presented via webcast to our São Paolo campus) this winter to share her stories and life’s work for grades 5–8. Students learned about her writing and research processes, as well as the somewhat unconventional methods she sometimes undertakes for these processes. Her historical fiction books are inspired by real-life events in history that few know about; for that reason, she calls herself a “seeker of lost stories.” She shared how telling these stories helps to develop empathy, and how powerful the human spirit can be despite the worst of struggles.
Ruta has written three New York Times bestsellers. Her first novel, Between Shades of Gray (later republished with the name Ashes in the Snow) tells the story of a Lithuanian teenager who finds her entire world in upheaval when she is forced to deport Lithuania by Soviet Secret Police with her mother and younger brother—and sent to Siberia. The hardships she endures are heartbreaking, but she struggles to maintain her faith in humanity while her passion—art—may very well help save her life. The book was recently released as a film, Ashes in the Snow. In Out of the Easy, New Orleans teen Josie struggles with trying to escape the life she’s always had for a better life—in an elite college—while she tries to find out who murdered a man in the Big Easy. Her third book, Salt to the Sea, tells the tale of various characters who are fleeing to freedom on a boat at the end of World War II. Unfortunately, the boat Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by the Soviets, making it the biggest single maritime disaster in history.
Ruta shared her writing and research process with students at Avenues. She was inspired to write Between Shades of Gray by her family’s own history - her grandparents and father fled Lithuania, and her father spent the bulk of his childhood living in a refugee camp in Austria. While researching in Lithuania, she discovered when her father’s family left, other members of his family were punished for this by being sent to Siberia - the majority of whom died. This very fact influenced the plot of Between Shades of Gray. By speaking with the her family and other survivors, who were often reluctant to speak, she was able to uncover the truth of their stories, and share what really happened.
She chose some rather unconventional research methods. She asked to be locked up in a train car, a train car that had actually sent people to Siberia from Lithuania. She had hoped it would give her insight into what they experienced, but she realized the experience barely touched upon what they went through. After she was willingly locked into a former prison/Soviet gulag that operated like it once had (but via very serious and realistic role playing), she experienced hardship and cruelty and helplessness at its worst—but also learned of the power of compassion and help. When speaking with survivors, they all shared that the help of others was what made it possible for them to survive. Ruta saw that for herself, after experiencing this in that horrific prison lock-in that left her returning to the U.S. in a wheelchair.
Ruta discussed the importance of failure—through failure, we learn what is important, and by persevering, we are able to ultimately achieve success. It took her first novel nearly a year to find a publisher—she refused to give up, and by persisting, she published an award-winning book that shines light on a very important forgotten time of history.
The 8th graders experimented in a writing workshop, experiencing everyone writing the start to a story with the same prompt—and everyone having very different results.
Ruta’s next book takes place in Franco-era Spain. She shared that it took many years of research. It will be published in October under the title The Fountains of Silence. We can’t wait to read it!