Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: I MUST BETRAY YOU by Ruta Sepetys
Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee Member Courtney Hague
Let’s take a look at the book I MUST BETRAY YOU by Ruta Sepetys in terms of a couple of the Newbery criteria.
First, I MUST BETRAY YOU excels in its delineation of setting. Ruta Sepetys takes us to a time and place that is not often spoken of. The year is 1989 and we arrive in Bucharest, Romania, to follow Cristian, a 17 year old high school student, as he navigates life in one of the most oppressive Communist regimes. Cristian describes where he lives this way:
When the power snapped off in the winter, the dark was instantly deep. The windows became a glaze of ice inside and out. Even when the electricity was on, the temperature in our apartment rarely rose above 12 degrees Celsius, which was 54 degrees Fahrenheit (pg 69).
For a setting that is not well-known, Sepetys paints a picture that is so detailed and precise you can almost feel the cold, fear, and hunger.
Its interpretation of theme is also quite salient. The themes of trust and suspicion run throughout this novel. Who can be trusted? What does it mean to trust and what can guilt or suspicion do to you? These are questions that are explored through Cristian’s experience. As an informant, Cristian knows that he cannot be trusted but once he has been tapped as an informant, he becomes even more suspicious of everyone around him. His paranoia slowly ramps up throughout the story until he does not trust his best friend, his girlfriend, or even his sister, even as he wants to protect them.
The scene where Cristian’s classmate breaks and shouts about being an informant in class gives us a glimpse into Cristian’s future. He could easily snap. At one point, Cristian thinks:
A lie is like a snowball. It rolls, becomes bigger, heavier, and eventually, it’s difficult to lift. I had thought I was strong. But how much weight could I actually carry? (pg. 115).
As the novel progresses, the reader can feel the weight of the guilt and suspicion on Cristian. It is palpable. As Cristian wrestles with his desire to tell someone what he has done, but also struggles with the knowledge that his own sister has been an informant as well, we, as readers, also do not know what Cristian should do or where he should turn.
Sepetys transports us as readers to a unique time and place in history and makes us feel as if we are experiencing it with the people there. This feat is accomplished through her masterful use of both setting and theme and her thorough descriptions and precise details.
Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST.
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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