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Ruta Sepetys: I Must Betray You – Carnegie Shadowers’ winner 2023

Cover Of I Must Betray You By Ruta Sepetys

This year the Carnegie Shadowers award is a medal, the equal of the Carnegie Medal for Writing. The winner is Ruta Sepetys with her historical YA spy novel, I Must Betray You.

A portrait of Ruta Sepetys, a review of I Must Betray You, and reviews of the other shortlisted books from myself and Hope Valley College’s Carnegievores shadowing group.

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About Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys (Rūta Šepetys) was born in Michigan, USA in 1966, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. Her historical fiction books are generally considered to be crossovers, published as YA and widely read across the world by all ages. She has received multiple awards and recognitions, and some of her books have been made into movies.

Ruta Sepetys won the Carnegie Medal for Writing in 2017 with Salt to the Sea. This powerful novel is about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustav during World War II, when over nine thousand German evacuees drowned.

In 2019 her Spanish Civil War novel, The Fountains of Silence, was on the Carnegie shortlist.

Her novel Between Shades of Gray has been made into a powerful and chilling movie called Ashes in the Snow. It tells the story of 15-year-old Lina, sent with her family to a labour camp during the second world war. The film is beautifully made and just as harrowing as the novel.

Ruta Sepetys photo by Magda Starowieyska
Ruta Sepetys. Photo: Magda Starowieyska.

About ‘I Must Betray You’

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Published by: Hodder Children’s Books, 2022. Available from Amazon.

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The novel is set in Romania at the time of the Ceaușescu regime. Under his communist dictatorship, all Western and particularly American influences are denied. It is a period of dread and fear, of whispers, secrets, terror and threats. People were starving while he lived in luxury.

In Sepetys’ words:

Imagine a dark world of enforced obedience. Your electricity and nourishment are controlled and women’s fertility belongs to the State. And to ensure that you conform, secret police are tracking you and spying on you through hidden surveillance devices in walls, ashtrays, and window frames. They’re recruiting and blackmailing people to inform on one another, creating an atmosphere of paranoia and fear.

Spies and informers

The central character is Cristian, a seventeen-year-old student who lives in Bucharest with his parents, his sister Cici and his grandfather Bunu. Cristian himself is being monitored by the Secretate, the secret police. Because of his acquaintance with Dan, the son of an American diplomat in Bucharest, he is forced to be an Informer. He must spy on his friend’s family, and in return, he is promised that his beloved Bunu, who is dying of leukaemia, will receive medication. For Cristian there is no option. His only hope is to try to find a way of double-crossing the Secretate.

From then on he is shadowed by doubts and fears. Who will find out? His best friend? His new girlfriend? His classmates? His family? If he is a spy, who else is? No-one is safe, informers and spies are everywhere, Bunu tells him. ‘Agents. Informers. Rats. This country is full of them. We are infested. And they keep multiplying. They are in our streets, in our schools, crawling through our workplaces, and now they’ve chewed through our walls – grandfather looked at me meaningfully, – into our apartment.’

Why Ruta Sepetys chose to write about communist Romania

Ruta Sepetys’ father was a victim of communism in Lithuania, and at four years old was forced to flee the country and become a refugee.

During an author tour in Romania Sepetys was horrified to learn about the plight of more than twenty million Romanians who were forcibly cut off from the world during the dicator’s regime. ‘When citizens raised their voices in the street, the dictator gunned down his own people. The endurance and bravery of the Romanians was astounding but the story remains unknown to many.’

Why did she choose to write the story as a spy novel?

Spying was part of Romanian life during this regime. The secret police blackmailed and recruited people to spy for them, even students and young children. They promised them food or medicine in exchange for information about possible dissidents in their communities and families.

Is Cristian based on anyone?

Cristian is a fictional character, but he represents the young people who joined the revolution against the regime. He captures that spirit of young bravery and sacrifice, the generation that risked everything in order to stand up for their beliefs in a free Romania. The cost was enormous, but as the author reflects, ‘What is the cost of freedom? In 1989 amidst the grip of tyranny, brave Romanians risked everything for revolution and I’m incredibly honored to tell their story.’

My thoughts about ‘I Must Betray You’

I’m not at all surprised that I Must Betray You won the Carnegie Shadowers Award for 2023. The novel is highly informative, appealing to young readers’ sense of justice and heroism in the face of real tyranny. It is based on the true facts of a recent dictatorship which is still within living memory, and which is echoed in many countries still. Yet it is by no means journalistic or documentary writing.

It’s also a very exciting read: 

I stared at the agent in front of me. A shivery sweat glazed my palms and an invisible moth flapped in my windpipe. In Romania, the Securitate carried more power than the military. This man could destroy us. He could put our family under increased surveillance. He could ruin my opportunity to attend university. He could have my parents fired. Or worse.

Cristian is put into an impossible situation when he given the choice: to provide personal information about his American friend’s family or face the prospect of watching his grandfather die without his essential medicine. Put in his place, what would any young man choose to do? He has no-one to turn to for advice or help. The only thing he knows for sure is that he is surrounded by spies.

I have never really been a follower of spy stories, as, like detective stories, they are often formulaic, relying on the elements of guesswork and surprise to keep the reader engaged – who else is a secret agent, who else is a suspect? But this novel, with its short chapters and pacy writing, is an irresistibly page-turning read. Christian’s moral dilemma is agonising, his developing romantic friendship with Liliana is touching and beautiful, and his aim to tell the world about Romania’s plight is heroic.

Historical context

The story it tells of the plight of a country under a dictatorship, the fear and subjection of the people who are powerless to speak out for fear of betrayal, further starvation and death, has of course been repeated throughout history, within living memory, and in the world today.

In Tudor times, betrayal was a way of life. The courts of Elizabeth I were places of whispers and intrigue, with betrayal and death lurking in every shadow. Countless novels have explored this period, including my own Treason.

In Eastern Germany under the Stasi, civilians were forced to be informants: nobody knew who might be watching them. Again, many novels about the secret police have been inspired by this period.

The terrible events of history make for exciting reading; political events of this magnitude are more easily absorbed through fiction. I Must Betray You powerfully evokes the atmosphere of total, helpless fear.

I find myself recommending I Must Betray You to many people of all ages.

Congratulations Ruta Sepetys for your deserved Carnegie Medal.

Well done, Carnegie Shadowers, for making such a powerful choice.

Reviews from some of the Hope Valley College Shadowers (‘Carnegievores’)

This is my favourite book out of this year’s shortlist, because it provides a very interesting perspective on the communist regime in Romania. I like how the book explores an area of history that, whilst being very important and influential, is often ignored. Furthermore the characters and the rising tension and suspense make this book enjoyable to read. 

Arthur

Love this book; it‘s an amazing story. The mix between real life situations and the suspense from the secrets is perfect.

Edith

I enjoyed this book about the Romanian revolution. I also learnt a lot from it and didn’t want it to finish. There is a lot of mistrust, mysteries, some love, conflict and betrayal in it. I liked how Cristian enjoyed just a can of Coke or chocolate so much, and how he wished to have a banana, or was amazed at all the food in an American house in a video. When all the protestors came together to fight off Ceauçsescu, it seemed really beautiful.

There was a bit of violence at the end and some mysteries were left open for you to decide what happened next. It made me grateful for how our country is. I’d recommend it to anyone really, but especially to people who are interested in the Iron Curtain etc. Overall, a great book. 

Zoe

Who are the Carnegie shadowers?

For several years now groups of mainly young readers in schools and libraries throughout the UK have been shadowing the Carnegie shortlist and making their choice of a winning novel. On a given date, all shadowers are invited to submit their choice.

I’m often invited to join the shadowers group from my nearest secondary school, Hope Valley College, to talk about their selection and to hear the important announcement on Carnegie Day. Oh, and to show them my own medals too!

The photo shows us enjoying a celebration lunch in the school library on the announcement day.

Last year’s group of HVC shadowers made the same choice as the Carnegie judges and the overall shadowers in selecting Katya Balen’s beautiful October, October for both awards.

This year the members of the HVC group weren’t always in agreement! Between them their choices covered the entire shortlist, which was very interesting. So here below are some reviews from the group, and a quick summary of all the shortlisted novels. As I explained to the group, each of these novels is on the shortlist because the Carnegie judges had deemed them to be worthy of winning the Carnegie medal 2023.

Berlie Doherty with the Hope Valley College ‘Carnegievores’ Carnegie Shadowers, 2023
Berlie Doherty with the Hope Valley College ‘Carnegievores’ Carnegie Shadowers, 2023

The Carnegie Shortlist 2023

Here is a short summary of the books shortlisted for the 2023 Carnegie Award:

THE WINNER: Manon Steffan Ros: ‘The Blue Book of Nebo’

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Published by Firefly Press, 2022. Available from Amazon.

The winner of the 2023 Carnegie Award. See my previous blog post The Blue Book of Nebo for my review, and those of some of the Hope Valley College Shadowers.

Patrice Lawrence: ‘Needle’

Needle is a short, easy read about a difficult situation. Charlene knits to hide her emotions. After her mum dies she is cared for by a foster mother Annie, and is separated from her beloved little sister Kandi, who lives with their dad. Her foster mother’s son Blake destroys a dinosaur blanket Charlene is making for Kandi. Charlene stabs his hand with a knitting needle. NOW SHE IS A CRIMINAL, SHE’S BLACK, AND SHE’S A JUVENILE. There are lots of discussion points here.

Patrice Lawrence writes for adults and children, and her first YA book, Orange Boy, won several major awards and nominations.

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Published by Barrington Stoke, 2022. Available from Amazon.

This book was a very quick and easy read for me. I liked how Charlene loved her sister Kandi so much, and wanted to make her something special. Then Blake messes it up and bullies her so she stabs him with her knitting needles. I found it nice that Shelly, Vera and the people in the police station were nice to her. At the end it sort of leaves it open for you to decide what happens next which I found good. I would recommend it to people who want a quick but powerful read. 

Zoe

I really loved reading Needle, because I found it incredibly inspirational, as it includes standing up against what is not fair and I think that is a really important thing to do. I also found the book fascinating, as it delves into Charlene’s complex mind, and it was so interesting to see how it worked. The book really gave me knowledge that I had always wanted to understand before. However, I thought that Needle was slightly unfinished and I wanted to see if everything went OK in the end, like with an epilogue.

Martha

Jessie Burton: ‘Medusa’

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Published by Bloomsbury, 2021. Available from Amazon.

A girl looks down from a high cliff, sees a young man in a boat, and falls in love with him. She is Medusa, turned into a Gorgon with snakes for hair by Athena, the daughter of Zeus, and doomed to a lonely, loveless life on an island. He is Perseus, son of Zeus. As they reveal the truth about themselves, and as Perseus tells Medusa of the terrible task he has been set, they realise that their love has been doomed from the start. Now that they know the truth, what must they do about it?

The book is a beautiful Bloomsbury presentation, a full-colour novella with illustrations by Olivia Lamenech Gill.

Jessie Burton, author of the million best seller The Miniaturist, has a terrific writing voice, muscular and vivid, and this story is immensely readable. Medusa is a teenage love story based on the classic Greek myth of the Gorgon Medusa, and is her first YA novel. The paperback edition will be published in December 2023. This book was the favourite choice of the HVC Carnegie Shadowers.

In my opinion, Medusa is a beautiful book. I liked the illustrations a lot because they fitted well with the story. I hadn’t heard of the myth about Medusa before, but still enjoyed this book. It was easy to sympathise with her and I liked the way her sisters looked after her and cared for her. When Perseus betrayed Medusa and tried to kill her, it seemed very mean, but I felt that I could still see his reasons and his side of the story, and felt a little sorry for him. I would recommend it to people who like Greek myths and love stories.

Zoe

I thought that Jessie Burton’s Medusa was a fantastic read and had me entranced as soon as I turned the first page. The amazing paintings were mesmerising, and really brought the story to life. I loved this new take on Medusa, as the victim, since I had only vaguely heard of her as a beastly monster. However, it was difficult for the story to flow as the pictures were placed quite randomly in the middle of sentences. Overall, I loved the book, and thought it was completely empowering and moving. 

Martha

I enjoyed this retelling of a Greek myth. It is told from the perspective of Medusa and explores her backstory and how she came to be the lady with a head full of snakes. The illustrations are beautiful and definitely add a touch of magic. Overall, an enlightening read! 

Claire

Louise Finch: ‘The Eternal Return of Clara Hart’

In Louise Finch’s shortlisted novel, the main teenage character Spence keeps reliving the death of Clara after an extremely drunken party at his friend Anthony’s house. Clara dies and then she comes to life again, time after time. Is Spence to be trapped in this cycle of horror and grief for ever? But little by little, things begin to change for him.

Very believable authentic dialogue and misogynistic behaviour of some mid-older teenage boys.

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Published by Little Island Books, 2022. Available from Amazon.

Overall review of The Eternal Return of Clara Hart: In the beginning, though it was the whole point of the story, I was afraid that the day would just keep repeating over and over, it would get nowhere and would quickly become an extremely tedious read. However, I was pleasantly surprised when, instead of repeating the same day and learning nothing, we actually delve into the different characters, what makes them who they are and their flaws. For example, we learnt about Clara as an actual person, someone with her own life and own goals and struggles instead of just an objective for Spencer (the main character) to save.

We also see Spencer come to terms with a lot of things in his life, the loss of an important person, how toxic a friendship he had was among many other things. However, for me, the book really went downhill as we headed toward the climax/ending of the book. It was a massive let-down and, though the author was trying to portray a message that “in reality, we only ever have one chance to do something and make a change”, it was executed poorly and just left a sour taste in your mouth. The ending had so much potential, and yet it just felt unfinished. Though I will say I did enjoy to see Spencer mature and realize the effect his actions had on others.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is dealing with loss or even struggling to get over something, whether it be mentally, physically or emotionally; this may help you realise your feelings are valid and it’s okay to mourn. 

Abbey

Sita Brahmachari: ‘When Shadows Fall’

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Published by Little Tiger, 2023. Available from Amazon.

Sita Brahmachari’s novel is a complex and emotionally charged story about three friends, Kai, Zak and Orla, who create a den in a wild patch of land near their houses. It is their hideaway, their sanctuary, and it’s where they come to terms with the tragedy that will shake their lives. Several tremendously difficult issues are explored with care and thoughtful writing, but younger readers may find some of it distressing.

When Shadows Fall is a Reading Agency Shelf Help Book endorsed by Amnesty International. It is also an Empathy Lab choice. It was a Guardian and Times Book of the Year.

I enjoyed reading When Shadows Fall, but it was a bit confusing at the start. I didn’t always know whether Kai was writing about what had happened, what was happening, or not at all. I also didn’t know if the ravens were actually talking or if Kai was just imagining it. The book was very emotional at times and I liked that his friends tried to help him and cared about him, and that Zac even tried to take some of his detentions for him. It really showed how important friends and family are.

I would recommend this book to people who have lost someone close to them, or need to be reminded how important friends are. 

Zoe

I didn’t find When Shadows Fall an easy or a comfortable read, but it grew on me. The narrative, shared between three main characters, some written stiffly in the words of a non-native English speaker, interspersed with poetry and chopping from voice to voice and back and forth in time, makes it a book that needs the reader’s full concentration. The storytelling itself is initially slow and introspective throughout as each writer offers their own perspective on the events which lead them from childhood to the brink of adulthood.

Physically it’s an attractive book – pleasing in size and shape, with an enticing cover and beautiful illustrations by Natalie Sirett, drawn in charcoal “to make art from scorched earth”. Her black feathers divide up the text and her characterful ravens are a constant presence, as they are to Kai through the story. It’s a story of grief, loss and sadness, but also a study of friendship as the four friends support each other through tragedy and breakdown and ultimately into recovery and hope. I’m glad I persevered.

Harriet

Katya Balen: ‘The Light in Everything’

This is another beautifully written book by last year’s winner of the Carnegie Medal and the Shadowers Award. It is a two-voice narrative by shy, nervous Tom: ‘The nights are worst because I am so afraid of the creeping darkness and it’s when my thoughts are loudest’ and wild-tempered, difficult Zofia, ‘I was born in a storm. The sky cracked with lightning and thunder shook the sea’. The two troubled children are thrown together when Tom’s mother and Zofia’s father fall in love. Can Zofia and Tom accept the new parents, the expected baby, and each other?

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Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2023. Available from Amazon.

The Light in Everything is an enjoyable heart-warming book that highlights the need for empathy by contrasting two opposite characters that can both be empathised with, and exploring their relationship. It offers a great and interesting story, told through two very different perspectives. I would rate it 8 out of 10. 

Arthur

The Light in Everything was a wonderful book, and I loved it. The short chapters allowed breaks, and made the book seem fresh, so you could read for hours at a time! I thought the different points of view, from Tom and Zofia, allowed me to really understand what was happening and made the book unpredictable and very interesting. The plot was perfect, as it contained a relatable but complex concept. The Light in Everything gave me so many emotions and it was amazing. 

Martha

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. Zofia and Tom are very different characters, and at the start of the book I found it quite hard to understand Tom, and felt like Zofia was the nicer person. But later on I found that I could see both of their sides and I saw Tom differently to at the start. The end was very easy to predict. I would probably recommend this book, and give it 4/5.

Zoe

Over to you

Perhaps you could suggest other books about recent political situation that will be appealing to YA readers. Please put your recommendations in the box below.

Berlie Doherty

Berlie Doherty is the author of the best-selling novel, Street Child, and over 60 more books for children, teenagers and adults, and has written many plays for radio, theatre and television. She has been translated into over twenty languages and has won many awards, including the Carnegie medal for both Granny Was a Buffer Girl and Dear Nobody, and the Writers’ Guild Award for both Daughter of the Sea and the theatre version of Dear Nobody. She has three children and seven grandchildren, and lives in the Derbyshire Peak District with Alan James Brown. Her brand new novel for ages 10–14, The Haunted Hills, is out now, as is her novel for adults, Rose Doran Dreams. See the About me page for more information.

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