There are few artists and performers who inspire teenagers to embark on a lengthy bus ride, but for one high school student, it was a black and white decision to make the journey for the author of Between Shades of Gray. Sixteen-year-old Whitney Hamilton traveled 12 hours by bus from her home in Austin to see Amarillo College Common Reader author Ruta Sepetys. “My eighth grade year, when it first came out, it was in the Scholastic Book Fair … and I read the summary and I was like, ‘I want this book,’ but I didn’t have the money for it, so my best friend bought it for my birthday and I read it, and I fell in love with it.” Hamilton said she was reading Sepetys’ website when she discovered the author would be speaking in Texas. Initially Hamilton’s mother was planning to drive her to Amarillo for the author lecture, but the family car broke down and they did not have enough money for repairs.
Traveling by bus meant leaving late at night and missing two days of school for the approximately hour-and-a-half long lecture. Hamilton said it was worth every minute of the trip. “The best part was just seeing her and listening to her,” she said. “My teachers told me that she really knows how to talk and explain things, and it literally made my day listening to her.” Hamilton, who attends Westwood High School in Austin, also has read Sepetys’ second novel, Out of the Easy. At the book signing following the lecture, Sepetys gave her a copy of an unpublished galley of her third book, Salt to the Sea, which comes out in February. “Thank you so much for coming so far,” said Sepetys, hugging her young fan and posing with her for pictures. “An author is nothing without readers. This means so much to me.” The other audience members packed into Ordway Hall to attend Sepetys’ lecture may not have traveled as far as Hamilton, but many shared her devotion to the historical fiction author. Mechanical engineering major Mugisha Aime said he was excited to meet Sepetys because he feels very connected to her novel. “From the first time I saw her book, I wanted to meet her because it was like, this person is writing my story.” Aime came to America in 2010 from a refugee camp in Tanzania after his life was torn apart by the Rwandan genocide.
He said Sepetys’ writing reminds him of how his parents made sure their culture and family memories were preserved. “It inspired me so much because it’s me,” Aime said. He noted that someday he hopes to write about his family history. About 450 audience members, including groups of students from Ascension Academy, Bonham Middle School and Amarillo High, filled the auditorium. Several people stood up for the entire speech, after which Sepetys answered questions from Student Media and audience members. A huge crowd stayed for the book signing after the presentation, which lasted more than an hour. Sepetys took time to talk to each person, took photos with many and gave several hugs. Courtney Milleson, student success coordinator and an academic adviser, said, “Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys was a home run selection. “Students overwhelmingly enjoyed the book and their visit with Ms. Sepetys. Without reservation, I would say Between Shades of Gray is one of our top three Common Reader experiences.”
“The lecture went really well,” said Tiffany Reynolds, a general studies major and a Presidential Scholar. “We had a full turnout. All the seats were full,” “I loved it,” said Shawrlette Uy, a business administration major. “I was basically teary-eyed the whole time.” “Ms. Sepetys was a great speaker and really explained everything and told a lot about her book,” said Sheldon Dustman, a general studies major. “I think what surprised me the most was how engaging she was,” said Lily Gamble, a mass media major. “Her genuineness and her engagement with all the students and faculty on campus was really impressive.” The Presidential Scholars will travel to Lithuania in January to carry out a service-learning project. Reynolds said the upcoming trip made the lecture more meaningful. “Ruta explained the personal impact and the meaning of the book to her and kind of knowing what she felt about it and how it related to her family and that it was her story. That resonates greatly with me,” Reynolds said. “I understand now the meaning and importance and how much passion she had going into the book, and going to Lithuania in January, I am going to be more appreciative of where I am and the culture and the strong sense of nationality they have.” Sepetys spent her entire day on the Washington Street Campus.