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Alumna Ruta Sepetys’ New York Times best­sellers are being adapted for film / Courtesy Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys has three best­selling novels under her belt, but the ’89 Hillsdale College alumna’s first book was banned — by the parents of her 3rd-grade class­mates.

“The Adven­tures of Betsy,” written in a notebook with a scratch-and-sniff pickle on the cover, drew pop­u­larity from 8-year-olds but wary glances from parents. Dis­couraged, Sepetys put her writing career on hold until a series of events led her back to sto­ry­telling and unex­pected promi­nence. Decades later, her three New York Times best­sellers have been trans­lated into 37 lan­guages and pub­lished in 53 coun­tries. Two are even being adapted for film, “which is just so surreal,” she said.

“I knew I always wanted to be an author, but that [book banning] stole my courage,” said Sepetys, who was named a dis­tin­guished alumna for this month’s Alumni Awards Banquet on home­coming weekend. (Sepetys said she can’t attend the event because she’s touring for her latest release, “Salt to the Sea.”)

“Really, I’ve come back to what I’ve always dreamed of doing, but in order to do that I had to find the courage,” she said.

Setting writing aside, Sepetys focused on other skills during her under­graduate years at Hillsdale. She studied inter­na­tional business and French and took courses at a graduate school in France, where she juggled Japanese and Spanish classes and a job with Air­France. At Hillsdale, she delved into the music program, joining the choir and par­tic­i­pating in musicals.

“She had a beau­tiful voice,” said Kris Korn­meier, Sepetys’ “big sister” in the Chi Omega sorority, remem­bering that Sepetys sang at events around campus. “She was such a per­fec­tionist — every­thing she did, she did so beau­ti­fully.”

Sepetys didn’t divulge her writing skills in college, but her friends remember her gift for weaving a story.

“She’s always been a great sto­ry­teller,” said Connie Sisinyak Buick, Sepetys’ freshman roommate. “You could take the most ordinary event, and when she told the story, it was no longer ordinary.”

Sepetys took her sto­ry­telling skills into her first job. After grad­u­ating from Hillsdale in December of 1989 (but walking the stage in May 1990 because “that was my class”), Sepetys jumped into artist man­agement in Los Angeles, Cal­i­fornia, helping musi­cians tell their stories through songs.

“It was excellent training ground for becoming an author,” she said. “Studying song structure was so helpful, because a song is essen­tially a three-minute story. I really learned to distill story through my work in the music business.”

In 2003, Sepetys started her own music business in Nashville, Ten­nessee, working with artists such as Grammy-award winner Steve Vai, country singer Eric Church, and rock band Lit.

“Part of my job was always asking someone, ‘What is the story here?’” Sepetys said. “And one day, one of the musi­cians asked me, ‘Ruta, what is your story?’”

Sepetys took the question back to her Lithuanian roots. Her father fled the European country as a 4-year-old during the Soviet occu­pation and spent nine years in refugee camps before the U.S. allowed him in through the Dis­placed Persons Act. Sepetys’ family settled in Detroit, where Sepetys grew up.

“All throughout school and college life and working, those are things I’ve always kept in mind and that I believe have led me now to write the type of lit­er­ature I now write about people who were not able to tell their story,” Sepetys said. “Why are some parts of history part of our col­lective con­sciousness and other parts hidden?”

Deciding to write about the “horrors of total­i­tar­i­anism” like the ones her family expe­ri­enced, Sepetys pub­lished her first novel, “Between Shades of Gray,” in 2011. The his­torical fiction book follows a young Lithuanian girl who’s deported with her family to Siberia.

Jet­ti­soning her music business to become a full-time author, Sepetys has thrown herself wholly into her books: She reads primary sources and travels to the coun­tries where her stories take place, immersing herself in the cul­tures and inter­viewing people with stories for her to tell.

Calling herself a “seeker of lost stories,” Sepetys writes his­torical fiction “crossover” stories that engage both children and adults, focusing on tales of sur­vivors of oppression in the not-so-distant past.

Sepetys said lis­tening to sur­vivors’ stories has “trans­formed” her.

“Lis­tening is an act of love,” she said. “We live in such a busy time period where pro­duc­tivity is rewarded often over presence. Really to listen is to be gentle with one another and to be able to look through another person’s eyes and con­sider their heart.”

With two more his­torical fiction books in her reper­toire — “Out of the Easy” and “Salt to the Sea” — Sepetys travels the world to deliver lec­tures on her books and the his­torical sub­jects she writes about. Her work has earned her the Carnegie Medal and the Cross of the Knight of the Order from the Lithuanian pres­ident.

It’s ful­filling but over­whelming, she said, but the familiar Hillsdale face that occa­sionally shows up at her events is com­forting.

“So much of my writing success comes from my friends who believed in me,” she said. “At almost every event, there’s someone from Hillsdale — people have traveled all over.”

Her Hillsdale friends remember her just as fondly, recalling her humility, talent, hard work ethic, and love for fun. Buick remem­bered singing with Sepetys to Bon Jovi and Madonna in the dorm room and described Sepetys as adven­turous and enthu­si­astic.

“She was great at telling stories, made you want to listen — you grav­i­tated to Ruta,” said Michelle Gumbko, another Chi Omega friend of Sepetys, in an email. “She was mes­mer­izing. I always knew Ruta would be amazing, although I wouldn’t of thought of her as being a famous author.”

The three women said they stay in touch with Sepetys, who sends them Christmas cards and gifts from time to time. Sepetys has always been loyal and thoughtful, Buick said.

Sepetys, who lives in Ten­nessee, is working on a fourth novel at the moment, set in Madrid, Spain, during the dic­ta­torship of Fran­cisco Franco in the 1950s. As always, she’s pouring herself into the task: She rented an apartment in Spain and has traveled there six times to com­plete her research.

Korn­meier said she plans to see Sepetys’ pre­sen­tation on “Salt to the Sea” — just released in paperback — in Cleveland next week.

“She’s a great sto­ry­teller,” Korn­meier said. “That’s such a talent, and she found it, and she’s sharing it with the world.”