An open letter to potential Children’s Book Authors

Dear Potential Children’s Book Author,

I understand, really I do, that the use of the "orphan" is one of the most common and popular literary devices out there. Many of out greatest heros and heroines are orphans. I get it, you want to make your hero or heroine so sympathetic that in your literary bag of tricks you thought, "Aha! I know, I’ll make my main character an orphan!" That way you get to craft a story line that would make Joseph Campbell proud and your little Horatio Alger orphan-child can, with inevitable pluck and determination, find their "true self" by page 32.

Or maybe you got your idea to write this book because you/your best friend/sister/next door neighbor adopted a child and it inspired you. I’m sure you didn’t think that maybe you should talk to more people about how adopted children developmentally respond to issues of adoption, especially if they are transracially or transnationally adopted.

Or maybe you don’t know anyone who was adopted or is an orphan, you just thought it was a neat idea. Oh, and maybe you thought it would be "cute" to play the whole mistaken-identity bit, because yeah, we transracial adoptees definitely relate to that. Not that we’re necessarily you’re targeted audience, I know, but chances are some of the 100,000 of us adopted to the U.S. in the past 5 years from other countries might come across your book

But some unsolicitied advice: stop it now, before you write something incredibly stupid or demeaning. Think about all the adopted children in the elementary classrooms and children’s libraries who will be reading this book.

Here are some other suggestions. Give us a name. Don’t just make us characters that are so unimportant that we can’t have a name – especially when the other characters get to have names. Here is another suggestion. Don’t try to "racialize" us, especially if we are anthropomorphic characters, by giving us slanty eyes or dressing us in folk costumes. If we’re adopted from one Asian country, don’t insult us by thinking you can substitute another Asian culture and we’ll be suddenly satisfied. And for goodness sake, don’t perpetuate racist stereotypes in your title! And in fact, we are NOT anthropomorphic characters. Please don’t justify transracial adoption by making birds look for bear, alligator or pig parents, or mother birds relinquishing their chicks to kangaroos with "empty pockets."

 
If you’re gonna do it, do it right. Don’t just ask adoptive parents and adoption workers. Maybe you could ask adult adoptees. We won’t bite. Well, most of us won’t bite. Unless we were raised by wolves. But that’s another (trans-species) story.

Sincerely,

Harlow’s Monkey

ps. Thanks to Sarah Park for the education on Asian adoptees in children’s literature!

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21 thoughts on “An open letter to potential Children’s Book Authors

  1. Come to think about it, are there *any* good picture books about adoption out there? You’d think that the sheer number of children’s books would have yielded at least one, if even by accident, right?

  2. I agree with your posting, it is important for children’s book authors to carefully craft the stories they tell.
    However, instead of simply putting out there what you don’t like, maybe you could also put out some suggestions on how you would change the things you’ve pointed out. What is the “right way” to discuss that one’s child has Asian features and the parent may not? What is a better way than “Choco” to relate transracial adoption to a young child?
    I know I’d be interested in reading that!

  3. re: Jonathan – not to give away too many secrets but I’m actually working on that. The conundrum that many of us who have tried to tackle this project have run into is that the parents are the ones we have to write/market/entice with these children’s books. Publishers want to sell the books and if they think the parents won’t like it, they won’t take it on even if the content is important.
    We have to consider developmentally appropriate content for the children but have to write it with the adoptive parents in mind.
    I find that many of these books, while written ostensibly to bolster the self esteem of transracially adopted children, seem to be written more to satisfy and reassure the adoptive parents.

  4. I’ve learned to read through adoption-specific books before we check them out of the library so I don’t lose my dinner while reading to the kids. JL is drawn to any book with an Asian girl’s face on the cover but there are a ton of crappy ones about Chinese adoption, it seems.
    I find that exile and adoption stories so permeate childrens’ literature that it isn’t even that necessary to get adoption-specific books for them. The subject will come up repeatedly anyway.
    JL (and I) really love one called The Merbaby about two sailor brothers who stumble over a lost merbaby, while they are out looking for riches. One wants to sell her but the other wants to return her to her mother–at great risk to himself since Mermaids tend to kill sailors. JL was very touched by it.
    However I haven’t yet found the perfect adoption story because each child’s story is so different that there is always going to be something that jars or rings untrue. Sometimes it is more a matter of finding one that is the least offensive. I am OK with Over the Moon. There is one called You’re Not My Real Mother that should be subtitled “how to shut down dialogue with your adopted child.”

  5. I have agonized over our adoption storybooks too. Most are gifts from friends or other adoptive parents who think any adoption-themed book is great, but don’t understand the problems that you’ve pointed out. I’ve had to throw out some of these “gifts” because I don’t want my daughter or anyone else getting these skewed ideas about adoption.
    I think a well-written lifebook, tailored specifically to the child, can help fill the gap here. I’m hoping that (as you’re hinting) other adoptees will be writing more appropriate books about transracial adoption.
    It’s also a dilemma for me as a writer. I would like to see more children’s books with characters that share my daughter’s ethnicity (Chinese) but it bugs me to no end that so many adoptive parents are writing books and projecting their own issues and ideas onto their children. Books like “I Love You Like Crazy Cakes” and “The Red Thread: An Adoption Fairytale” are written from the parents’ point of view and emphasize the parents’ longing and joy, making the children into some kind of wish-fulfillment objects.
    So I think about writing a children’s book with Chinese characters, and then I think how such a book from a white author would come across as co-opting another’s voice and identity. It’s a dilemma, because I also don’t want to add to the plethora of books that ignore children of colour.
    I would love to see a comprehensive listing of adoption storybooks together with critiques such as you’ve offered–perhaps something Sarah Park would create?

  6. Hi I am a long time reader of your blog — an adoptive parent and I hope you will consider me an ally. Prior to adopting my daughter, I had no idea so many books/movies had orphans in them. My daughter hates most of them as they make her sad. Now, I have to screen everything carefully.
    May I ask if there are any picture books/movies that you have come across that are written from the adoptee’s point of view/have handled adoption correctly?
    Thank you for allowing us adoptive parents a glimpse of your world.

  7. This post is interesting and brings two things to mind. The first is that there is a need for adopted children to see themselves in literature, and it would be wonderful if adult adoptees would author some of this work. As a parent, I know it is my job to help my child through the adoptee/orphan stories and allow her to ask questions and give her own opinions or thoughts about the tale. I don’t think any of these stories should stand on their own without allowing our children to discuss how they feel or identify (or not) with the characters. I would never want my child to hear a story and think my point in reading it is to say “and this is how you should feel, too.”
    The second thing I thought of is in regards to the new children’s program “Ni Hao Kai Lan”. Jan Rae, have you seen this? There has been discussion on one of my other groups regarding how Kai Lan doesn’t look Chinese enough (big round eyes instead of almond-shaped ones). Some folks agree, and some think it isn’t an issue. As white middle- to upper-class American APs, are we over-exerting ourselves in wanting characters our children will see as similar to themselves, or is it arrogance that we think Asian eyes matter? I’m not trying to give my opinion of Kai Lan’s eyes, but just wondering if parents and the media are doing a disservice or a service to our children by presenting them with a “partially Chinese” Chinese character (I know being Chinese isn’t all about the eyes, but I hope you understand the point of my question). I’d like your thoughts about these programs catering to the growing population of Asian children in the US. Thanks.

  8. I’m currently arguing with my daughter’s primary school about the [in]appropriateness of putting on the play, “L’il Orphan Annie.” Many, many *adoptive* parents have told me I’m overreacting, but the script is full of statements like, “your real parents abandoned you because you were a bad girl.” And then there’s the set-up where Daddy Warbucks offers a reward if the b-parents will come forward, and a pair (who the audience knows are frauds) appear. They are simple, uneducated, un-sexy country folk, and Annie is clearly disappointed. Then the fraudsters are unmasked, an adoption day party is held, and everyone is happy.

  9. atlasien, thanks for the link to the first one especially, I want to check it out!
    I have seen the second one but it’s really tough to find in libraries. I’ve looked through my entire system for more books for foster children/adoption.
    Guess that’s why I’m working on a few concepts myself, there is so much a need for them! I may just break down and buy these two!

  10. Here’s another one: _Guji Guji_ by Chih-Yuan Chen. I don’t think it’s intended to be about adoption, per se, but it’s about a crocodile raised by ducks. When a group of crocodiles tries to eat the ducks, the “adopted” crocodile throws rocks at them!
    IMHO some of the best storybooks relevant to adoption are not actually about adoption. For example, I like the board book, _Everywhere Babies_ which is about babies and the things they do, and it casually and naturally incorporates, in realistic-looking drawings, diverse families. I think this book is great for ALL children!
    Jae Ran, I wonder what you think of books about animals that are not about adoption per se. I feel they are less contrived. For example, two based on true stories and that I happen to like are: _And Tango Makes Three_ by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, and _Mama_ by Jeanette Winter. The Winter book deals with loss but perhaps in a rosy way – but then again, it’s a children’s book. I think the fact that it deals with the loss of a parent at all is bold.

  11. A few more:
    Don’t say you were brought to your parents on a spaceship. Don’t say you know you will never meet your birth mother. Don’t say your mother was probably a prostitute. Don’t absent other adopted Koreans (both children and adults). Don’t insert Japanese for Chinese for Korean. Don’t confuse/obscure the child’s national origin to appeal to a broader readership. Don’t write in the first person if you yourself are not an adopted person.
    Guji Guji was originally published in Taiwan and the author says his inspiration is his American friends who adopted a Korean child. It’s a beautifully illustrated book but not without some issues regarding the multiculturalist and celebratory tone and illustrations. I don’t have the book with me, but if you look closely at one of the last pages you’ll see that the crocodile’s shadow is in the shape of a duck, suggesting that perhaps all he can ever become is the shadow of a duck. My friend Andrea Wu in Taiwan studied this book in great detail and presented her research at the Children’s Literature Association conference in 2007.
    I’m looking at my pile of 45 American picture books & novels (+1 Canadian novel) with adopted Korean youth (they’re always youth, because apparently adopted Korean babies never grow into full adulthood!) and sadly I would not recommend any. Sure, some are better than others, but I could not with confidence say “This is a good children’s book about adoption from Korea” about any of them because they all fall short in one way or another. No one can be all things for all people, but I really think some of the negative aspects far outweigh any potential positives. I’ve actually had this conversation with parents, librarians, and other educators, and I think it’s more important to be prepared for the discussion that will inevitably follow after reading any of these books (since a lot of them are widely available already anyway). So instead, I would encourage people to read books such as Outsiders Within, The Language of Blood, Seeds from a Silent Tree and follow blogs such as Harlow’s Monkey. I would encourage them to talk with older adult adoptees, find mentors for their kids and be more discriminate about choosing and/or setting up Korean culture camp. I would ask authors, editors, and publishers to be more careful about letting these books onto the market. I would ask reviewers to reconsider the terms on which they evaluate these stories. And I would ask, again, that adult adoptees write their stories for youth. Otherwise we will have this same conversation forever.
    Friends, allies, readers, please email me if you’d like to discuss this further. I’m currently researching representations of adopted Koreans in children’s literature for my dissertation. (sparkLA79@gmail.com)
    Thanks, JaeRan, for providing a forum for this very important topic.

  12. A few more:
    Don’t say you were brought to your parents on a spaceship. Don’t say you know you will never meet your birth mother. Don’t say your mother was probably a prostitute. Don’t absent other adopted Koreans (both children and adults). Don’t insert Japanese for Chinese for Korean. Don’t confuse/obscure the child’s national origin to appeal to a broader readership. Don’t write in the first person if you yourself are not an adopted person.
    Guji Guji was originally published in Taiwan and the author says his inspiration is his American friends who adopted a Korean child. It’s a beautifully illustrated book but not without some issues regarding the multiculturalist and celebratory tone and illustrations. I don’t have the book with me, but if you look closely at one of the last pages you’ll see that the crocodile’s shadow is in the shape of a duck, suggesting that perhaps all he can ever become is the shadow of a duck. My friend Andrea Wu in Taiwan studied this book in great detail and presented her research at the Children’s Literature Association conference in 2007.
    I’m looking at my pile of 45 American picture books & novels (+1 Canadian novel) with adopted Korean youth (they’re always youth, because apparently adopted Korean babies never grow into full adulthood!) and sadly I would not recommend any. Sure, some are better than others, but I could not with confidence say “This is a good children’s book about adoption from Korea” about any of them because they all fall short in one way or another. No one can be all things for all people, but I really think some of the negative aspects far outweigh any potential positives. I’ve actually had this conversation with parents, librarians, and other educators, and I think it’s more important to be prepared for the discussion that will inevitably follow after reading any of these books (since a lot of them are widely available already anyway). So instead, I would encourage people to read books such as Outsiders Within, The Language of Blood, Seeds from a Silent Tree and follow blogs such as Harlow’s Monkey. I would encourage them to talk with older adult adoptees, find mentors for their kids and be more discriminate about choosing and/or setting up Korean culture camp. I would ask authors, editors, and publishers to be more careful about letting these books onto the market. I would ask reviewers to reconsider the terms on which they evaluate these stories. And I would ask, again, that adult adoptees write their stories for youth. Otherwise we will have this same conversation forever.
    Friends, allies, readers, please email me if you’d like to discuss this further. I’m currently researching representations of adopted Koreans in children’s literature for my dissertation. (sparkLA79@gmail.com)
    Thanks, JaeRan, for providing a forum for this very important topic.

  13. As an a-parent, I like the book “The Three Names of Me”. My daughter is only 2 but I have started to read/paraphrase it to her. It is from a Chinese adoptee’s prospective and talks of her feelings for her birthmother and China. It also gives ideas in the back for scrapbooking their feelings.

  14. I never found an “adoption” book for young children that I liked. I did buy a couple but my darling didn’t like them either.
    My favorite book for dealing with adoption is an affirmation book. And I think that Todd Parr’s books are the best.
    Take a look: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=todd+parr
    Check out “It’s Okay to Be Different”. The book just lists different ways of being different; having a pet worm, eating macroni in the bathtub, being adopted, being tall, etc.. The art work is cartoon like.
    I have conversations with my daughter when we read Todd Parr’s books. And because they are so cartoon, they are timeless. Natasha is 11 years old now and we still read them.
    Personally, I don’t think that “adoption” should be the central theme. I think books that center on feeling and being “different” are going to be the most successful at helping children/families.

  15. Jae Ran, this is a little different so I hope it is ok to ask about here.
    I am always looking for picture books with Asian, multiethnic, at least nonwhite characters whose race is *not* part of the story line. Books in a world that’s not all white. “Sophie Skates” by Rachel Isadora is an example of one I like. Do you have any suggestions of specific books or websites where I could look for that kind of book? Thank you, Sara

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