Earlier last month I learned about a new just-released children’s book targeted to middle school readers, The Unadoptables. Written by Hana Tooke, a UK author, the story takes place in 1880 Amsterdam and centers on a gang of five orphans all whom are considered unadoptable because of their disability or race.
Marketed as a “Neil Gaiman meets Hans Christen Anderson” fairy tale, this book is indeed a fairly tale, but not for the reasons the author and publisher likely intended. It is a fairy tale about adoptees and adoption. The title of this book alone should have raised a million red flags for the publisher, drawing on old tropes and prejudices about children who find themselves abandoned or orphaned; and therein is the fairy tale – and even more so that a novel centering on children seen as freaks and therefore so unlovable they are hopelessly unadoptable is a great choice for a title (by the way, I am working on a project with Dr. Subini Annamma about the intersections of disability + race + adoption so I have much more I’ll be saying about disabilities as a reason for someone being categorized as “unadoptable.”).
I haven’t read this newly released book yet but I have been reading reviews; most of the praise by reviewers only reinforce my first impression that this book perpetuates harmful narratives and the likelihood that no one involved in this book thought for one minute how damaging this book could be for the hundreds of thousands of children who have experienced foster care, orphan care, and/or adoption.
Let me give you an example from the Kirkus Review:
Each longs to be adopted, but would-be parents reject them when they see the kids’ atypical attributes: Lotta’s 12 fingers, Egg’s East Asian ancestry (other characters default to white), Fenna’s muteness, clumsy Sem’s ears, and Milou’s wild ferocity.
An excerpt from the novel housed on the publisher’s website begins with this gem:
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Little Tulip Orphanage
Q Rules for Baby Abandonment
Rule One: The baby should be wrapped in a cotton blanket.
Rule Two: The baby should be placed in a wicker basket.
Rule Three: The baby should be deposited on the topmost step.
In all the years that Elinora Gassbeek had been matron of the Little Tulip Orphanage, not once had the Rules for Baby Abandonment been broken. Until the summer of 1880. Five babies were abandoned in the months that followed and, despite the Rules being clearly displayed on the orphanage’s front door, not one of these babies was abandoned sensibly.
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This passage brings up a lot of emotion for me. First of all, it reminds me of all the baby boxes and safe haven laws in the U.S. and around the world. Baby boxes and safe havens are interventions marketed as saving children’s lives under the assumption that parents who don’t want to raise their children will kill them if there isn’t a way to abandon them without being criminalized. As you might expect, proving this is difficult – accurate documentation of infanticide deceases due to baby boxes/safe havens is rather impossible to obtain. Baby boxes and safe haven practices completely erase and destroy adoptees’ identities. This passage’s articulation of a “sensible” way to abandon a child would, to most adult readers, be identified as ridiculous – but it raises an interesting question to me knowing this book is aimed at middle grade readers who likely won’t see these abandonment criteria as being problematic.
The excerpt goes on:
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The child was snuggled inside a tin toolbox, which had been wrapped with emerald-green ribbon, as if it were a present.
“Ugh!” Elinora Gassbeek squawked, looking down at the toolbox baby in disgust. She signaled a nearby orphan to retrieve it. “Put it upstairs.”
The orphan nodded. “What name shall I put on the cot, Matron?”
The matron curled her lip. Naming children was tedious, but necessary.
“She’s got a lotta fingers, Matron!”
The baby was sucking its thumb, making loud slurping noises that sent ants crawling up the matron’s spine. She counted the child’s fingers. Sure enough, it had an extra digit on each hand.
“Name it . . . Lotta.”
– – – – – – – – – – – –
The orphanage matron found naming an abandoned child “tedious, but necessary.” Adoptees – especially those of us who were placed or sent to orphanages – were often given names by orphanage directors and staff. I think of all of the expectant parents I’ve ever known, including myself, and the very real thought put in to naming our children, especially when considering names that evoke family history, culture, hopes and dreams, religious and spiritual practices. I think about how expectant parents consider deeply the meaning that is behind a potential name. To read that naming orphans was a chore that bored orphanage directors is yet another reinforcement of how unimportant we are.
In addition to the descriptors of each of these children’s strange characteristics – the items that made them “unadoptable” is one that as an Asian adoptee I find racist in a couple of ways. First, eggs play on the inside/outside identity negotiations Asian adoptees have to figure out along with another commonly used food item, bananas. As eggs, Asian adoptees are seen as white on the outside and “yellow”/Asian on the inside. As bananas, we are accused of being white on the inside but Asian on the outside. Asian adoptees raised by white parents in white communities know all too well how we are never Asian enough and never white enough, by both white and Asian communities.
Secondly, Egg’s vaguely “East Asian” ancestry as a reason for being unadoptable is illustrative of the racism embedded in adoption. Children of color – particularly Black and Indigenous – have been considered “hard to place” for as long as modern adoption practices in the U.S. have been happening, and in the 1980s the conflation of race as being a “special need” (i.e. disabling characteristic) was codified into federal child welfare legislation. If you look at the definition of “special needs” (code for disabled) you will find that a child’s age (older than 2), race, disability, and part of a sibling group are all lumped together as “special needs.”
Like the Lemony Snicket books, and the Harry Potter series, no doubt The Unadoptables was meant to be a middle-grade Gothic fantasy adventure series that exploits non-adopted/fostered/orphaned children’s worst fears; the loss of parents and family serves as a catalyst for either a hero’s journey or, in dismantling an oppressive society run by evil adults. I’m not advocating that real-life traumatic situations, including the loss of one’s parents and family in childhood, be sanitized and scrubbed from young readers; these topics happen – and adoptees/fostered/orphaned children and youth need stories that reflect their lives and provide “windows and mirrors.” Children who have not experienced the loss of their parents also need to read stories that thoughtfully reflect these experiences.
Too bad The Unadoptables is not one of those stories.
My idea of a fantasy? A novel that actually honors adoptees’ and fosteree’s narratives.
[Admittedly, I went on a rant about this book back in August]