05 January 2011

How NOT to Tell an Adoption Story

When my mother was newly born, she was adopted by my grandparents, a German immigrant couple who wanted a little girl to love. I have friends who have been adopted, friends who have adopted and a friend who made the selfless decision to give her child the best possible life by allowing another family to welcome him as their son. I believe that adoption is an amazing blessing with the potential to enrich the lives of all involved.

As someone who has always been passionate about books and their connections to children especially, and who spent a lucky 17 years working in public libraries, I am always pleased to find a book that addresses adoption in a meaningful way. Last year’s novel All the Broken Pieces by Ann Burg addressed some of the insecurities and challenges faced by a child adopted from war-torn Vietnam in a sensitive fashion that would speak to children.

Similarly, for younger children, The Red Thread: An Adoption Fairy Tale by Grace Lin uses the fairy tale convention and a Chinese belief about a thread that always binds us to those we love.

Knowing that this often delicate subject can be handled in a gentle and compassionate manner, it was deeply distressing to me to learn about a new book on the market that addresses adoption in a thoughtless and hurtful way.

Quackenstein Hatches a Family by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is an ugly book. The author’s website offers this description:
“Crack open this tale of family and fright, as cute as it is creepy. All the animals in the zoo have friends and family to play with and love. All of them, that is, except Quackenstein. Lonely and bitter in his ramshackle corner, he decides to adopt an egg. He cares for it diligently, waiting until the moment when it will hatch a baby duck of his own. On a dark and stormy night, the egg hatches, Quackenstein cackles, and lightning strikes, but wait—what’s this? That baby’s not a duck! What will he do? Where can he hide? And will Quackenstein ever find someone (or something) to cuddle?”

So. This nasty, bitter duck decides to adopt (the author introduces this word, making it unambiguously an adoption story). When the egg hatches, it isn’t a duck at all. In fact, in the initial illustrations, it is a red-eyed, long-clawed, black baby with a “chilling glare” who Quackenstein (coincidentally a white duck) quickly labels a “monster” and runs screaming from.

When the storm ends and the lights come on, the “monster” is revealed to be an adorable brown baby platypus. After enduring the horror of being chased by the “monster” Quackenstein is finally convinced by the baby’s persistence to give it a chance and eventually decides he loves “his son.”

So, happy ending, all is well, right?

This reader would answer - Not so much.

For an adopted child who encounters this book, particularly a child who is part of a transracial or culturally blended family, what are the take-away messages? That if you look different from your family (i.e. being a different color) they will consider you a monster? That an adopted child must chase his parent and convince that adult that he is worthy of love?

I don’t think I am being wildly oversensitive here. School Library Journal, for one, recognizes the flaws of this book; it’s reviewer notes, “The idea that prospective adoptive parents would not only abandon, but would also be horrified when the child is not what they expect, or has a birth defect, creates a potentially hurtful scenario.”

And if I am being a little sensitive, so what? Even in the most loving picture perfect adoptions, underlying insecurities and questions may lie dormant – for children and parents alike. Even if a family has been lucky enough to find each other and weather the challenges inherently present in adoptive families, why would you read this book to a preschooler who may be hurt by the idea that if they aren’t very careful and look perfect in their parent’s eyes, they may be rejected?

Ugh. No, thanks. I returned this book to the local library as quickly as I could. I hope no child I love and no child who has been adopted ever has to encounter this misguided harmful book.


Erinello said...

Ugh, that sounds awful. But I'll definitely check out The Red Thread in the future. Always looking for good adoption books!

Miss Katharine said...

The Red Thread is so lovely. And do read All the Broken Pieces, too. But have tissue handy!

keri said...

Another great book is Jennifer Grant's new adoption memoir, "Love You More," which is a beautifully written account of her family's adoption of a little girl from Guatemala. It's a book for parents with great advice interwoven into a touching, funny, tender story. She mentions the idea of the "red thread" that connected her to her daughter. The author blogs at www.jennifergrant.com

Miss Katharine said...

Thanks for the tip, Keri! I'll look for that one.