Some people never outgrow the whimsy of a good story. The pull of fantasy drags them out of their mundanity and into a world full of color and wonder. It’s me. I’m people. Ever since I could read I have been drawn to stories that stray far from reality. Talking animals, space travel, knights in shining armor, portals through wardrobes into magical realms. I spent many hours searching out Narnia and beyond that might be hidden behind a secret cupboard or cranny. So it is with that context, I’ll let you know that I have a bone to pick with authors who write about adoption.
While I am as good as the next person at suspending my disbelief for the sake of the story, I struggle when adoption is part of the mix. It is something that has bothered me since I was a little kid, actually. Too many stories take the emotional shortcut of orphaning children to build character development. I spent a while just assuming that my parents could die off any minute leaving me to raise my younger siblings. If you think I’m exaggerating, here are some examples: The Boxcar Children, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Harry Potter. If we branch out into movies aimed at kids, we’ve got All Dogs go to Heaven, Cinderella, Snow White, The Rescuers, Annie, Land Before Time, Frozen, and dozens if not hundreds more.
So what is my point exactly? Well. Here’s the thing. While I am fully able to embrace the idea that, for the sake of a story, mice can talk, I struggle with the idea that a kid can just become an orphan and then magically end up adopted by an amazing family who happens to also be wealthy. Maybe I’m just bitter over all the time I spent daydreaming that I was, in fact, an orphan, and my “real” parents would come to rescue me from the people I was living with. Disney set me up with some unreasonable expectations is what I’m saying. But also, as an adoptive mom, I’m annoyed at how easy it is for people to just adopt kids in these stories.
Seeing as how it took us over a year from the time our paperwork was completed until we had children living in our home, I find it unfair that, basically, all the Cutburths had to do in Anne of Green Gables was make a phone call or two and end up with Anne. See also my disbelief over the idea that Harry Potter could live in a cupboard and no one was like “hey…I think that kid is being abused we should totally do something about that.” Which . . . I understand because there are hundreds of kids that slip through the cracks; but I think it is irresponsible storytelling to just let the abuse go on and on without anything happening. Further, Harry never actually ends up getting adopted or having anyone take him in despite the Dursleys being the worst.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love most of those books and movies. I built my entire personality around storybook characters when I was young. That’s not really my point. I just don’t love the way there is so little depth to the characters who have had their entire lives upended in tragedy. We don’t really get to see them mourn their losses, nor are the adults around them encouraging them to, I don’t know, go see a therapist or something.
Some of the problem is, of course, the time period the books were written in or are meant to be set in. Oliver Twist, for example, is a very accurate depiction of what the life of an orphan would have been like at that time. Orphan Train is an accurate depiction of the insidious practice of selling babies in the United States. But let’s talk about Matilda for a hot second. I get that she was a brilliant little girl, but there is no way that her parents abandoning her after signing some adoption paperwork is in any way ok. That’s not the worst thing in that book (which I read and reread 100 times as a kid) it is just the adoption thing that rubbed me entirely the wrong way when I read it to my adopted kids. Our process was so long and involved—so much paperwork. It grated me that it could be shown as that easy.
I know. I should not get all twisted up about a children’s book. But, sometimes I do. So to break it down for you, the things that most (but certainly not all) books involving orphans and adoption in literature get wrong are this:
– The time it takes for the adoption to happen
– The amount of abuse a character is allowed to be subjected to before intervention
– The ease in which adoption takes place
– The implication that there is always some wealthy relative that will come swooping in to save the day
– The emotional state of the adoptee and adoptive family
– There is rarely a legal aspect even mentioned
– The implication that people can baby shop at orphanages
– No mention of birth parents and/or maintaining healthy relationships with them
The things that they get right?
– The genuine love between the adoptee and their adopted family
– (Some of) the real questions that adoptees end up having about their birth families
– The abuse that many children suffer under without help
– The fear of being unwanted or unloved
– The need for adoptive families to step up
There is much more, but I just want to encourage you to take a deeper look into children’s books that are about adoption. There is a lot of misinformation and confusion regarding how adoption works. I think it is important that adoptees be represented in literature, but I think it is also important that authors take the time to really research what adoption looks like in all contexts. Adoption is complex, and I think instead of just starting from “the child was orphaned” as an emotional backdrop, there should be more context and subtext involved.