When we first began our adoption journey, I must admit that I felt like a lone drifting boat at sea. I filed my paperwork, anxiously awaited a match, and when the time came to travel to China, I felt like I had finally finished a great marathon that would turn our family of two into a family of three. And then we came home. Our first few months together were a blur of desperately trying to navigate our new “normal.” We were first-time parents but we were also first-time adoptive parents. No one in our immediate circle of family or friends had ever adopted. No one we knew had walked the path of a supporting a child who has experienced trauma. Or who suffered from attachment issues. When our friends went to the grocery store, they were not stared at because their child did not look like them. But we were. And we are.
Two adoptions from two different countries later, I have learned that one of the particular challenges of living as a transracial, transcultural adoptive family is that there are not a lot of people who look like us, and there are not a lot of families who were formed like ours. There are a few films here and there and a television show or two that somewhat relates to our situation, but the biggest adoption mirror I have found for my children is in books. Our shelves are packed with countless books about adoption. We have board books for infants and toddlers, easy reads for kindergarteners, books for elementary school children to share at school, and books that will help my children navigate their questions of identity as they embark into adolescence and adulthood.
Whether you choose to read the books together with your children (which I strongly encourage at any age) or simply offer the book as a reflection of their experiences, adoption books are important. Good adoption books teach positive adoption language and can provide an opening to discuss your child’s own adoption story. Here are a few highlights for every age:
Children Age 0-24 Months
It is never too early to start reading books about adoption. Even for families who adopted their children in infancy, adding adoption-centered books into your nightly bedtime routine gives the child a chance to hear and absorb stories which are similar to their own. At this early developmental stage, children cannot understand abstract concepts, but they do understand the loss of a primary caregiver. This is particularly true for children adopted internationally or from foster care who may have had multiple caregivers in their first few months and/or years.
1. A Mother for Choco By Keiko Kasza
This was a favorite in our house when my son first came home. It is a spin on the classic, Are You My Mother? and involves Choco, a bird, wishing he had a mother and then searching for her. His mother turns out to be Mrs. Bear, who looks nothing like Choco, but when Mrs. Bear begins to do all the things a mother would do Choco realizes families don’t have to look alike. Mrs. Bear also has three other children—a hippo, a pig, and an alligator. When our daughter came home from India, our son particularly delighted in this aspect of the story.
For families who adopted domestically, this is a wonderful book. In the book, a young girl asks her parents to retell the story of the night she was born. It shares the excitement of the adoptive parents and the overwhelming love they already feel for a child they have yet to meet. The book also touches on why the girl was placed into adoption and could serve as a springboard for deeper conversations with an older child.
3. Happy Adoption Day! by John McCutcheon
One of our family favorites, hands down, this book is a beautiful journey of a couple who adopt a child internationally. The story follows the parents as they prepare their child’s room, travel across the world, and the excitement they feel of becoming a family of three. The book focuses on the choice adoptive parents make to choose their child and how that child will be always and forever loved. John McCutcheon is a songwriter so the reiteration of his prose is easy to remember and very upbeat. The book also highlights that families come in all shapes and sizes.
Children Age 2-5
The preschool years see many children growing in leaps and bounds in all stages of development. Emotionally and socially, children at this age will develop a sense of self and self-conscious emotions (embarrassment, pride, shame) appear. At this age, children begin to notice physical differences (such as, “Mommy you’re pink but I am brown”), family make-up (such as I only have one Mommy), and begin to put people into categories. Preschoolers develop clear feelings of right and wrong. At this age, children often like to hear their adoption story but do not necessarily understand the concept of adoption fully.
1. I Wished for You by Marianne Richmond
A beautiful story of adoption, the book speaks of how Mama Bear didn’t know what kind of child she would get—boy or girl, what color fur—but that she wished for a child. We particularly loved this book as it helped us explain the many hoops and hurdles we had to go through to adopt both our son and our daughter. The book helps children answer the tough questions of how their adoption came to be while reiterating again and again that the child is both wanted and unconditionally loved.
2. I Don’t Have Your Eyes by Carrie A. Kitze
For children who were adopted transracially or transnationally, I Don’t Have Your Eyes is a wonderful book to explore the physical differences some families have. We found this book to be particularly important when, at my nephew’s first birthday, family began to comment how much he looked like my sister and my father. My son grew quite upset as “No one ever says I look like Grandpa.” Though we talk about how our differences make our family special, this book highlights that while we may not look the same on the outside, on the inside, our hearts are the same. There are also some beautiful lines of retort, like while we don’t have the same eyes, you have taught me to look at the world differently. As the book stresses, common experiences and love make a family. Not DNA.
3. The Not In Here Story by Tracey W. Zeeck
For children who are beginning to understand where babies come from, this is a terrific book. Mrs. Seek, a furry monster, tries to grow a baby in her tummy but after weeks and weeks, nothing happens. She and Mr. Seek search far and wide for a solution to Mrs. Seek’s empty tummy but they have no luck. Then Mrs. Seek discovers that perhaps their baby is in someone else’s tummy. The book is a simple way to explain the pain that some parents go through the build their family, and how desperately the child who came into their family was wanted. The illustrations are very cute and occasionally funny, but the message is a good one.
Children Age 6-12
Between the ages of 6-12, children learn many critical skills and establish themselves as individual people. During this age, most adopted children have frequent thoughts about their birth parents, even if they might not outwardly express it. As adoptive parents, it is our job to encourage these conversations and to provide the right tools and words for our children to express themselves. While the earlier years may have seen ambivalence toward adoption, the elementary-age child may experience grief and great loss. Additionally, elementary school may prove a difficult time in the adopted child’s identity development as they are not simply able to say, “I am Chinese” or, “I am African-American” because, for them, their identities are layered within those of the adoptive family.
1. We See the Moon by Carrie A. Kitze
Our family is a huge fan of Carrie Kitze and this book has been immensely helpful in serving as a springboard to some difficult conversations about adoption. The book is written from a child’s perspective and asks all the questions adopted elementary school children are thinking about: Do I look like my birth mother? Where are my birth parents now? Do they ever think of me like I think of them? Kitze uses the image of the moon to connect the adopted child to their birth family. For just as we look at the same moon, we remain in each other’s hearts.
2. Kimchi & Calamari by Rose Kent
A book about struggling between two identities, Kimchi & Calamari follows the story of a young 12-year-old boy, Joseph, who is adopted from Korea into a very Italian family. When Joseph receives a social studies project to “write about your ancestors” it sends him into a tailspin. Joseph realizes he knows far more about Italy than Korea and so begins a journey of self-discovery to marry both parts of himself into one identity.
3. The Mulberry Bird by Anne Braff Brodzinsky
A story of Mother Bird forced to make a hard decision about her baby bird, The Mulberry Bird beautifully handles the complicated story of the adopted child before they were adopted. In reading this book, we were able to explore the grief my son had at losing his birth parents (and his birth culture and country). It is a hard story to read but it helped us tackle the big question of “why.” It also highlights the struggle that all birth parents endure when they make the loving decision to place their child.
Children Ages 13-17
One of the biggest struggles for any child is the period of adolescence. A time when questions of “Who am I?” and “What do I want to become?” seem to be at every turn, for the adopted child this can be a particularly difficult time. Like all teenagers, adoptees will try on different identities, searching for which one fits best. There may be an embrace of their birth culture or an utter rejection of it. During this time, attachment shifts slowly from their parents to their peers, and peers’ opinions take on greater authority. Adoption-related books for adolescents should ideally focus on adoption mirrors and/or racial mirrors to reflect their own lives and experiences.
1. Pieces of Me by Robert L. Ballard (Editor)
What does it mean to be adopted? What does it mean to not know exactly where your story begins? Or how it begins? All of these questions, and so many more, are poignantly answered, reflected upon, and shared in a book written by adoptees for adoptees. The book is broken up into five sections all designed to each be a piece of the puzzle that is the adopted child. Comprised of over 100 pieces of prose, music, art, and poems written by adoptees ranging from 11 to 63, the book is one that says loud and clear to the adopted child: “I see you. I hear you. And you are not alone.”
2. Slant by Laura Williams
The story of 13-year-old Lauren, a South Korean adoptee, growing up in suburban Connecticut. Lauren wants to be like everyone else. She wants to dress like everyone else, have hair like everyone else, and most importantly, have eyes like everyone else. When Lauren’s father consents to plastic surgery to “fix” her slanted eyes, she embarks on a journey of self-discovery. A wonderful book for any adolescent who feels different or may look different from their peers, this book stresses that a person’s self-esteem should not be based on how they look and that self-love is the greatest love of all.
3. For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington
Every transracial adoptee has had the thought, “What would it have been like to grow up with people who look like me?” In this book, Makeda is an 11-year-old black girl adopted into an all-white family. When her family moves from Maryland to New Mexico, Makeda struggles with issues of race and discrimination that her white parents will never fully understand. A beautiful book about family, friendship, microaggression, and the challenges transracial adoptees face every day, this is a must-read for parents and children alike.