Adoption in YA Lit


I’ve been thinking about the books I’ve read over the years about adoption.

I was adopted (domestic, transracial, closed, as an infant – just because you  may have questions, and just because there are so many ways to be adopted and I want to explain that I can in no way speak competently about all types of experiences). I read books about adoption growing up when I could find them, but that was not often, especially as I grew out of picture books and early readers.

I was always surprised there were not more books that dealt with adoption, since people like to think that it’s something that is fraught with drama (people like to exaggerate what they don’t understand), and nothing works better in a book than drama. Another reason there should be books about adoption is because adoption customs and laws have changed SO MUCH in the two and a half decades since I was adopted. More domestic adoptions are open now than were in the 1970s, 1980s, or even the 1990s. Laws about who can search for whom and when change every five minutes and vary from state to state. Record keeping changes. Cultural taboos change.

And that’s to say nothing about people whose lives are touched by adoption, whether it is as adoptees, adoptive parents, siblings, or birthparents. Some adoptees have zero interest in seeking out their birthparents. Others want a relationship with their birthparents. Still others are more interested in a “Hi, now we both know the other exists” type of interaction. Some children are adopted as babies, others when they are older. Others stay in the foster care system a long time. From the 1960s to the 1970s, giving up a baby for adoption was probably something you did quietly or because you were forced to. Now it is more likely that a birthparent might meet with prospective parents and involve them in the baby’s life before it is born. Even as I try to think of different types of situations, it hits me that there are probably a lot more books than I think there are. Here are some books, old and new, that might be interesting to look at in duos.

Year of Mistaken Discoveries by Eileen Cook
In this one, published earlier this year, high school senior Avery decides to seek out her birthmother when her childhood friend no longer can seek out hers. Dealing with grief and guilt about lost friendships, new romantic interests, and lying to her parents, Avery tries to get around legal obstacles (she is still 17) and goes on some TV movie-esque adventures to try and track down the young woman who gave her up as an infant.

Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye by Lois Lowry
A similar story but from a much earlier time (1978), this book is also about a 17-year-old who, like Avery, seemingly has it all. Natalie shocks her parents when she says she wants to search for her birthmother, but they ultimately give her a car, money, and time to go on her own journey, leaving her to decide whether she’ll be able to handle the results.

Both of these books are great for the way they allow a mature, well adjusted teen to decide for herself whether or not she’s ready (or even interested) in searching for her birthmother, without significant impediments or particular encouragement from the families that have raised them. They might both be limited by their white, upper middle class perspective, which makes the resources they have easier to come by, but they’re interesting in how similar they are, even when laws and technology have changed so much in the 30+ years they span.

heavensaffyWait…I’m Adopted?
Heaven by Angela Johnson (2003 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults)
Marley doesn’t learn she’s adopted until she is 14 years old, and she must reevaluate what family means to her when it turns out that her parents are her aunt and uncle.

Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay
Similarly, in this Saffy learns she is actually a cousin, not a sibling, when she puts together that her siblings’ names all appear on the color wheel and hers does not.

Both of these books straddle the middle grade/YA line and deal with having a big blow dealt to you at an already sensitive time – early adolescence. The main contrast here is that Johnson tends for the lyrical and literary, while McKay has a bit more quirk and humor. These books would be very important to have for a reader going through a life changing discovery and dealing with betrayal.

whenbriefCultural Clashes
When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright
Lahni is the only black girl at her school, and even though her white parents are loving and sensitive as they can be to her needs, she feels out of place. Then she discovers gospel music and finds something of herself in it.

A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt (2007 Selected Audiobooks for Young Adults)
Simone’s parents are the ones who make her forge a relationship with Rivka, her biological mother, who is dying from cancer. Simone is an atheist, and Rivka was raised a Chassidic Jew.

The takeaway here, I think, is how adoptees need parents who are willing to support their adoptive children both when they are their children and when they need to find out who and what they are that their adoptive parents are not. Transracial and transcultural adoptions are wonderful and necessary, but they are also complicated, as it’s the responsibility of the parents and the right of the child to be fully a part of their new family and yet fully able and welcome to learn about and identify with their birthfamily’s ethnic or racial background.

findingthrowawayInternational Adoption
Finding Miracles by Julia Alvarez
Milly is prompted to think about her birthparents when a new boy at school suggests that she looks like she comes from his same village in Central America.

Throwaway Daughter by Ting-xing Ye
When Grace hears about the Tiananmen massacre, it hits home, and she begins to learn about her Chinese heritage. She wants to go to China to seek out her birthmother, but she knows she will have trouble finding her, since she was one of the many baby girls abandoned to an orphanage.

Novels such as these bring up the questions of whether one can be more American than whatever nationality they would have had from birth; whether parents do enough to teach their children about the countries they come from; and what it means to have been born one thing but raised another.

More To Read
Meg Kearney’s novels in verse, The Secret of Me and The Girl in the Mirror, are sensitive reads about a character is perfectly comfortable being adopted but less comfortable speaking about it with others.

Something Real by Heather Demetrios is about a girl who has 11 adopted siblings, all of whom appeared on a reality show with her as a bit of a spectacle.

Remember that rash of very public adoptions by celebrities? Exclusively Chloe by J.A. Yang is told from the perspective of one of a girl whose parents are superstars. Trophy Kid, or How I Was Adopted by the Rich and Famous by Steve Atinsky seems similar.

Separated at birth your thing? Robyn Bavati’s Pirouette deals with twins who meet, Parent Trap-style, when they end up at the same dance camp.

For more intercultural issues, try Janet Taylor Lisle’s The Crying Rocks.

What books about adoption have you read? And why do you think it is that these books are about girls? In all my searching, I found it very difficult to find anything about boys who had been adopted, but I did find more books than I expected that I had not yet read. Here’s to more books on your TBR list!

–Hannah Gómez, currently reading Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin

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Hannah Gómez

Hannah Gómez is a former independent school librarian and now works remotely as a librarian consultant/teacher. She also teaches fitness and writes things. She is on Twitter @shgmclicious

9 thoughts on “Adoption in YA Lit”

  1. Hi there,
    Interesting post, with some surprises. I was adopted as a kid and it’s really been the central fact of my existence. I’m now working on a YA novel and issues of parenthood, lineage, nature/nurture, abandonment, upbringing etc. all come to bear whether I want them to or not.

    I’m really surprised the adoption theme doesn’t show up more often, especially because the orphan is a classic mythic figure and adoption seems like the obvious modern angle on that story.

    I’m interested if you found stories that featured adopted kids without so explicitly being about adoption and the issues around it.

  2. The Kearney and Demetrios books are definitely not primarily about being adopted. And I was really going for realistic fiction here. If you wanted to expand the search and the definition of “adoption” (I was looking at legal definitions) to the classic trope of “reared by another in a far-off land” and all, I think you could find a lot of other stuff.

  3. Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan features a non-white adoptee as its brilliant main character, Willow, who was adopted as a baby by white parents (it should be noted that they aren’t the primary adult characters). The story is not centered around the fact that Willow is adopted, but it’s an important piece of Willow’s self-concept (and not a negative one). In my library it’s cataloged as juvenile fiction, but I think it works well for young YA…Willow is 13.

    1. Oh, I can’t believe I forgot that one! It’s been on my TBR list forever, and I’m hoping I’ll get to it this summer. I probably wouldn’t have put it on this list because it’s middle grade and not YA, but still – totally want to read it.

  4. Thanks so much for this list! My youngest daughter is adopted (domestic, transracial, closed, as an infant), so I’m always looking for good adoption stories, especially ones that involve transracial adoption. I’ve read several of these, but not all, so thanks for the recommendations!

  5. Three Black Swans by Caroline B Cooney falls into the “seperated at birth” catagory. It’s told almost like a thriller. Not the most realistic, but then, neither is The Parent Trap.

    Ninijas, Piranhas, and Galileo by Greg Leitech Smith has 3 middle school main characters. One of the three (a boy!) is adopted. His parents want him to be in touch with heritage, his reactions are the probably the most memorable part of the book.

  6. I just reconnected with one of my favorites, The Answer is Yes by Sara Lewis.

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