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Perspectives in Multicultural Picture Books About Adoption: Who’s Missing?

A child needs a home, parents want a child, they are brought together and everyone lives happily ever after.

This is the mainstream, dominant story of adoption.

Of course the reality is far more complicated than the dominant view, with complex layers of loss, identity, family, and home to be explored, often over a lifetime. When the adoption also happens across race and culture, the complexity is magnified.

What's missing is the voices of adult adoptees like myself and birth mothers,” Rebecca Soome Bickly said in a CodeSwitch piece entitled Transracial Adoptees and Their Sense of Self.  “...[C]entering this conversation on one perspective when there are really three parties involved in every adoption is limiting the public understanding and perception of adoption.

Viewing adoption-focused picture books featuring people of color, this simplistic, one-sided view appears to also dominate in children’s literature. Of the 29 picture books that include adopted characters in the Diverse BookFinder collection (18 catalogued, 10 coming soon), all but two are centered solely on the adoptive family. As a group, this collection of current picture books seems to convey the message that the true life of adoptees begins at adoption. Only 5 titles include any extended mention of the birth mother or father, including these two Informational books:

16 of the titles in our collection feature white parents with children adopted transracially. The majority of adopted children were born in Asia (7 from China, 2 from Korea, 1 from Vietnam, and 1 from an unnamed Asian country). Other countries of origin are Ethiopia (1), Haiti (1), Mexico (1), Guatemala (1), and India (1), and 1 unspecified foreign country. Here are some examples:

In picture books about adoption that include characters of color, far more transracial adoptions from foreign countries are represented than domestic adoptions; in fact, only two — How Nivi Got Her Names and Families (the only titles featuring indigenous children, birth mothers, and adoptive mothers) — are explicit in naming domestic adoption (though adoption is not the focus of Families).

How Nivi got her names


by Laura Deal and Charlene Chua

Nivi has always known that her names are special, but she does not know where they came from. So, one sunny afternoon, Nivi decides to ask her mom how she got her names. The stories of the people Nivi is named after lead her to an understanding of traditional Inuit naming practices and knowledge of what those practices mean to Inuit. How Nivi Got Her Names is an easy-to-understand introduction to traditional Inuit naming, with a story that touches on Inuit custom adoption [an adoption in which a pregnant woman provides her child to someone who needs a child].

Beautiful Life

Seven titles had no mention of the adopted child/ren’s birthplace(s) so they could be domestic or international. Only one adoption title took place outside of North America, this folktale set in Japan:

In addition to this title, parents of color appear in only 7 books, including these titles:

Six titles in the collection portray same-sex parents. Characters who could be single adoptive parents, usually mothers, appear in six or seven books.

A number of these books are narrated by an adopted child or a sibling, but usually featuring a version of the dominant narrative, focused on the experiences of coming “home” and/or living in the adoptive family. At times these child narrators seem to be parroting the views of adoptive parents rather than their own unique perspectives (perhaps not surprisingly given that a number of authors of these titles are themselves adoptive parents).

As we examine picture books about adoption to share with children, here are some questions to consider:

  • Who is featured/mentioned in the book (adopted child? adoptive parents? birth family?)
  • What is the story of adoption that is being told? In whose voice is the story told? Whose narrative/perspective/point of view is represented? Who does it benefit? (For example, the child may be speaking, but the story being told may only represent the perspective of the adoptive parent(s).) Is the story solely one of happy homecoming, or is there a more complex, nuanced view of adoption?
  • Who — what racial and cultural groups — is portrayed as adoptees? As adoptive parents? What message does this convey about who “needs” adopting, who can adopt?
  • Are there any stereotypes about adoption? (For example: Birth country or home as poor and lacking; birth parents as victims or as neglectful; adopted child as “abandoned” victim; adoptive parent(s) as saviors.)

To find picture books in our collection that include adopted characters, try a keyword search for "adopt" or "adoption" or "adoptive" on the Search the Collection page.

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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