Veteran classroom teacher and Korean American transracial adoptee, Meredith Seung Mee Buse has been featured in The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, recognized with a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching and learned innumerable lessons from her students. On her blog, 365days365hours.com, Meredith grapples with her identity as a transracial adoptee and showcases her distinctive voice via entries like Day 13: To My Dad with Love, Day 235: 36 and Day 263: Meredith -- and Other White Girls Names. She is represented by Marisa Cleveland at The Seymour Agency.
Content Warning: The following blog contains references to suicide. To avoid this content, skip the section bracketed by **[ ]**.
This brilliant infographic by Sarah Park Dahlen and David Huyck shows the need for diverse representation in picture books. Adoptee’s own voices have been all but absent from picture books.1
Somewhere around episode 7 of "Bachelor in Paradise," an important realization struck me: transracial adoption is #SoHotRightNow.
This episode featured Sarah Hamrick, who was adopted from Vietnam by white parents and shared her feelings about her transracial adoption on Clayton’s season. Further sleuthing also revealed fan-favorite Sierra Jackson’s transracial adoptee ties: her mother was adopted from South Korea as a child.
From Bachelor Nation to The New York Times, which ran an article this summer about Korean adoptee chefs, transracial adoption experiences and adoption-related storylines both real and fictionalized, have begun popping up in myriad cultural contexts. NPR recently featured stories about truth-and-reconciliation efforts for both Korean and Irish adoptees. Transracial adoptee author Angela Tucker brilliantly consulted on Randall’s storyline on "This is Us" and Kevin Kreider searched for his birth family on reality TV show "Bling Empire."
In literature, adoptee narratives written by adoptees have seen success in the adult category, with Nicole Chung’s "All You Can Ever Know" and Erika Hayasaki’s "Somewhere Sisters," and young adult category, with Meredith Ireland’s "Everyone Hates Kelsie Miller" and Shannon Gibney’s "See No Color."
But despite all this recognition of transracial adoptees in television, journalism, and books aimed at adults and young adults, adoptee narratives written by adoptees prove nearly nonexistent in the picture book space.
Searching for Adoptee’s Own Voices
Picture books dramatically shape the youngest children's identities through visuals before they become literate. These books send powerful messages about how children should behave, who they can become, and what possibilities exist for them in terms of identity, language, and opinions.
A search of the Diverse BookFinder database reveals that, of the nearly 5,000 picture books with BIPOC human characters cataloged, only 54 — or about 1% — of them touch on the topic of adoption at all. (For comparison, nearly 400 books, or 10% of the database, include Indigenous people, another significantly underrepresented group that shares a similarly sized population: around 5 million, or 2% of people in the U.S.). Of these, multiple books actually highlight pet adoption rather than human adoption.
In fact, the use of animals or anthropomorphized objects to convey adoption themes features heavily in an Amazon search of "best sellers in children’s books on adoption," with top hits including adopted bats, foxes, penguins, bears, giraffes and yes, even buttons. I’m sure the adopted bats and buttons of the world feel well represented.
Of the remaining adoption books listed on Diverse BookFinder, white adoptive mothers wrote roughly 40%, including Patricia McMahon’s "Just Add One Chinese Sister," Christine McDonnell’s "Goyangi Means Cat," and Joy Jordan-Lake’s "A Crazy-Much Love." Authors uninvolved in the adoption triad of birth parents, adoptive parents and adopted children, wrote another 45% of the titles, such as Erin Dealey’s "Babies Come from Airports," Silvia Lopez’s "Just Right Family," and Nancy Carlson’s "My Family is Forever," often claiming inspiration from their friends who adopted children or even from seeing or hearing about adoptive families meeting their adoptee children at an airport.
These findings comport with research by Sarah Park Dahlen, scholar of adoptee children’s books and author of the amazing infographic featured earlier, which uses mirrors to demonstrate the lack of diversity in children’s books, based on the University of Wisconsin Madison, School of Education’s Cooperative Center for Children’s Books statistics. Her 2009 research analyzed 51 books about Korean transracial adoption, and of these, white, adoptive mothers wrote 20. She found zero traditionally published books authored by Korean adoptees.
The narratives currently available for adopted kids and families almost exclusively center the adoptive parent’s perspective, such as starting the story with the adoptive parents yearning for a child, or even the adoptive sibling’s feelings of displacement by the adoptive child. Even when these books employ the adopted child’s point of view for narration, they do so without the nuance and lived experience of an adoptee, often focusing on traumatic events or racist experiences the child encounters. A number of titles include adoption in compendiums of different ways families form, ignoring its unique challenges and minimizing difficult feelings adoptees may encounter.
This narrow cannon dehumanizes, effaces, oversimplifies, and even caricatures the emotional experience of the adopted child.
As a transracial adoptee, this utter lack of realistic representation confuses, saddens, and, frankly, infuriates me. Navigating life as an adoptee presents singular struggles and perspectives that someone lacking that lived experience (and especially adoptive parents interested in maintaining their own uncomplicated adoption narratives), cannot accurately portray. Adoptee picture books written by adoptees could offer empowerment, inspiration and peace – along with a new level of honesty and awareness – to adopted people. So why, in 2023, do mostly white, adoptive mothers still claim authority to narrate adoption experiences? Why doesn’t the publishing industry know and do better?
In fact, my Diverse BookFinder search revealed only two picture books about adoption written by adoptees. In 2017, mental health professionals at Boston Post Adoption Resources, including adoptee Jennifer Eckert, self-published "Adoption is a Lifelong Journey" as a tool for adoptive children and families. Additionally, in 2022, adoptee Colin Kaepernick published his amazing picture book, "I Color Myself Different," inspired by his childhood experience of using a different crayon to color himself and his parents in a picture.
While these books set a standard for the nuance and authenticity all picture books about adoption should include, their uniqueness proves the rule: in order to see their adoption picture book in print, adoptees must either self-publish or be an international superstar.
Adoption’s Single Story
Trends in representation in Diverse BookFinder’s data allow us to examine which stories get told and by whom. Which stories have the gatekeepers of literary agents, editors, and publishers — predominantly white, straight women — deemed palatable and acceptable to the public? Which stories have the public grown accustomed to reading?
For example, Black/African American characters most frequently appear in biographies and books about oppression and resilience, while Asian American characters rarely do. American Indian/Indigenous people and Latin American characters predominantly appear in stories that center specific cultural practices as part of the plot.
When it comes to adoption, parental saviorism shapes the single story, bolstered by themes of adoptee gratitude and love that looks and feels exactly like that of biological families. While this narrative neatly mirrors that of adoptive parents, it willfully ignores the power dynamic of the adoption relationship, which has been likened to colonialism or evangelizing on a one-to-one scale. It supports the transnational adoption industrial complex while erasing the reality of human trafficking, corruption, and coercion inherent and well-documented in the mass exportation of BIPOC children to Europe and North America from other countries.
It disregards the blatant, historically racist policies of adoption agencies, such as Massachusetts barring Black families from adopting their foster children until the 1980s, and the racially tinged intentions of adoptive parents. For example, when I was adopted from Korea in 1985, prospective parents could preference exactly what skin tones they considered acceptable in their adoptive children: i.e., Korean/white OK, Korean/Black not.
Sun Yung Shin, author of "Unbearable Splendor," a book of poetry which touches on adoption, and "Cooper’s Lesson," a bilingual picture book which features a biracial half-Korean, half-white child, highlights another possible reason few adoptees have written picture books about adoption. She says the adoptee’s struggle with their adoption "does not lend itself to simple plotlines or, for me, at least, happy endings." Yet children’s books frequently touch on difficult topics — from war to forced migration to slavery — and often with gentleness, beauty, and candor.
As a 17-year-veteran of the classroom, who has talked to first graders about active-shooter drills, a global pandemic, police-involved shootings, and living in a world of white, male privilege, I know children can relate to and resonate with incredibly difficult and painful topics when we present those topics in the right way.
And for the sake of adoptees — young and old — we must try.
Many Stories, Needed Now
Growing up repeatedly and exclusively hearing the single story of parental saviorism and adoptee gratitude further complicates adoptees’ already fraught lived experience. As Shin writes, this narrative "while soothing to adoptive families and to the child as a young one, grows thin and problematic as the child moves into adulthood." It also discourages the general public from engaging in much-needed critical scrutiny of adoption policies, practices, and agencies.
Some adoptee advocates say every adoption begins with a tragedy, the circumstances separating biological parents and children. Adoptees must try to reconcile the fundamental and heart-wrenching disconnect of their origins and the varied circumstances of their childhood. For transracial adoptees, this includes complex and often unacknowledged feelings of racial otherness, as well as potential internalized racism and colorism. This extreme cognitive dissonance becomes the atmosphere of their lives. Every time an adoptive parents' discomfort or awkwardness prevents adoptive children from asking questions, or society’s valorization of adoption prevents them from expressing their entire, complex range of feelings around their own adoption, that feeling compounds.
**[In order to support the complexity of adoptee lives, adoptee advocacy groups have chosen October 30 — just before the beginning of pro-adoption National Adoption Month in November — as Adoptee Remembrance Day. This day aims to raise awareness about adoptee suicide, which happens all too frequently. Research has shown that adoptees attempt suicide four times more frequently than non-adoptees. Plus, many adult adoptees know personally and anecdotally about the elevated incidence of incarceration, sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, addiction, and destructive perfectionism among their ranks.]**
We desperately need stories that help adopted children reconcile their multiple identities.
We need stories that help adoptive parents see compassionately and non-defensively the dissonance in which their children live.
We need stories that help adoptees and their adoptive parents dialogue.
We need second-generation adoptee stories that help adult adoptees discuss the topic with their own children.
In fact, we needed these stories a generation ago, when I was growing up and when transracial, international adoption saw its peak; or 30 years before that when the first Korean adoptees were sent to white, Christian families via the creation of the faith-based adoption agency Holt International.
But tardiness has not diminished the importance of telling these stories now.
Adoptees, both trans- and intra-racial, deserve to see themselves and the complex lived realities of their family experiences reflected in picture books. All adoptees — like all children — deserve a place between the pages of a picture book where they can feel at home.
Featured Image Citation:
- Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. sarahpark.com blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/literature-resources/ccbc-diversity-statistics/books-by-about-poc-fnn/. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/picture-this-diversity-in-childrens-books-2018-infographic/.
I Color Myself Different
"An inspiring story of identity and self-esteem from celebrated athlete and activist Colin Kaepernick. When Colin Kaepernick was five years old, he was given a simple school assignment: draw a picture of yourself and your family. What young Colin does next with his brown crayon changes his whole world and worldview, providing a valuable lesson on embracing and celebrating his Black identity through the power of radical self-love and knowing your inherent worth. I Color Myself Different is a joyful ode to Black and Brown lives based on real events in young Colin's life that is perfect for every reader's bookshelf. It's a story of self-discovery, staying true to one's self, and advocating for change... even when you're very little!" -- publisher
Adoption is a lifelong journey
Written from the perspective of a child, Adoption is a Lifelong Journey provides insight into emotions and thoughts an adoptee or foster child might encounter while also equipping caregivers with timely responses and resources.-- cover
Cooper’s lesson / 쿠퍼의 레슨
When Cooper, a biracial Korean-American boy, feels uncomfortable trying to speak Korean in Mr. Lee's grocery, his bad behavior eventually leads to a change in his attitude