When my picture book Mitzi Tulane, Preschool Detective in What’s That Smell? was in production, I gave the illustrator, the wonderfully talented Debbie Ridpath Ohi, a photograph of my 4-year-old daughter as a reference for the title character. The result was stunning. Not only does Mitzi resemble my daughter in physical appearance, with her curly brown hair and bright expressive face, but somehow Debbie managed to capture the spark of her impish personality as well.
My daughter is thrilled to be “the star” of a picture book series and enjoys coming along with me to readings and signings so that she can autograph people’s books. But my motive for asking Debbie to base the main character on her had nothing to do with celebrity. Instead, I wanted this series to feature a transracial adoptive family, because that’s what we are.
Though the series isn’t specifically about adoption (it’s too busy chronicling the mystery-solving adventures of its pint-sized heroine), the family depicted is clearly adoptive. The parents are white, and Mitzi is black. It’s what we in the adoptive community call a “visible adoption.” There are millions of families just like us, but very few picture books that represent us. I wanted to do something about that. I also wanted to make sure my daughter had something to read that reflected her own family.
But it takes a while for a picture book to complete its journey from written text to a fully illustrated final product. Four years, in this case. So, while I waited, I began to fill up my shelves with as many books featuring adoptive families as possible. As I began to collect them, I quickly realized that you didn’t have to be part of an adoptive family to appreciate them. Every adoption is a celebration, the culmination of a journey to create a family. Who doesn’t want to read about that?
I still think it would be wonderful to see more adoptive families represented in children’s fiction. But in the meantime, there are some wonderful books already available that can broaden and diversify anyone’s bookshelves.
These are my personal favorites:
This is the true story of two gay male penguins from New York Cityʼs Central Park Zoo who “adopt” an egg and create a family together. It introduces the idea of a family with two dads in a light and breezy way, reinforcing the notion that families come in all shapes and sizes. Children will love the heartwarming details of Roy and Silo’s attempts to hatch a stone in imitation of the other penguin couples who are successfully hatching real eggs. A zookeeper gives them a real abandoned egg to take care of, and children will cheer when little Tango is born. The illustrations are colorful and realistic, evoking the real zoo on which the story is based.
Ages 2 - 5
The author’s note at the beginning of this elegant, simple book sets the tone: “Every family is different, so feel free to change the pronouns in this text to fit your family.” What follows is a kind of roll call of the many ways in which families are created. Though the details change from family to family, what unites them all is a sense of purpose. “We belong together because ... you needed a home and I had one to share.” With very few words on each page, it’s perfect for early readers, and Parr’s trademark bold drawings in bright cheerful colors are irresistible.
Ages 3 - 6
One of my daughter’s favorites, this adorable story follows a little yellow bird on his journey to find a mother. Whenever he asks an animal if she can be his mother (a penguin, a walrus, a giraffe) he is rebuffed because he doesn’t look like them. But when he finally meets a bear, she offers to take him home to meet her other children — a pig, an alligator, and a hippopotamus. When she offers to be his mother, Little Choco rejoices, having learned, finally, that you don’t have to look alike to be a family. This book dares to address the little bird’s sadness at being rejected (at times quite cruelly). As such, it can be an opportunity to address feelings of confusion or exclusion that a child might experience. And the happy ending featuring a lovely illustration of the mother bear holding all of her children is both reassuring and narratively satisfying.
Ages 2 - 5
In this charming story, a little girl asks her parents to retell the story of the night she was born. Using humor and a keen awareness of a child’s fondness for repetition, this beautifully illustrated book relays the details of a fairly typical adoption. The prospective parents are telephoned in the middle of the night with news of their daughter’s birth. They rush to the airport and arrive at the hospital to pick her up. What sets this book apart is its wonderful intermingling of humor and poignancy. The young narrator begs of her parents: “Tell me again how you held hands all the way to the hospital and when you got there you both got very quiet and felt very small.” As an adoptive mother myself, I recall that same experience — the sense that something profound and important was about to happen, and that I was blessed to be a part of it. Far and away my favorite picture book about adoption — and one of my favorite books period — Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born evokes the sense of awe common to many adoptions and manages to do so with the lightest of touches.
Ages 4 - 8
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