This month’s focus for the Diverse Books Club* was foster care and adoption. While foster care and adoption can be beautiful things, there can also be heartbreak and difficulty for all involved—birth parents, children, and adoptive parents. Too often, the hard reality of adoption isn’t discussed or portrayed when we speak of these things. Adoptive parents are saviors, the children are lucky to get out, and the fairy tale ends with the judge’s gavel pronouncing the creation of a forever family. But adoption is not a fairy tale for most. It is, quite often, simply a necessary evil.
As an attorney, I have seen parents with disabilities who needed temporary help lose their children entirely to the machine that is the child welfare system. I’ve also seen children who needed help far sooner, but even once the State intervened stood little chance of getting what they needed. The failures are typically not for lack of care on the part of the people involved, but rather a function of a behemoth grown too large to manage with perpetually underfunded staff and resources. The end result is that while individual caseworkers, attorneys, and judges may very well care, the system doesn’t. And it is the system that swallows parents and children whole.
I was grateful, therefore, to see that there are mainstream, accessible books that tackle some of these issues and that DBC selected this as a theme to explore.
forever, or a long, long time
The first DBC book I read this month, and my favorite of the two, was forever, or a long, long time—a middle grade book written by Caela Carter. This book was a pleasant surprise to me since I rarely really get into middle grade books. I’m not a teacher and don’t have children, so I don’t have a reason to ever pick them up outside of a book club selection and they’re usual hit or miss for me. I went ahead and got this one but assumed I might be quitting after a chapter or so. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Summary // Foster Care Damage
Forever is told from the point of view of fourth grader Flora who, along with her younger brother Julian has been adopted into what is supposed to be their forever home. You quickly come to realize that due to some neglect faced by these two children before landing where they are, Flora struggles with processing language—she understands but has trouble putting her thoughts into words and speaking. Julian hoards food, even though he now receives plenty at the table everyday. For children who have been through at least four placements and “entered care” very young, these disabilities and issues are not terribly surprising. Language delays can be common in children who were neglected or otherwise not engaged at a young age. Similarly, hoarding is a common aftereffect of serious neglect where access to food was limited. Long after the neglect has ended, the psychological remains of this neglect stays—rooting this out and filling in the hole left can take far longer. Nor is it surprising that Flora self-sabotages in school, torn between wanting to do well and please her mom and teacher and not wanting to have to transition away from the teacher and classroom she knows and loves.
Though Flora’s and Julian’s new mom and dad do everything they can and show remarkable patience, the adoption is still hard. Adoption did not make Flora speak overnight or keep her from self-sabotaging. It doesn’t keep Julian from hiding moldy chicken nuggets tucked in the folds of his khakis in his closet. Nor does having a mom and dad keep the children from wondering about their first mom and dad, or where they came from. Since no one seems to be able to tell them, Flora and Julian have created a heartbreaking little game, where they come up with theories of where they came from—they formed on the bottom of the sea, they stepped fully grown from a television, etc.
Adding to the mix is the blended family—Dad had a family before and so adoption comes with a half-sister. Though the adults don’t use the “half” or designate the status/worth of their children by differentiating between those acquired by birth and adoption, you can bet the children do themselves. There is a pervading cloud of otherness that hangs over Flora and Julian, despite the efforts of their parents, teachers, and therapist. No one (except maybe dad’s ex-wife) is to blame and everyone is trying their best.
The final piece of the chaos is the loss of Flora and Julian’s files. No one—not Mom, not the agency—knows where the files are. And so, the family embarks on a quest to find where Flora and Julian came from, tracing back one placement by one placement. On this journey, hard truths come out about where Flora and Julian were placed, what motives some of the placements had, failures of the system that resulted in Flora and Julian losing a loving home that was ready and available for them many years before they stopped bouncing around the system. And they find the home where Flora and Julian were taken right after their emergency removal—the home that left me with the solid feeling that they may have been in trouble before, but the home they were thrust into was far worse.
Along the way are all the people—the loving foster home that Flora and Julian lost. The foster-farm parent who takes in large numbers of kids and gives them the bare minimum. The parent who was more concerned about herself than keeping Flora and Julian together. The caseworker who tried her best but still probably failed. And the forever mom, the forever dad, and the forever siblings. All of these people are real people in the system that makes the foster-adoption process the flawed, hot mess with sometimes happy endings that it is.
Having written all of this out, Forever admittedly sounds like a bummer of a book. And yet, it was hopeful. It was hard but, as is age appropriate, it ends well for Flora and Julian. They have their forever family. Forever presents an accurate portrayal of what foster care and adoption can look like for one family in an accessible and age appropriate way. There is nothing graphic or scary; however, this is a book that will spark conversation about the fact that not every family is safe. Not every child is well taken care of. And that kid in class who seems kind of weird and doesn’t look like their family—may be one of the best people to get to know. Because not every family looks alike and that’s more than okay.
Forever is a beautiful book that I’m glad I read and will be recommending for friends with kids. Even those who aren’t involved in foster care or adoption should pick up this book for their children and begin exploring these topics so that when Flora and Julian shows up next to them in class, they have a head start on being kind.
Published: March 7, 2017 by HarperCollins (harpercollinsus)
Author: Caela Carter
Read: January 5, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars
Admittedly, I was a little less jazzed about Secret Daughter. I think we’ve pretty well established that I’m a book-snob and my tastes, with some exceptions, veer more LitFic than WomansFic. I don’t love the mass market paperback but give me the snobby book nominated for the Man Booker and talked about on NPR. I want to read and re-read a paragraph just to appreciate the cadence of the words. Secret Daughter is definitely more in the WomansFic class.
Secret Daughter follows two families beginning with the birth of their daughter in 1984 through 2009. Kavita is Usha/Asha’s birth mother, forced by circumstance to give her daughter up in order to literally save her life. Somer and Krishnan are Asha’s mixed-race parents in the States who adopt her as a very young child. As the book moves through time, you read about Kavita’s life—how she wonders about Asha, how her life slowly improves (at least on the surface) with her husband and her son she was allowed to keep, born about a year after Asha. You struggle with Somer over her infertility, her adoption of Asha, her sacrifice of much of her ambition in order to fit into her new role as Mom. And, when Asha grows old enough, you follow Asha as she wonders who she is and where she come from. Layered over this is the mixed-culture marriage of Somer and Krishnan. Krishnan was, with relatively little complaint from him, forced to assimilate to American culture when he came over many years ago for medical school. Somer, during short visits to India chafes against having to assimilate, even temporarily—leaving her with mostly negative feelings about the country of her child’s birth, even independent of any fears she has about Asha’s birth parents.
Verdict // Importance of books like these
I don’t have any major things I can point to about why I didn’t love this book—I think the problem is that I also don’t have anything I can point to that I loved. There were no paragraphs that I re-read to appreciate the writing, though I also never rolled my eyes at anything overwrought. (Secret Daughter is still head and shoulders above Lilac Girls.) I’d give it 3 ½ stars because it is an above-average book. It just isn’t the kind of book I gravitate to and I don’t want to rush to get back to it when I had to put it down.
While I didn’t love the book, after sitting with it for several days, I do think books like Secret Daughter fill an important role, much the way I think some Jodi Picoult books do. There are many readers who will not pick up a serious work on domestic violence or the recent unmasking of the rampant white supremacy around us and yet, these women will pick up Picture Perfect and Small Great Things. It is important that weighty topics not be limited to serious works but that mass-market fiction sold for $11 in Target also introduces these ideas.
Along these likes Secret Daughter raises points that are not highly talked about with international child adoption. Adoptive mom Somer feels she’s lost herself to give her daughter Asha a beautiful life in America—having, like many mothers, sacrificed her own dreams and ambitions for the sake of her child. For her part, Asha, though adopted as a very child, still wonders about her birth country and her birth family. Though Asha has everything she could want in America and two loving parents, there is still the very real urge to find where she came from and why her parents had to give her up.
Here to is where Secret Daughter raises important points, particularly about international adoption. Many if not most “orphans” in places like India, Haiti, and Ethiopia are not orphans. They are children of poverty whose families gave them up because it was the surest way to ensure they would have access to food and shelter. Or some other circumstances intervened to prevent their birth family from caring for them, but this doesn’t mean they are unloved, unwanted, or even actually orphaned. Even medical advances like the ultrasound and things like abortion access come into play in Secret Daughter as it’s a poorly kept secret that these things are used by some in countries like India for sex-selective abortion. The result in places like India and China is an imbalance where men outnumber women significantly by the time a generation reaches childbearing age.
Thematically, Secret Daughter isn’t a beachy read and yet, it kind of reads like one. The writing is straightforward, the characters easy to identify with. The plot has enough action to keep it moving at a decent clip. It’s not a book I plan to keep and I probably won’t recommend widely, though it is something I’d recommend to my mother since she camps pretty solidly in the Women’s Fiction section in her typical reading tastes. If you lean more Women’s Fic than LitFic this is a book you’d enjoy and I do think it a worthwhile use of your time.
If you do pick up Secret Daughter, make sure to read the author’s note about her inspiration to write the book and the real life facts behind Asha’s story.
Published: April 5, 2011 by William Morrow books (paperback) (@williammorrowbooks)
Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda (@shilpi_gowda)
Read: January 11, 2018
Rating: 3 ½ stars
*New Members are always welcome in our community for Diverse Books Club! We’re a publicly viewable group on Goodreads, but if you have any trouble finding us, leave me a comment with your Goodreads name and I can invite you directly.