On an irregular basis, I will post reviews of adoption-related books. Enjoy!
Please also be sure to take a look at Adoptee Reading Resource, which has loads of information about books written by and recommended by adoptees.
Tatyana McFadden: Ya Sama! Moments From My Life
Tatyana McFadden’s life offers a lot of compelling topics for a book: being internationally adopted, living with disabilities, overcoming physical challenges, participating in international sporting events around the globe, and winning multiple marathons. Her new book, “Tatyana McFadden: Ya Sama! Moments,From My Life,” shares stories about her beginnings and her athletic accomplishments. It’s a great book for kids ages 10 or so and up; it’s a good read for adults as well. The book is matter of fact in its inspiration, down to earth and anecdotal. It is instructive in the best way possible, offering the readers true stories of determination and perseverance, via a voice that has genuinely achieved some amazing success.
Born in Russia with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spine does not close completely around the spinal cord, Tatyana was placed in an orphanage. She was expected to die; some of the caregivers in the orphanage prayed for her suffering to end. But by the end of the first year, Tatyana “was still alive, and while frail and sickly, I gave no signs of withering away.” It’s a pattern that she has exemplified through her first 20 years of life. Is there a big challenge that others think she shouldn’t take on? Something that you think that she, someone who uses a wheelchair, can’t do? Would that include parasailing, traveling to India, swimming with dolphins, winning gold medals in high level competitive sports, going to college far from home, or what?
The book’s subtitle is “Ya Sama!” In Russian, it means, “I can do it.” It is the cornerstone approach for Tatyana and her family. I’ve known one of her moms, Deb McFadden, for about 20 years. Deb is warm, bright, and creative, a champion for what is possible, and a fierce advocate for family and justice. As Tatyana relates in her book, Deb was bringing supplies to children in orphanages and hospitals in Russia when she met Tatyana, who was then about 5 years old. Tatyana’s legs did not work, so she had learned to tuck her legs over each other and scoot along the floor. When she was five, she learned to “walk” by hoisting herself upside down and walking on her hands, legs folded above her.
Deb brought Tatyana her first wheelchair in Russia, and taught her to push and propel herself around the halls of the stark orphanage. They then went outside, where Tatyana had rarely been, and the little girl spun the wheels on the chair and flew down the empty, dead-end street. “I coasted to a stop, turned around, raced back down to the corner, and turned and raced down again. How wonderful it felt to move with such ease and speed!”
Tatyana was adopted by Deb in 1994, and moved to Maryland. The early resiliency and initiative she showed in her St. Petersburg orphanage foreshadowed her ability to make friends, to learn to swim, to play on the jungle gym and swings on the school playground, to handle surgeries due to acute muscular atrophy, to attend Girl Scout camp, and to begin her competitive athletic career.
She stared racing and competing, setting records in her age group for shot put, javelin, discus, and wheelchair racing. She qualified for the Paralympics at 15 years old. The Paralympics are like the Olympics: a major international multi-sport event, every four years, but for athletes with physical disabilities, including muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, and vision impairment. Many of the athletes are war veterans. All of them are top-notch, hard-working, competitive athletes.
She started high school, kept racing, and began her work in disability rights. The high school essentially wanted to have a “separate but equal” approach to disabled/differently abled athletes. Tatyana challenged that position in court—and won. “It had been a tense time for me as well as the students and teachers who were opposed to the lawsuit. But eventually everyone came around when they saw that including kids with disabilities in regular sports activities was much easier than they had imagined,” writes Tatyana.
Tatyana went on to attend and graduate from the University of Illinois, and kept competing, winning the Chicago, Boston, New York, and London marathons multiple times. She won the Boston marathon in 2013, the year the bombs went off there, shortly after the wheelchair athletes had finished. She has been an active supporter of the victims who lost their limbs in the tragedy there, offering them an example of what is possible.
There is no doubt that Tatyana has great athletic ability, and is also an incredibly hard worker. She recounts in the book a time or two when she lost a race, and how she stayed focused nonetheless, and kept competing. I am sure she has low and hard moments. The sense in the book, though, is resolute about the hurdles she has faced: recognizing them, acknowledging them, and getting around them. The book touches briefly on adoption, her years in the orphanage, her sisters and family, her appearances on ESPN, her travels in Russia, China and elsewhere, and her work with children and adults who have spina bifida or other challenges. I would not be surprised if Tatyana writes more books—she has a lot to say. This one is a terrific start.
Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation
Part 1 of Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation begins with a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh: “Ask a cloud: What is the date of your birth? Before you were born, where were you?” That quote sets the tone for the profound and authentic journey of Soojung Jo, in seeking to reconcile her origins with her life. Adopted from South Korea at 3 years old, she was renamed Raina, grew up in Kentucky, graduated from West Point, got married, and became a mother through birth and adoption. At 36, she learned, via an email message, that her Korean mother had been trying to find her for many years. For me, an adoptive parent, Ghost of Sangju was a powerful, moving, compelling read. I found myself taking brief breaks as I was reading, so that I could reflect on the wisdom and depth of the words, then diving back into the fascinating, poignant story.
One of Soojung’s childhood thoughts: “…I find the obscure memory, which floats like mist in a fog: a woman holding my hand. She is saying goodbye, pinning my name to my shirt. In this fabricated memory, I am a toddler, watching my mother walk away, down a long, dirty street in the middle of a bleak foreign country. What is the name of it again? Oh, right, Korea—whatever that means. She is leaving me because she loves me, that’s what Mom said. I think that is a strange way to love someone.” Ghost of Sangju shows the complexity of international adoption through the eyes of a child, struggling to make meaning of being given up, being “chosen,” being lost, found, separated, reunited. It’s a complexity that permeates the book as well as the life of Raina/Soojung, who travels to Korea once as a commissioned US Army officer, then later as a daughter about to meet her mother and many other family members, after decades of wondering and yearning. Her time in Korea involves partaking of the food, the culture, and language that are hers and yet are not. The information gained about her origins is factual, frightening, sad, and insightful. Soojung gets answers, but they evoke many more questions.
Ghost of Sangju, published by and available from Gazillion Strong, is important for anyone connected with adoption around the globe, and I hope that it gets a wide readership. It should be on adoption agencies’ and counselors’ recommended reading lists, as it takes us through the very real perspectives of a child, teen, and adult coming to grips with a complex, bittersweet journey. We too often do not hear the stories of first mothers, the women who have lost their children to adoption. Hearing about Soojung’s Korean mother, her “omma,” reading her letters, and learning her story: it’s viscerally powerful. “ Omma is like a deep and mighty river that has been dammed for too long. The reservoir of her sorrow seeps out one story at a time. She begins slowly at first, rocking herself a bit and catching the shining beads that fall from the corner of her eyes…Omma’s stories grow longer, and her tears fall heavier.”
Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation is a book about more than adoption, of course. It’s about a basic human need and right: to understand who we truly are.
Dear Wonderful You: Letters to Adopted and Fostered Youth
This book was named as one of the Notable New Reads by Adoptive Families magazine. Read about it here.
I have no doubts that there is a great need for a book like “Dear Wonderful You:Letters to Adopted and Fostered Youth,” edited by Diane Rene Christian and Mei-Mei Ellerman. Books written not by adoptive parents but by adoptees, reflecting the reality of their experiences, are vital. The goal of “Dear Wonderful You” is for “adopted or fostered youth to feel embraced and guided by the incredible letters contained inside. The contributors want every young reader to know they have a network of support who ‘get it,’ ‘get them,’ and have been in their shoes,” according to the information on Amazon.com.
“Dear Wonderful You” includes letters from 26 adult adoptees with a remarkable variety of writing styles, experiences, and messages. All are meant to be supportive. I read the book through the lens of someone who worked years ago professionally in adoption, and as an adoptive parent of 4 now young adults, all in their mid-late 20’s. I look forward to reviews by adopted tweens and teens, as well as by adopted adults.
The letters in “Dear Wonderful You” are all intended to reach out to and support young adopted people. Liz Semons lists questions that many adoptees wrestle with, and Karen Pickell reflects on ways to see oneself as beautiful. Angela Tucker and Joanne Bennett, each in her own style, offer affirming messages that understand the fragility and challenges that can go with being adopted. Amanda Transue-Woolston writes that adoptees are in charge of their own story, and of understanding personal strengths. Joe Soll says that “we adoptees can love two moms without lessening the love we have for them.”
Each writer has wisdom to share, but I fear some messages will get lost in too long and sometimes esoteric entries for many tween-teen readers. Do they know who Joseph Campbell is? Two writers cite him. Most tweens/teens are used to text messages from friends, and are unfamiliar with lengthy letters as connections for support. Please understand–I love lengthy letters. I write them and read them happily. I hope that the intended readers of this book will do the same.
Of the 26 writers, 21 are women and five are men. We need more male voices in these conversations. Half of the writers were adopted from the US, and half internationally. The international adoptees were from mostly from Asia (Korea, Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan), and one each from Germany and Colombia.
Most of the writers in “Dear Wonderful You” were adopted as infants, or in any case at maybe a year of age. Only two writers were adopted when they were over 6 years old. If the writers were fostered at all, it was mostly for a short period of time, as babies. I do not mean to minimize the impact of even a short time in foster care. None was adopted from the US foster care system as an older child, say over five years old. For a book directed toward “adopted and fostered youth,” it would have been great to have the perspectives of those who spent multiple years (say, as middle schoolers or high schoolers) in foster care, or even aged out, never having been adopted.
I would have liked to have seen the perspective of LGBT folks included in the book. When I was working professionally in adoption and foster care, I was aware of many LGBT youth who were thrown out of their foster families for being LGBT, or even for questioning their sexual identity—often having been thrown out of their original families for the same reason. It’s a group of adopted and fostered youth in great need of support from the adoption community as much as from the world at large.
I was also struck by how many of the writers (more than 10) were in my age range, say over 45, and a few even older than I am. Again, I have no doubts about their wisdom, and yes, there is merit to an intergenerational approach. Still, I wondered how tweens and teens would welcome them. I know my own children, when they were adolescents, weren’t always open to the advice of people their parents’ and grandparents’ ages. It may be, though, that the young readers will pick and choose what they read and how they receive it, and some messages may be seeds for future thoughts and growth.
Overall, “Dear Wonderful You” is a good addition to books for young adoptees; we need more books that present the realities of adoption from the perspective of adopted people. Adoptive parents should absolutely read the book, as should adoption professionals: listen to the voices of real, adopted people. Colombian adoptee Joe Leinaweaver writes in “Dear Wonderful You” that adopted people “have heroic work to do in the world, to make it a better place, to help heal. Our stories matter, they are the gift to the world, and this includes the good and the bad. I encourage you to nurture and protect your own stories, and celebrate you as the hero you’ve been waiting for. “ Here’s hoping the message reaches adopted and fostered tweens and teens.
You can read additional reviews of “Dear Wonderful You” here.
Review of “The Declassified Adoptee: Essays of An Adoption Activist”
An unknowable number of stories exist in the world of adoption: compelling, inspiring, heartbreaking, provocative, introspective, poignant, and powerful. These words also describe Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston’s book, “The Declassified Adoptee: Essays of An Adoption Activist.” Amanda is a calm, clear, thoughtful, lyrical storyteller. Like the best storytellers, she writes from her heart, leaving the reader with much to reflect on, much to mull over, much to savor and learn.
Amanda writes evocatively about her experiences as an adoptee, born in 1985, placed in foster care at 3 days old, officially adopted at 8 months old. Hers was a same race, closed adoption—though her first mother had been told it would be open. Amanda, after a lot of time and expense, has reunited with her first mother and several members of her original family. She remains closely connected with her adoptive family as well.
As the former executive director of 2 adoption agencies and an international adoption nonprofit organization, I believe that “The Declassified Adoptee” should be required reading for all prospective adoptive parents, for all adoptive parents, and for social workers and other professionals who work in any way with adoption. It should be required reading for all adoption agency executive directors, for those who sit on the board of directors for adoption agencies, and for those who provide any and all post-adoption services.
As an adoptive parent, I believe that “The Declassified Adoptee” would have provided me with both insights and icebreakers when talking about adoption with my children when they were growing up. I plan to share the book with each of my now-young adult children; though the details of their experiences may vary, I have no doubts Amanda’s story, and her insights, will resonate with them.
Like Amanda and most other adoptees (whether from the US or internationally adopted, whether adopted as infants or older children, whether adopted through private or public agencies), each of my children has dealt with the complex realities in adoption that Amanda writes about: trust, bullying, identity, truth, fantasy, secrecy, loss, grief, confusion, laws, lies, and love.
Her brief, insightful essays reflect the challenges that adoptees face: not knowing when to ask what questions, being startled and angered (and occasionally amused) by society’s views of adoption, and dealing with the truths of their stories. Those truths can be painful. One of the best gifts for first parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees from reading Amanda’s book may be her reflections on dealing with the painful circumstances that bring children to be adopted. Amanda writes candidly, gracefully, and hopefully about facing difficult truths in adoption, accepting them while not letting them overpower or define, and moving ahead with strength and resilience. “The Declassified Adoptee” deserves a wide audience in the adoption community, among adoptees, first parents, adoptive parents, social workers, adoption researchers, and anyone interested in better understanding what it means to be family.
From my Amazon.com Review January 24, 2014
Stories, insights, and real voices: Yes, there are struggles and joys, and yes, we need to listen well.
As an adoptive parent, my experience of adoption reunion has hit closest to home through my adopted children, all young adults now. Each sees the potential and realities of reunion differently. My additional experience with reunion has been through the eyes, words, tears, and smiles of friends who are adoptees, or original parents, or both. Now, having read “Adoption Reunion in the Social Media Age,” my understanding of reunion has been expanded–what a gift.
I urge anyone involved with adoption–wherever you might be in the constellation–to read this book. You will hear the voices of US and international adoptees, those from the Baby Scoop Era in the US and Australia, and those in closed, private adoptions. You will hear the voices of original parents, and their approach to adoption reunion will range from exuberantly happy to stoic, or even forbidding. And that spectrum is indeed what reunion can be.
One of the most important insights here is the impact of adoption on “extended family.” Adoption practice tends to focus on the birth/original parents, the adoptee, and the adoptive parents. “Adoption Reunion” reminds us of all the others: the siblings, the half-brothers, the cousins, the aunts, the uncles, the grandparents–their place in reunion is hugely important as well. Sometimes when doors closed on reunion with a birth mother, it opened on a reunion with (sometimes previously unknown) siblings.
An additional value of the book is being able to listen to the voices and stories, and digest the variety of experiences. What one person defines as “success” in reunion can be very different to the next person. “Reunion” itself is a multi-layered, complicated term. The process of search and reunion is a labyrinth. Some people get through easily, some get rebuffed at every corner, some start and stop, sometimes over the course of years.
For adoptive parents, it’s our responsibility to join our children on their journey. That, to me, means listening carefully, being open to hard, painful truths, providing counsel when asked, accepting what they decide, and sharing in their joy and sorrow. “Adoption Reunion in the Social Media Age” provides an opportunity to listen, and to receive the gifts of these varied stories and experiences. In the Afterword, Amanda H. L. Transue-Woolston writes “…the most important commonality between each author is the fact that these are their memories. Together, these memories make up a larger ocean of memories within the adoption community. Our memories create the history of adoption, and our memories shape the future of adoption.” Exactly right.