Authors: Marion Coste, Yong Chen (Illustrator)
Finding Joy is about a baby who is abandoned in China and about a Caucasian family who wants another child. Their lives come together through international adoption.
The three main groups of people in the baby’s life are depicted as very loving. The first people, her biological parents, wrap her up in a blanket and lay her tenderly on the ground. Her parents weep because they cannot take care of their little girl. The next influential people in Shu-li’s life are the caregivers at the orphanage. The nannies give Shu-li hugs and kisses and have her wrapped in her lucky blanket before she leaves to go to her adoptive parent’s home. The last set of people are Shu-li’s adoptive family. They greet her with smiles and tears and gifts. Her brothers accept her as their sister immediately.
The first illustration in book is a poignant picture of Chinese parents leaving their daughter somewhere she will be found. The child is wrapped in a red blanket and a note written by her parents lies next to the girl. This is an emotion filled image with the mother holding her child for one last time. This is a bold picture for a children’s book. Many authors try to avoid the topic of abandonment, but this level of honesty is a powerful thing. When presented correctly, the author can show the love that continues for the child even while the parents are abandoning her.
While the mother is on the plane, she feels many emotions, and a number of thoughts rush through her head. “What would she find in this distant place? Could her family love a baby born to strangers?” These questions really have quite simple answers. She’s on a plane to China, not some unheard of land. There’s plenty of research and information available to the public about China. Not only for her own personal knowledge, but also for the benefit of the daughter she is about to adopt, the mother should have some general knowledge about China, which she clearly does not have. More shocking is the second question, “could her family love a baby born to strangers?” This question should have been thought about before they began the adoption process – not when she is on the plane about to adopt the child. Moreover, the answer should have been a resounding, unanimous yes. With any uncertainty, the family should have decided to not adopt. Period.
Both fathers are presented as observers, instead of being in the middle of the action. This book has a biological father present at the beginning of the story which is more involvement than in than many books, but he is simply standing, emotionless while the girl’s birthmother is weeping over her child. The book also has an adoptive father, however he does not come to China with the mother to meet Shu-li. He is not on the ground playing ball with Shu-li. Even on the last page, the mother is shown holding Shu-li, while the father simply watches. The only thing he does in the book is tell his wife, “Our family’s not complete. We need a baby here – a little girl.” Even though he is a main character in the story, he can be added onto the already long list of passive fathers in adoption literature.
The family seems to have tossed aside Shu-li’s Chinese identity now that she is in North America. “Now Shu-li lives with her new family in a new land. She has a new name, too: Joy.” The family seems to very cavalierly rename her without any consideration for what she is used to being called throughout the rest of the story. “Joy” is also shown wearing very westernized clothing, but the most upsetting removal of her Chinese identity is through the removal of her lucky blanket that her birthparents gave her. “In a chest in the attic, the red blanket lies neatly folded.” It has been put away until “the time seems right” to explain where the blanket came from. It seems cruel to simply take this very important object away from their daughter, especially considering it is the only familiar thing in this new life of hers.
The most disturbing part of the book, though are the repeated words, “no room for girls.” When Shu-li’s birthparents abandon her, they leave her with a note that says, “This is our Shu-li. Please take care of her. No room for girls.” While this may be true, there is no background information about the policies and systemic issues in China that make it that way. The wording of this statement along with the missing context make her abandonment seem especially harsh. On the very next page, the author describes Shu-li’s reception at the orphanage. The last words on this page are, “they had room for girls.” This juxtaposed with the “no room for girls” in her birthparents’ note makes it seem like Shu-li’s birthparents simply didn’t want a little girl. But her birthparents’ weeping when they left her would say otherwise. The phrase, “no room for girls” is not revisited again until the very last page in which the author writes, “When the time seems right, the mother will . . . tell her daughter about flying far away to the land that had no room for girls, and finding Joy.” It is concerning that the mother’s main impression of China is that it has “no room for girls.” She doesn’t say that she will tell her daughter about her loving birthparents who made the best decision they could or the nannies who made sure she had her lucky blanket with her before she left for North America. Because her impression of China is so negative, she would not be likely to try to keep her daughter culturally connected to her roots, which I believe is very important for adoptees to experience.
This book could have been helpful in talking about abandonment with Chinese adoptees, but the repeated idea of having “no room for girls” is very damaging and takes away from the power of the first illustration. Additionally, Shu-li’s immediate transformation to Joy is upsetting, because like her blanket is tucked away in the attic, the author makes it seem like Joy’s Chinese identity will also be put away – at least until her mother is ready to bring these issues up. But the mother’s readiness should not be a factor in this. It should be about what would most help Shu-li. I don’t think Chinese adoptees would gain anything from reading this book. Parents should pass this one by for some of the better adoption literature.