Authors: Deborah Hodge, Song Nan Zhang (Illustrator)
Emma and her brother are making cookies at their grandma’s house when she notices that she is the only one in the family with dark hair. She then becomes very sad because she wants to look like everyone else. In response to this, Emma’s grandmother pulls her aside and tells her about “her story” – how she came to be a part of her family. In the end her parents reiterate how much they love her, and all of the problems are resolved.
When Emma begins to feel sad about being different from the rest of her family members, her grandmother asks her if she would like to hear her story again. This shows that there has been prior discussion about Emma’s adoption. It is great that even the extended family members feel comfortable talking about this with Emma. Another beneficial aspect of this scene is that the grandmother instigated the conversation. Often times, adoptees will not ask to talk about their adoption unless they know it is a safe topic to bring up. By having the Grandmother start this conversation, Emma knows it’s something she can talk to her family about.
When meeting her, Emma’s parents say, “Hello Emma. We are your new parents. We will love you always.” Though describing the entire action of adoption as driven by love is too broad, it is important to reiterate love and permanence on an individual scale; Including the word “always” does just that. It is clear that Emma has loving family members who want to be supportive of her.
In the author’s note Hodge says, “Today’s families can be biologically linked or they can be created through love and choice, as in the case of adoption.” The key words in this message are “love” and “choice.” Though it may be a choice for the adoptive parents to create their family that way, often times it is not a choice for the biological family, pressured by society or an individual to give up their child for adoption. It would have been fine to use the word “choice” if the author had clarified that both parties involved in the adoption do not have the luxury of choice. The second word is “love,” which carries a very strongly positive connotation. The reality is that there are many harmful elements of adoption, and using the grandiose term “love” does not erase those, it simply attempts to cover them up. Hodge says that “every child, in every country, deserves and needs loving parents. International adoptions provide a way for children around the globe to have that opportunity.” By making this blanket statement, she ignores the fact that many so-called orphans have loving parents in their home countries already, but the adoption industry profits from removing them from their natural, loving homes and placing them into international adoptions.
It is interesting that the book is called, Emma’s Story, because much of “Emma’s story” is missing. Not once does the book mention Emma’s biological parents. These extremely critical people, without whom Emma would not be born, are completely missing from “her story.” Also, “Emma’s story” does not involve being in an orphanage. Instead it is described to her as “a big building where Emma lived with other babies.” Some people are sensitive about the word orphanage, but children are smart. Call it that or not, they will know or another child who does know the term will tell them. Even though some parts of adoption are painful, it is important to be as honest as possible with children about it. The story Emma’s grandmother tells her begins with her family wanting a baby girl and preparing to go to China. Emma does not make an entrance until she is in the arms of her adoptive parents, giving her no back story at all. It should be called “Emma’s parents’ story” instead of her own, since so much of her actual story is missing.
The book ends by saying, “in a few years, when Emma is older, Mommy and Daddy will take her to China to show her the country where she was born. For now, Emma is happy playing in the park with her family.” It is very encouraging that her parents are already planning ahead for a trip back to China which shows that they want her to know about her roots and homeland. However, this ending is too clean in relation to the situation. The statement, “for now, Emma is happy playing in the park,” is false. Just a little while earlier, she was crying to her grandmother about looking different from her family. This indicates that she is not purely just a happy child. By ending the book this way, it makes it seem as if her parents are going to ignore her current questions or feelings about adoption and save them for a later date, which is not a healthy thing to do.
Something very noticeable in the illustrations are the ghostly, white people. In fact, everyone in this book is eerily pale, including Emma and the few other Chinese people shown. This is unnatural because even among Caucasian people there is variation in skin color, let alone when people of different races come together. Additionally, the nanny in the orphanage is either Caucasian or Chinese without any Asian features at all. If the woman is Caucasian, that is a completely unrealistic representation of the workers in Chinese orphanages. But if she is supposed to be Chinese, the woman’s face has no Chinese physical characteristics. Perhaps some of the uncertainty is tied to the pale, white skin tone everyone has in this book. Since the target audience for Emma’s Story is Chinese American adoptees, it would be really beneficial to show another Chinese character, instead of this racially ambiguous one. It would help girls like Emma who are self conscious about their Asian appearance know that they can be strong in their Chinese identity and don’t have to dilute their features by trying to “westernize” them.
When looking closely at the background of the Grandmother’s house, the reader can see she has a piece of Asian art. Also, the little plush panda that Emma holds throughout the book was given to her by a merchant in China. Other than those two objects there is no evidence that her parents are doing anything to keep her active in a Chinese-American community or have any Chinese influence in her life.
The negative elements of this book severely outweigh the positive ones, both in the illustrations and in the words. This could have shown an effective way to talk about the differences in appearance of family members with transracial adoption, but the book distracts from that concern by talking about the parents’ desire for a daughter and the adoption process instead of focusing on the current issues Emma brings up. Other books for children from China are more helpful in discussing adoption. I would recommend that parents skip reading Emma’s Story to their children.