Children’s literature functions as both windows and mirrors: some stories are windows to cultures and realities other than our own, while others act as mirrors to reflect our own experiences and cultures (Sims Bishop). However, some literatures present and perpetuate incomplete or distorted images of non-majority cultures. This problem is more rampant when stories are written by outsiders to a particular experience, such as that of transracial adoption.
“I’m a librarian and recently found an old book in my school library called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John by Pearl S. Buck. I read it and it is completely charming… I don’t know enough about this time period or the situation… Maybe you can help me with some of this or point me in the right direction.” (Personal communication, March 14, 2006)
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (1966) is the sixth American children’s book about adopted Koreans published in the United States since 1955. The librarian speaking in the quote above found the book in her school library collection, read the book, went online, found my website, and e-mailed me to ask about the background of biracial Korean War orphans who were abandoned by their birth families and then adopted by white Americans, and representations of such situations in children’s literature. She asked what I thought of the story (particularly the representations of Korean nationals abandoning their biracial children) and if there were better Korean adoption stories she could include in her collection.
I have found a scant few articles discussing adoption-related children’s books for educators, but my conversations with this particular librarian and others indicate that many people – librarians, teachers, parents, etc. – may be unaware about the specific history and experiences of transracially adopted Korean children and uninformed about issues regarding their unique experiences and representations in children’s literature. This points to the pressing need to understand both the content and context of stories about adopted youth in general, and transracially adopted Korean youth in particular.
Although my research looks specifically at adopted Korean youth, there are many issues related to adoption (whether it is domestic or transnational, same-race or transracial) that are infrequently depicted in children’s books. For example, adoption stories are overwhelmingly authored by more adoptive parents than adopted persons, are happily-ever-after, and tend to shy away from sensitive and difficult issues such as abandonment and birth parent searches. Thus, my research also serves the larger purpose of bringing these issues to light, not only for the purpose of addressing these topics specifically in children’s books, but also more generally in everyday situations. I encourage you to read a very thoughtful blog entry by my friend JaeRan Kim on the politics of writing about adoption in children’s books.
As well, my research speaks to the more general issue of needing to know more about any given population, and how our lack of knowledge affects our ability to make decisions about including books about specific populations in a library collection. Although one may argue that it is impossible to fully know the history, culture and experiences of all groups of people, we must start somewhere. I do what I can to promote good children’s literature about the Korean diaspora. This is my particular talent and calling, and if my scholarship has made a difference in at least one child’s life, then I have done my job.