I come to write this book review a broken, weeping soul. But I have to write it now, while it’s fresh. I have to write it before I forget how it made me feel; how it made me feel things I didn’t want to feel, things I didn’t know I needed to feel.
I know before writing (and now after writing) this review will jump all over the place. I don’t want to retell the story as much as I want you know what it means to me, how it made me feel, why I’m excited that it exists in today’s middle grade fiction world. I want you to understand why I cried while read it, over and over and over and over. I want you to want to pick it up even though you’re probably going to think, “That Jenna is at it again.” I am. Always.
Know that I am writing this as a birth mother who placed a child for adoption at birth; a birth mother involved in a fully open adoption with her daughter and her family nearly 14 years later; a birth mother who, post-placement, birthed and parented two sons and raises them with her now husband; a birth mother who has watched her parented sons grieve the loss of a sister before they were ever born; a birth mother, a mother, whose guilt over what she did not know will never abate.
And so we begin.
I happened upon forever, or a long, long time by Caela Carter the way I happen upon most books: in the library. We visit the library once a week, save for traveling in the summer. This particular evening marked our first trip during this new school year. I walked with my youngest son to the new releases in the children’s section, which is always our first stop.
I did my usual bookcover, spine judging, brief reading of jackets and skimming of chapters to find two books I thought he might like. I then sent him off to find his own books. Before I walked away to the poetry section, always my second stop, the cover of forever, or a long, long time caught my eye.
I opened the front cover and began a quick scan of the jacket. My eyes hit “many foster homes,” and I closed the book and dropped it in my bag.
Adoption books have a way of finding me, even when and maybe especially when I’m not looking for one. I chose to bring this middle grade fiction book home with me as one I’d read for many reasons.
- 1. I read a lot of Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction right now as that’s what my sons read. Sometimes I then pass on a book to them immediately, or I save it for when I think or know they’re ready. Sometimes I know they won’t be interested, and I’m just lucky because I got to read something awesome.
- 2. I’m especially interested in how adoption is presented in MG and YA. Again, my sons read a lot, and no author so far has taken into account birth siblings in an open adoption reading about the subject. There are books written for and by adoptees which, yes, my sons need to read as much as my daughter. But no one ever considers that there are children out there being raised by birth parents. Too frequently those children read fictional accounts of adoption in which birth families are portrayed as less than in so many ways. Yes, this is a truth in many adoption stories, especially those coming from foster care which is not our story, but I’ve watched my sons’ faces twist and their souls drop when their part of the story is always, always negative.
- 3. What our children read will shape their world view. As a parent, I’m also involved in shaping that world view. Using books and parenting skills together to have conversations before and after reading things is just one way I parent these two boys. Books sometimes give me words I can’t otherwise find myself.
I started the book on Thursday afternoon. I started dinner late that day because I couldn’t. put. the. book. down. But, alas, children must eat. Friday was too busy, and I couldn’t pick the book back up. On Saturday morning, today, I grabbed the book and read it as I drank my morning coffee on the front porch, enjoying the fall-like morning—as I sobbed so loudly that I eventually made myself go hole up in my bedroom so the neighbors didn’t think I was
crazy crazier than usual.
So why all the sobbing, Jenna?
I have never, ever, ever read a book about adoption, fictional or otherwise, that touched my soul so deeply and so frequently. I literally had to set the book down and cover my face with my hands and heave-sob more than 20 times over the course of the book. This morning involved more sobbing than Thursday, and basically the second half of the book left me with a wet face the entire time.
Okay, fine, Jenna. We know you cry a lot. What’s the book about?
Flora and her brother, Julian, are finally in their forever home. We hear that word a lot in adoption, don’t we? “Forever.” Forever families and homes and all that touchy-feely-paint-it-over-and-make-it-pretty verbiage we like to use in adoption speak. But this book does not paint or gloss over the fact that children who have been through trauma don’t know how to trust the word forever, don’t even understand what forever looks or feels like.
Throughout the book we see Flora, whose point of view the book is written from, grapple with the idea of what forever and family really look like. The titles of the chapters evolve throughout the book as her understanding of what family itself even is.
Do you know what it’s like to not understand what family looks or feels like or even is?
The chapters start in the realm of “Families Keep Secrets” and “Families Live Together” and move toward “Families Get Separated” and understanding that “Families Get Angry.” The evolution of the chapter titles follows hand-in-hand with the experiences Flora lives through as her mom, whom her brain refers to as Person, takes her and Julian on a trip to find their “beginning.”
We witness an adoptive mother struggle with wanting to protect them from their past and wanting them to know that they were, in fact, born. The range of emotions we get to witness in all of the characters as they travel back through some good and not-so-good memories is a first in children’s literature and one that should be heralded as both ground-breaking and necessary.
Due to the trauma Flora has experienced, she sometimes has trouble expressing herself and her words get “stuck.” We get to be in her head as she knows what she wants to say but cannot express. This is key to the story, to understanding how the trauma inherent in adoption affects children. It shows itself in different ways, as we see with her brother Julian, but it’s there. Trauma and adoption, all adoption, cannot be unlinked. It is how we, the parents of children touched by adoption, address these issues and help them understand.
I literally have to post a spoiler.
Stop reading here and start reading again at the next bolded section if you don’t want to read it.
During the two week “vacation” that Flora, her brother, and her mom take to find out the kids’ beginning story, we know we’re hunting for that origin. For the birth family, the bios, the first family, the first mother. The author uses all these words, for which those in the adoption sphere will recognize as an attempt to hit all the words used nowadays. The only time “real” is thrown into the mix is during a sub-plot with a divorce-stepsister-and-her-mom issue which, honestly, was a really, really hard scene to read through because it hits at all the parts adoptive parents fear people in their lives will use to reject their children. Secondary Spoiler: It gets fixed later.
I’m all over the place. Stay with me.
Flora’s mom asks at every foster and pre-adoptive (yeah… that’s a killer part of the story, by the way) home they visit if the mom(s) have pictures of Flora and Julian when they were babies. No one does, thus adding to the kids’ theories that they were not normal children; they were not “born.” They just “came to be.” These theories are sometimes funny and sometimes so heartbreaking. Sometimes they’re soft and sweet and true and hard and heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. Theory #742, in which the children came from crabs, really got to me, particularly this line.
“We’re made of good stuff, but you have to work to get to it.”
No one ever has pictures of them as babies. Their Lifebooks have been lost in the process, which is another sub-plot, heart-wrenching part of the story that left me angry and nodding at the truth of it and angry all over again. The closest they get to a baby picture ends up being photos snapped on their first day at their first foster home, an emergency placement. They are two and three years old. The foster mother at this home is cold and calculating, and she delivers the fact that they were neglected, hence the placement, with the same cold, calculating delivery as she feeds the foster children in the home that day.
This is where the author could have chosen to take this book in the same direction as every author who has ever written about adoption ever in the history of writing about adoption. She could have chosen to say, “Yep, they were neglected by their first family because that’s what those types of people and families do.”
But. She didn’t.
I won’t quote and I won’t totally ruin this brilliant piece of writing for you even though I said this was a spoiler section, but I will give you the feel of it: The author presented the first family as one who did the best they could. Someone loved and taught those children to love before they were taken away because of neglect. We often see neglect shown as a result of lack of love or even indifference to the children, but there’s a thread of love woven into the writing here that spins their story in such a way that you can’t help but feel it deep, deep down.
They were loved. They were loved.
My daughter was always, always loved. From day one. Always.
Start reading again.
More than the topic this author chooses to cover in this brilliant piece of middle grade fiction, the writing is simply phenomenal. It is the kind of writing that makes your breath catch; it is the kind of writing you want to frame and read every time you pass it in your living room. It is beautiful and heart-moving. The writing is probably the best writing I’ve read in middle grade fiction, or really, any fiction in the past ten years or so.
I don’t know Caela Carter. I don’t know how or why she was able to write a piece about adoption in this way, in this voice, but I am thankful. I am thankful that my sons will read her words and experience a part of adoption outside of our specific story. I am thankful their part in a story will not be typical and that they might view themselves in a positive light after reading. I feel truly thankful to have this book to bridge more conversations about adoptions that simply don’t look like ours, to give them a broader understanding of adoption, of trauma, of family. Of feelings and how they are valid.
I do know this: If you’re touched by adoption, you need to read this book. It doesn’t matter whether you are actively parenting children or not. It doesn’t matter if your adoption was closed, open, private, foster, or in-family. It doesn’t matter if you know your own origin story or not, whether you currently think you’re doing the right thing by your children by protecting them from their origin story or not; you need to read this book.
As do the rest of you, those not touched by adoption—even though, most likely, your family is in one way or another or, at the very least, someone within one or two circles of your close friends is. Read this book whether you have children or not, as it is most certainly a treat for readers, for writers, for those who want to feel and for those who try not to feel because it all feels like too much somedays.
This is a book for all of us. May we all find our Person.