Jaden faces doubts other 12-year-old boys don’t. He was adopted by American parents at the age of 8 from Russia and still struggles with American life (he prefers to sleep on the hard floor instead of his bed, hoards food, questions love), with his own anger towards his birth mom, as well as his struggling to understand his own behavior (he used to set fires). The years with his adoptive parents began rough and he believes his parents did not get over the fact they were told they were adopting a 4 year old, but that the agency hadn’t been honest and instead of a preschooler they got an 8 year old [who Jenni still says she loved immediately]. With all the self-doubt and questioning of where he belongs, – and questioning on why he does not feel connected to his parents or any sense of love – making him shut down at times, his adoptive parents are currently planning to adopt a baby from Kazakhstan.
Jaden continues to face worries and doubts I can only imagine children adopted from foreign countries feel when they move to America and face not only a culture shock, but a family shock in trying to find their way both in a new culture and also in their new role as son to practically strangers. There are some moments when Jaden feels “something” towards Jenni (adopted mom) and he defends her to her egotistical sister which makes the reader and Jenni smile, but it isn’t until he watches her struggle with this new adoption that he understands how this process is challenging for adults. When he meets a curious toddler at the “baby house” Jaden begins to feel something toward this kid as he seems him during visitation for the next month. Soon he finds truth in that Family can be created, and not only the one in which you were born.
This book is up for the Arkansas Teen Book Award for fiction (grades 7-9) which is why I read it as a voting committee member, and I’m supposed to rate it on its own merit as a piece of literature, but also how I believe teens will respond to it. This certainly can’t compete with the action in dystopian novels, but it has something more important in its 225 pages than any adventure story could share anyone lucky enough to read it will continue thinking about love and families long after finishing it. Half a World Away provides not only a peak into the mind of a self-doubting, “why did they want me? They don’t really love me” concern of an adopted teen, but it allows the reader to understand challenges with finding a new family through adoption long after the legal paperwork is filed. It shows the continual struggle, how families grow, and how making one’s family is a choice and not always biologically based, and that family love can develop at any age. I hope some teens will read it and look at how difficult adoption can be and be a little kinder to those they know trying to build a new life – and find their place in a new family.
Jaden is not drawn to the baby his parents want to adopt, but instead to a toddler he sees playing in the courtyard. As the story continues, Jaden thinks he finally understands love – or at least the beginning of it – and comes to terms with his own mother giving him up. His purpose is to help his new little brother and that new purpose allows him to finally accept that this created family is the one he wants.
It’s written honestly and lovely, but I doubt teens vote for it to win. I will, however, recommend it for a lesson in empathy and open-mindedness or for an example of a non-traditional-family. Parents of adopted children may find some insight in it, adopted children may find some connection to Jaden, but certainly this book would invite a conversation between parents and adopted children on feelings and creating a new family. And isn’t that what books are meant for – to start a conversation?