Understanding adoption in children's picture books: Research insights

Examining oversimplifications and missed realities in adoption narratives

Adoption is a complex and lifelong journey, one that many people don't fully consider. This is part of what motivated Amy Burke, PhD, and her colleague Melody Zoch, PhD, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to study how adoption is depicted in children's picturebooks.

Through their research, they found that narratives around adoption in books are often oversimplified and don't reflect adoption's reality. The study focused on 63 children's picturebooks about adoption that Burke and Zoch analyzed from a culturally sustaining pedagogical and critical literacy lens.

One of the main themes that emerged from their research was the metanarrative that adoption makes families complete. Narration, dialogue, and illustrations communicated this message. For example, there are many instances of adoptive parents describing a deep longing for a child and then feeling their family is complete once they adopt a child. The books also suggested that adopted children need to be adopted to make their own family complete.

While this theme is heartwarming, it overlooks the complexity of adoption and the emotional journey that both parents and children go through. For example, with adoption, the gain of one family often means the loss of another.

Another theme that emerged was the portrayal of traditional notions of family, specifically heterosexual couples who follow heteronormative conventions. The books communicated these ideas mainly through illustrations.

Burke and Zoch also found that birthparents were not represented in the books, except for one explicitly about open adoption. Additionally, most of the parents depicted were white and lived in the United States, while most of the children who were adopted were from another country. There were very few depictions of adoptive parents incorporating any cultural heritage or language into the child’s new home, which suggests the default assumption that the adopted children are expected to assimilate into white culture.

Burke and Zoch believe that adoption should be presented as the complex lifelong event that it is. They argue that more books should be written with adoption as a secondary or tertiary theme for a broader audience so that adoption is normalized and easier to talk about. This way, children can express the depth and breadth of their experiences, and we can have more robust, positive and affirming discussions about adoption.

Adoption is not something that is just over once it happens. It's a lifelong journey with many emotions and complexities, and it's essential that we acknowledge and represent that reality in children's picturebooks. By doing so, we can help children and families understand the true nature of adoption and provide a more accurate reflection of the world we live in.

Page last updated 4:25 PM, July 14, 2023