Growing up, I watched Free Willy a million times. My siblings and I memorized some of the lines and danced to the Michael Jackson soundtrack.
One of the things I vividly remember is the scene when 12 year old Jesse throws a baseball through his foster parents’ window.
I immediately connected to Jesse’s character. Being adopted often means having these pent up feelings of grief and anger that you don’t get to fully express. And sometimes, like Jesse, you finally hit a breaking point .
Although Jesse was a foster kid, I could relate to some of the anger and frustration that he was feeling about being disconnected from his family.
Which brings me to The Girl and the Grove. Leila, the teen protagonist, is adopted after years in the foster system, and the novel follows her down an eventful path towards finding out who (and what) she really is. The book is written by Eric Smith, who is adopted, and the details about the adopted life are pretty accurate.
There’s many reasons to read The Girl and the Grove, but here’s three that make the book standout:
Diverse characters – Yes, I know the “d” word. Sometimes it feels like diversity is something thrown in just to fulfill a checklist, but in this book it feels authentic. Leila, the protagonist is black; Jon, her adoptive dad is white, and Lisabeth (Liz), her adoptive mom is also black. One of my favorite scenes is when Liz is described as tucking one of her braids under the scarf she wore to bed. Um yes. Eric definitely nailed that! I also like that Leila’s dialogue or descriptions don’t fall back on black girl stereotypes. We need to read more black characters (especially black girls) who represent a range of experiences.
Jon and Liz’s parenting struggles – This book also gives an honest portrayal of the challenges of adoption, especially with teen adoptions. It can be hard for all parties involved. Leila struggles with showing affection for her parents and also struggles with calling them “mom” and “dad.” I sometimes found myself annoyed at Liz for focusing so much on wanting to be called “mom.” But it’s real. Adoptive parent need validation too. Adoptees are often the subject of conversation about seeking external validation, but this book also explores the ways that adoptive parents may need to feel that they are “real” parents. Jon and Liz make mistakes, but they are supportive and open. They never really push Leila to say the words, and they give her the space she needs to process her emotions on her own time.
Leila’s longing for answers about her past – The central theme of this book is Leila’s journey to find the source of the voices that she hears calling out to her, which lead her to a surprising discovery about her past. For so many adoptees, the search for identity is a lifelong quest, no matter how “good” their adoption is. It’s an intrinsic need, and it’s not an insult to adoptive parents that adoptees want to know where they come from. I could relate to Leila’s longings and I wish I had this book on my shelf when I was growing up.
I finished the book in two days, which is pretty impressive in the midst of my year end teacher madness. It was an easy read, and it brought up so many important topics around adoption. It also has a fantasy element, which is not the genre I tend to read, but it totally worked for this book. You can pick up a copy of The Girl and the Grove here
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