Our director of public affairs, Alison Woodhead, gives her take on The Unadoptables, a new children’s book which has come in for criticism in the adoption community.

Ok, cards on the table. I love this book. I have a low tolerance for children’s fiction, especially magical realism and puppetry. And a very low tolerance for insensitivity to adoption. But I love this book. It’s basically Annie with extra orphans. Cute, spooky and full of feisty girls and boys.  

Five babies are abandoned and taken into an orphanage in 19th century Amsterdam. The eldest, Milou, is convinced her puppet-making parents didn’t want to leave her. The book describes the adventures of the five ‘unadoptable’ children as they escape the orphanage and search the city for Milou’s birth family.  

The response from some parts of the adoption community has beenrobust. Mostly, people are objecting to the title. It has to be said, even my 14 year old adopted daughter, who is unusually relaxed about all-things-adoption, said ‘Well, that’s a bit mean’, when she saw it stacked up in Daunts’ window. I put it to Puffin, the publisher, that being ‘unadoptable’ is just about the worst thing imaginable to anyone close to adoption. Not only does it imply there are kids so damaged/bad that literally no-one could want them. It also somehow implies it’s their fault. The representative from Puffin said that the title is "a label that the evil owner of the orphanage gives them and the book itself is an absolute subversion of this - the children are very much the very loveable heroines and heroes of the book."  But she did concede that at first glance, and out of context, it could be misinterpreted. She went on to say that "The author, Hana, really understands the depth of feelings here, and she would never want to upset anyone but feels strongly that the book is all about how giving labels is wrong."

Most people upset by the title are unlikely to have got much further, but some who read it are also angry about the content. It’s certainly true that the book has a feast of scenes that might trigger heartache in people whose lives have been touched by adoption. I found the ‘line-ups’, in which the orphans are presented, grubby and desperate, to potential adopters, particularly painful.  

And yet… 

I read it on holiday, and it made me feel warm. The children are courageous, loyal and clever. The plot is bonkers in a good way. The five characters are beautifully written. My favourite is gentle Egbert, who draws a map of Amsterdam on his pillowcase with charcoal and is always slightly sooty because he was found in a coal bucket.    

I know I know. Our kids weren’t abandoned in coal buckets. They were neglected and hurt by their birth families and had to be taken away for their own safety. They live in fear of being abandoned by their adoptive families and are convinced it would be just what they deserve. Any search for a long-lost families-style reunion with their birth families is likely to be as much of a delusion as Milou’s, but without the heart-warming adventure en route.  

Do approach this book with caution. Read it before you let your kids read it. Talk to them about it now, before they see it in bookshop windows (the front cover is gorgeous, so I’m afraid you can’t miss it).  It’s definitely problematic in places, but it is a wonderful read, and its conclusion - that family is whatever you make it isn’t a bad message for our children.