I'm incredibly proud of our adoption. I'm glad every single day that we chose that method to grow our family. But I have to say when we look at our son, we don't immediately think "adopted", even though he doesn't look a thing like us. He's just our Sprout, our funny and messy and creative and smart and stubborn and loving little dude. Good and bad, he's our kid, and while adoption is part of our story as a family, it isn't our whole story.
And that's why I was thrilled to run across the middle grade novel Mimi by John Newman. In this book, which takes place in the UK, the title character Mimi is adopted -- but that part of her story comes secondary to the fact that Mimi's dealing with some pretty tremendous changes in her home life. Oh, Mimi mentions her ethnicity right away, in an offhand way: her grandad's teaching her chess because she's Chinese and he thinks the Chinese invented chess. (In fact chess is thought to have originated in India, which Mimi fills us in on later.) But other than that there's not much mentioned about how Mimi's family came together, until it becomes important to the rest of her story.
When the book opens, it's been 149 days since Mimi's mum passed away, and things are pretty much falling apart at her house. Her dad's just about catatonic, her brother Conor just wants to bang away on his drums with his door closed and her sister Sally has taken up with a bunch of Goths. Mimi's doing her best to stay together but it's hard when there's no one to wash her school uniform or check her homework. Before long it's clear that the family is unraveling. Outsiders start to notice first: the dentist finds cavities, the neighbors complain about noise, the sub calls out Mimi's missing homework. And then it all gets really crazy, for Mimi and her siblings, who are just trying to fill the hole that Mum left behind.
I won't give away the ending, but suffice to say when a bully uses an aspect of Mimi's family life as a weapon, things come to an emotional breaking point. Newman's novel is honest and true, a real reflection of what grief and love look and feel like to a young girl. And while he sprinkles the plot with elements that relate in some ways to her history and their family composition, Newman never uses "adoption" or "transracial family" as the easy conflict. Instead he builds a story that works on multiple levels with a complexity that's beyond the average middle grade fare. Mimi mourns her mother, yes, but she also mourns the death of her family life, and the shift in how she relates to everyone, especially her father. What Mimi's facing is all wrapped up in relationships, which is so reflective of how we all live as families, isn't it?
Though a few of its more British references may be a challenge for some kids, I think Mimi is ultimately a story with which many young readers can connect. It's sad but funny, honest but ordinary all at once. Certainly kids who live in transracial families will respond to a story that isn't all about race, but rather about loss and loneliness, and how families can pull together to overcome the isolation that these emotions produce. And best of all is Mimi's clear voice, that shines like the brightest star throughout, making her a character you'll love from the very first bit.
Mimi by John Newman, published by Candlewick Press
Sample: "I used to find it hard to sleep with all the noise in our house. But you can get used to anything, and after a few words with Socky my eyes begin to close and my thumb slips into my mouth. 'Good night, Socky,' I tell my sock puppet, and he nods and says, 'Good night, you.' And then I slip him off my hand and tuck him under my pillow."