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Friday, October 10, 2014

Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster. 2014. $19.99 ages 10 and up

"Because Penni and Steve hadn't actually traveled to Romania, his adoption was somehow less legitimate to Jaden. He couldn't remember the Romanian guy's name who'd brought him over on the plane. All he remembered was that a number of times during the flight the man had yelled at him."

In this powerful story of family love, we meet Jaden. Born in Romania to a mother who cannot keep him, he is placed in an orphanage at 4 and then in a series of foster homes, prior to being adopted at 8 by an American couple, Penni and Steve. They hoped to adopt a baby; instead, Jaden arrives at the airport with issues that are clearly conveyed as his heartbreaking story is shared. In a book that  is new territory for middle grade readers, they will learn about some of the difficulties of international adoption for both parents and their children, and of the strength to be found in love and acceptance.

Jaden is certain that his parents are disappointed in him. He is not what they were expecting. He exhibits feelings of rage that result in setting fires, hoarding food, stealing money; and he is obsessed with electricity. He feels little else. He does not bond with his parents, and is seeing  therapists who are trying to help him sort out his feelings and behaviors. His parents are doing everything they can to make him feel accepted and loved. Not much helps.

Now, the family is in the throes of adopting a baby from Kazakhstan. That is proof positive to Jaden that they are replacing him. He has been such a burden to them, and the new baby will change that. International adoption can be trying. When the family arrives for a long stay before they can bring their baby home, they discover that the baby they thought they were adopting has already been adopted. The new baby chosen has no interest in or ability to bond with them. Jaden is frustrated, as are his parents.

One day while waiting outside for them, Jaden's attention is drawn to a young child named Dimash. He is three years old, and unable to communicate. Jaden feels an immediate bond with him, and an emotion that is not rage. He wants his parents to adopt Dimash. They are very reluctant. No amount of cajoling on his part sways them from their desire to adopt a baby, not a toddler.

Jaden is a captivating character, fully human and troubled. His world is changing in ways he could never imagine. As we watch him deal with the events of his life, we also see him grow.  

"He felt sorry for this adopted baby - and he got up and went to the other bedroom, where Penni and Steve were trying futilely to make Ramazan stop crying. "I can hold him for a while," he told them. It surprised even himself when he said that. But it was just that he thought he understood the baby. Penni and Steve looked at him doubtfully but also hopefully. Their hair and their clothes were disheveled, and Penni had a dirt streak across her face. She handed Ramazan to him, and Jaden held tight as the baby arched his back to get away. Jaden squeezed him and walked into the living room. Then he circled the border of the living room, his bedroom, and the kitchen. After thirty minutes, he switched directions, just for a change. He made figure eights. He walked. And walked. Hours passed. Penni and Steve were sleeping. His arms were exhausted and his back hurt, and Ramazan didn't stop crying. But Jaden kept going because he understood the baby and knew he was the only one who did."

Each of the characters is well drawn. I particularly like Sam their driver, who becomes a mentor of sorts to Jaden, and who provides some comic relief in a story that needs that at times:

"Jaden got into the car with Sam. As he started the car, Sam said, "Do not lie to your wife. Even if she does not find out, you will be mistaken to lie to her. Listen to me - I am teaching you well, as I promised your mother."
" I think she meant to teach me about eagles."
"The eagle may you about herself. It is my duty to teach you about your wife. this in one lesson of today."

It is brilliantly written, heartbreaking and heartwarming, and meant to be read in middle years classrooms and book-filled homes. Don't miss your chance to share Jaden's story.

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