Allen Say's Allison
An adopted child realizes she's different
Children's book review by Karen Henry Clark
The first sentence in this picture book about an international adoption is: “In Allison’s family there were Mother, Father, Allison, and Mei Mei.”
But by the end of the second page, the hard issue of identity appears: “Allison looked in the mirror and smiled. She saw…that Mei Mei’s hair was dark and straight like hers. Allison looked at her mother, then at her father. Her smile disappeared.”
The conflict begins. Allison and her Asian doll look exactly alike, but her Caucasian parents do not resemble them at all. Something must be wrong.
Allen Say’s spare prose presents the struggle of a pre-school girl who tries to understand how and why her family is different from all the others she sees.
She questions her parents. She questions her classmates. She watches. She wonders. She isolates herself. She turns against her adoptive parents, deciding they aren’t “real,” by damaging their treasured childhood keepsakes.
Although her actions hurt them, they understand her difficulty. They remain patient. They talk to her.
Through it all, a stray cat meows outside. It, too, watches and wonders through the window. Finally Allison gives it a bowl of milk. Eventually she asks if she can keep it and adds, “He doesn’t have a mommy or a daddy.” She explains that he will be happy to be part of a family.
The story concludes: “The stray cat wasn’t a stray anymore.”
For children beginning to ask about adoption—their own or someone else’s—it is an important story. The parallels can be drawn. Questions can take shape. Each family is given the space to tailor answers to their specific situation.
As simple as the text might be, the artwork carries the depth of the story. The rich colors in the full-page illustrations of universal doorways, windows, corners, table tops, and sidewalks evoke the common thread of every home and school. We know where we are without distracting details. Again and again, we are drawn to the haunting eyes of people who are struggling to do the right thing.
In Allison, Allen Say understands the power of having the pleading eyes of a little girl and a cat look up into the eyes of an adult. No words are needed to understand the weight of those three hearts.
Webmaster's note: Karen Henry Clark is the author of Sweet Moon Baby, a fairy tale about Chinese adoption.
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