Eliza Thomas's The Red Blanket
Illustrated by Joe Cepeda
Children's book review by Suzanne Edison.
A caring picture book about cross-cultural adoption
When I was about 5 years old my favorite ’blankie’ disappeared. I was heartbroken and though we searched for it everywhere, it was never found.
It was my greatest comfort from the crib to a big girl bed. That is why, before I visited my soon-to-be adopted baby from Latin America, I asked a friend to make a special baby blanket. I took that blanket to my baby’s foster mother and gave it to my daughter at 2 weeks old.
I couldn’t bring her home then but I wanted her to have something from me that might also be her comfort, something that would accompany her back to our home 5 months later.
In The Red Blanket a woman, in her mid-40’s, wants to adopt a child. She pursues an adoption from China, waiting a long time for the process to come to completion. Joe Cepeda illustrates this well as we see mom’s letters to adoption agencies flying from her hands through the air out the window. Waiting is a common, international adoption feature.
Finally, news arrives by mail and mom is told to come to China to get PanPan. She is ecstatic, the letter in her hand is surrounded with yellow light, she’s suspended off the ground. She rushes out to buy things the baby needs including a red blanket.
But the first few days with a newly adopted child or baby from another culture are not always easy.
The baby is used to hearing a different language, used to different smells, sights and ways of being touched. Bonding isn’t always instantaneous.
After leaving the orphanage with her baby, the mother in The Red Blanket discovers that PanPan is distressed. She cries and won’t look at her.
Mom does everything she knows of to comfort her child. She sings lullabies, carries her, talks to her about all the things she sees there in China. She tells her who and what are waiting for her at home in America.
Perhaps to comfort herself, (and all of us adoptive mothers reading this story to our children), she tells PanPan that she too is in a new situation.
Nothing seems to soothe PanPan and then mom remembers the blanket and wraps her in it. We don’t really know why, and this is the one weakness in the story, but instantly the baby stops crying. In close-up, Cepeda’s thickly layered oil paintings show that mother is happy, the red blanket spills out across two pages and baby PanPan reaches out to grab mom’s finger. If only it was that easy.
Maybe it was truly that way for this mother. Could I be envious? I remember well the times my daughter cried for hours, how I would sing and rock and dance with her until both of us were exhausted and she finally dropped off to sleep lying on my chest. No magic there but time.
Most of the story is told in the past tense, answering an adopted child’s often asked question, “How did I come to be your child,” or like the title of another well known adoption story, “Tell me again about the night I was born”.
Now 9 years old, my daughter still loves this book. Her baby blanket is a dark fuchsia pink, almost like PanPan’s. She too carries it with her everywhere. She sleeps with it behind her pillow at night and like PanPan’s, it has been ‘loved’ much and is worn and repaired.
But I would never dream of taking it away from her, as I suspect my mother did. It is the one thing she has had since the first day I laid eyes and hands on her.
It is how I kept my arms around her when I couldn’t be with her. And though she allows it to stay behind when she’s in school, it is waiting for her when she returns. Maybe The Red Blanket, based on a true story, is as much a comfort as her blanket. She can believe there is someone else in the world like her.
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