Mary Cummings' Three Names of Me
illustrated by Lin Wang
Book review by Monica Friedman
A Chinese-American Girl Ponders Her Past and Her Present
International adoption is becoming more and more common in America, and due to the preference for male babies and the one-child-per-family laws in China, large numbers of ethnically Chinese girls are given up for adoption and brought into loving families in the US every year. This lyrical book is written for all Chinese-American girls, painting a realistic picture of a young girl’s life.
Ada Lorane Bennet has had three names in her life. Before she was an American girl with an American name and an American family, she was a Chinese girl in a Chinese orphanage, where the Chinese nurses dubbed her Wang Bin, meaning a gentle and refined princess. But even before that, Ada is certain that she had an original, first name—the name her unknown birth mother whispered to her when she was born. “It’s someplace in my heart,” she is certain, but, “I don’t know how to say it. I wish I could.”
Ada is a thoughtful, imaginative girl. She recreates her earliest experience in her mind, translates her American name into Chinese: “that means ‘love arrived’: ai da.” She illustrates all her names with meaningful symbols. For her birthmother and her unknown names, she says, “I take glue and glitter and my red marker. I make a beautiful star for the name I only heard once, the name before my remembering.” She wonders, as she looks up at the stars, about her China parents: “Do they think of me when they look up at the night sky?”
She examines the politics of interracial adoptions: “some people stare at my mom and dad and me. They stare because our skin and hair and eyes don’t match.” She recognizes the parts of her that are very American, the parts that like, “hot dogs, stuffed animals, and roller coaster rides.” But she also likes “foggy mountains, tiny pink flowers, water buffaloes, and rice,” and wonders, “Is it because all of these come from my first home?” She understands that she is a mixture of two cultures, that she is “love arrived” from China to America.
The back of the book includes Ada’s scrapbook, sharing details of her life—her favorite color, her best friends—and encouraging other girls to keep scrapbooks or journals, as well as to research their Chinese heritage on the Internet. Review continues.
This is a gentle story, equal parts poem, biography, history, and imagination. The main character’s introspection brings to light thoughts that readers may have chosen to hide away. This book contrasts Allen Say's Allison: Ada understands precisely why she looks different from her parents, and how much she is loved by all the adults who have cared for her in her life.
Three Names of Me is a book for any child struggling with issues of self, encouraging readers to recreate their own life stories in order to make sense of their personal histories and accept their place in their families and the larger world. It’s a wonderful work for any up-and-coming readers, but especially evocative for girls, like Ada, who were adopted from far away into American families.
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