The White Swan Express

written by Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki
illustrated by Meilo So

Jean Davies Okimoto and Elaine M. Aoki's The White Swan Express
illustrated by Meilo So

Children's book review by Suzanne Edison.

Ages 4-8

A Story About Adoption

Though this book came out in 2002 and much has changed in the world of international adoption, (the Hague Convention Intercountry Adoption Treaty was accepted in the US in 2008), there is still much to admire in this richly woven tale of adoption from China.

babies to be adopted

Right away the story starts out telling us about 4 different babies in China that are sleeping in their crib together. Immediately then we hear about 4 couples or persons who are all going to travel to China to adopt these babies. They hail from diverse corners of North America and diverse economic, ethnic and family social structures. I appreciate that this book is based in reality. Gay couples and single women do adopt babies, and there are only a handful of books for children (The Red Blanket, In Our Mothers' House) that acknowledge and accept this fact as normal.

We meet the adopting parents and see them engaged in their daily activities of feeding cats, brushing teeth, making breakfast (Lewis Maynard burning the toast is my favorite picture) and packing to leave for China. We see them all going to various airports, boarding planes, reading books on baby rearing, listening to Chinese language tapes as they make the long journey to China separately.

Upon landing they board a bus for more travel. “Now the travelers from Toronto, Vashon Island, Miami and Minnetonka became a group, trading stories and showing each other their tiny photos.” I think this bonding experience is very powerful. The time prior to meeting one’s baby or child is full of vulnerability, anticipation and some anxiety. It can be a gift to be able to share some of it with other families. By the time they reach their destination, the White Swan hotel in Guangzhou, they have been on a bus together for a long time.

The story ricochets between the adopting parents and the about-to-be-adopted, babies. I especially like that we learn specific and identifying details about both the parents and the babies.

“Wu Li slept on her back with her arms stretched wide like the branches of a tree. Li Shen snuggled on her side. Qian Ye slept curled in a ball. And Chun Mei Ni rolled over and smiled in her sleep.”

The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption

We hear how the nannies in the orphanage where the babies live care for them. And then we hear the nannies telling them in Chinese (translated for us into English) this is their lucky day.

A lovely scene painted, as the whole book is, in vibrant watercolors, shows the families on their way to receive their babies, stopping in an outdoor market. They all buy the same silver bracelets and silver bells for their children. These will be mementos of their time in China and their bond to each other.

When the story moves to China it is set very strongly there. The authors ground us in the “city of Guangzhou, in the province of Guangdong,…” and the illustrator gives us a flavor of the life of the babies, the streets, food, customs and people. Red is a recurrent color, from the babies’ clothing to street awnings to the final images of both American holiday cards and Chinese New Year cards.

There is also an afterword where we learn that much of the details in the story are true to life. This makes The White Swan Express even more powerful; the authors have rendered it not only informative but lively and true.

More children's books about being adopted.

More  books about coming from another culture.

Read more of Suzanne's reviews.

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