My last blogs have featured adoption books for young children. I’m pleased to be able to talk about one aimed at the middle-school crowd. This age group is often hard to find books for. Parents want books that introduce adoption themes so that their kids can feel that there are other kids like themselves and also to spark discussion between parent and child. But most books are either children’s picture books, or teen novels dealing with heavy themes like child abandonment and searching, such as Throwaway Daughter.
Kimchi and Calamari also touches on these themes, but in a light-hearted way. The book is a novel, told in the first person by fourteen-year-old Joseph Calderaro, a Korean adopted into an Italian family.
Joseph’s family is heavily into their heritage—from making delicious cannoli to wearing goat horns to ward off the evil eye. Joseph has a loving relationship with his parents, but wishes they would talk more about his life before he came to them. When his teacher assigns students to write about their heritage, Joseph’s parents want him to write about his Italian grandparents coming to America, but Joseph feels funny about this.
Joseph also meets a Korean family newly moved into the neighborhood. The boy his age is friendly, but his mother freezes Joseph out. She “doesn’t understand adoption,” as her son explains awkwardly. “She doesn’t think it’s natural for parents to raise other people’s kids.” Yongsu’s father is friendly, however, and when Joseph’s mother meets Mrs. Han, she asks the Hans to help Joseph learn more about his heritage and Mrs. Han begins to thaw.
Joseph also discovers that both Italians and Koreans share a love for good food, hence the book’s title.
Meanwhile, Joseph’s best friend offers to do some Internet searching for his birth parents. Joseph takes him up on the offer and gets a response from a young Korean woman who thinks Joseph may be the mysteriously-disappeared baby her aunt had long ago. Joseph finally has to tell his parents about the search. Despite some disappointment in the results, the search opens up the topic between Joseph and his parents. He father even tells Joseph that the two of them will join a homeland tour to Korea for adoptees the summer after next.
The book also contains a theme of truthfulness and pride in heritage when Joseph first submits an essay in which he invents a family relationship between himself and a famous Korean runner. ( It also presents a bit of Korean history explaining how this runner defied Korea’s occupying nation, Japan, much as Jesse Owens embarrassed Hitler at the 1936 Olympics.) Joseph does tell his parents and teacher what he has done and writes another essay explaining that his heritage is like “an ethnic sandwich”.
This novel is a quick read by Rose Kent, the mother of four children, all of whom have some Korean heritage and two of whom were adopted. In addition to adoption, the book speaks realistically about having a younger sister who appears more talented than you, and having much younger sisters who fight, and being closer to one sibling than another, and having embarrassing aunts. Joseph tells his story forthrightly and with humor. And as his father says, “Doesn’t matter if they’re Korean, Italian, or Swahili—families are never perfect. Whatever you find, it’s okay. You’re my boy.”
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