Far From the Tree by Robin Benway is the winner of the 2017 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Grace, Joaquin and Maya, the three main characters in Far from the Tree are biological half siblings.
Although they share the same birth mother, each child has followed a different path and they only reconnect as older teens. Far From the Tree is told from multiple perspectives, and each child has a unique story to tell. All three are linked together by secrets, shame, and a desire to know more about their identity.
There are very few well-written Young Adult books that understand the world of adoption as well as Far from the Tree does. What makes author Robin Benway even more interesting is that she does not have a personal connection to adoption. Benway spent a year doing her research on adoption and in my opinion, similar to the popular and well-done T.V. show This Is Us, she is able to tell this story from a realistic and respectful adoption platform.
Today, the word “family” has many definitions. It is no longer confined to the dated perspective of a mother, father and biological children. We see now that families are made up of many constellations. Sexual orientation, DNA or formal paperwork no longer defines what it is to be a family. Far From the Tree respects these many definitions and presents the reader with several different family make-ups.
Benway also writes about a common theme for adoptees: their desire to know their history in an understandable way. Adoptees often have a gap in their early histories, and she is able to explain through the characters why they have such a strong need to know this initial “Chapter 1” in their book of life.
Early in the story, Grace discovers she is pregnant by her high school boyfriend. She makes an adoption plan and places her newborn daughter into an adoptive home. This event pushes Grace to find her siblings and, eventually, their birth mother.
Joaquin has unique struggles of his own. He is the only one who has not been formally adopted and is still in foster care, and he is close to aging out of the system. Joaquin carries with him a secret past that has caused him to put up walls and he resists letting others get close. We see this young man eventually take a risk and allow himself to take a chance at opening his heart and be loved.
Maya has a sister who is the biological child of her adoptive parents. She is the only one in her family who has dark hair and is not “blood” related. Maya’s family looks perfect from the outside, but beyond the facade it is quite the opposite. This complicated family situation forces Maya and her sister to grow up quickly as they face their family falling apart.
Once the siblings build a trusting relationship with one another, they make a plan to find their birth mother. It is during this time that they are forced to share what feels most vulnerable to them.
The book addresses almost every topic that comes up in the world of adoption: identity, race, culture, fitting in, grief, loss, abandonment, trust, shame, and feeling misunderstood, to name a few. Benway is able to weave these topics together in a heartfelt way and give the reader a true understanding of how the adoptee may view their world.
We do know that the journey of adoption is complex and each adoptee carries their own truth and perspective. While being adopted or in foster care can be complex and challenging, Benway gives hope to all those touched by adoption as her characters move forward on a path of healing from the hurts of the past.
Written by Jennifer Eckert, LICSW
Boston Post Adoption Resources