FICTION

The How & the Why

HarperTeen. Nov. 2019. 464p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062693167.
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Gr 8 Up–For high school senior Cassandra McMurtrey, turning 18 means being old enough to face the question of whether she should seek out her birth mother. Adopted as an infant in a closed domestic adoption, Cass has a good life: she’s a talented musical theater performer with loving parents and a best friend, Nyla, who always has her back. She isn’t missing anything except “the how and the why”—a knowledge of where she came from. But seeking out information about her birth mother’s identity results in bureaucratic frustrations and multiple dead ends. Interspersed with Cass’s story are letters written 18 years earlier by her birth mother, who signs her letters as S, as part of a state program in which women could leave letters for their babies. S describes herself as the “solidly average” 16-year-old daughter of a local politician, living at a residential school for pregnant teens and wittily narrating her feelings of ambiguity about the pregnancy and the events that led up to it. This book offers an emotionally nuanced look at adoption from the perspective of both the birth mother and the child, which is informed by the author’s own experiences as an adoptee. The novel’s great strength is the emotional depth of its characters and the complexity of their relationships to one another. Cass’s friendship with Nyla, who was adopted from Liberia as a young child, offers a contrasting adoption experience that both girls struggle with: is it better to have answers about the past the way Nyla does, even if those answers are heartbreaking? While the ending may feel overly convenient, the story places more significance on the messy journey than the idealized arrival.
VERDICT A heartfelt and hopeful story about coming of age as an adoptee that is highly recommended for all collections.

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