Monday, July 13, 2015

MMGM: Half a World Away

I first heard about this book on Greg Pattridge’s site, and I knew immediately that I had to read it. First, it is about overseas adoption. But not only that, it is mostly set in Kazakhstan. While I haven’t been to Kazakhstan, I lived for several months in the Crimea and have a special affinity for anything set in the former Soviet Union. In fact, parts of this book (i.e. the uniform apartments) brought back lots of memories.

But it truly was Jaden, the protagonist, of this moving book, that made me read on, hardly able to put the book down.

The synopsis (from Amazon):

A kid who considers himself an epic fail discovers the transformative power of love when he deals with adoption in this novel from Cynthia Kadohata, winner of the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award. 

Eleven-year-old Jaden is adopted, and he knows he’s an “epic fail.’ That’s why his family is traveling to Kazakhstan to adopt a new baby—to replace him, he’s sure. And he gets it. He is incapable of stopping his stealing, hoarding, lighting fires, aggressive running, and obsession with electricity. He knows his parents love him, but he feels...nothing.

But when they get to Kazakhstan, it turns out the infant they’ve traveled for has already been adopted, and literally within minutes are faced with having to choose from six other babies. While his parents agonize, Jaden is more interested in the toddlers. One, a little guy named Dimash, spies Jaden and barrels over to him every time he sees him. Jaden finds himself increasingly intrigued by and worried about Dimash. Already three years old and barely able to speak, Dimash will soon age out of the orphanage, and then his life will be as hopeless as Jaden feels now. For the first time in his life, Jaden actually feels something that isn’t pure blinding fury, and there’s no way to control it, or its power. From camels rooting through garbage like raccoons, to eagles being trained like hunting dogs, to streets that are more pothole than pavement, Half a World Away is Cynthia Kadohata’s latest spark of a novel.
What I loved:

1. The strong voice and interiority of the narrator: Jaden is hard to love, because he’s not a very nice kid at the beginning of the book. But I had no problem getting attached to him right away. I think this is in part to Kadohata’s skillful deep 3rd person perspective. Because we're in Jaden’s head throughout the story, we understand his deep pain when he acts out.

2. A spark of goodness from the beginning. A strong character arc, when the main character is less than sympathetic, is hard to pull off. What Kadohata did well, though, was showing us that Jaden had those sparks of goodness. He loved from the beginning, even though he couldn’t name it as that. That’s what made me fall for this character.

3. Setting, setting, setting. It was obvious Kadohata did her research. The setting—from the  apartments, to shopping at the market, to the scene with the eagle, to how the driver drove. All these rang true to me.

4. Interesting characters. Every character had many layers, although Sam, the Turkish driver, was definitely a favorite of mine. Kadohata did an excellent job of giving a glimpse of other characters through Jaden’s eyes, but also showing that he didn't fully understand them.

5. Adoption from the inside out. I really enjoyed getting an insider’s view on the overseas adoption process, especially in a country like Kazakhstan. I think this book would appeal to kids whose parents are adopting and they’re wondering, like Jaden, where they fit with the new sibling. And this book is worth reading just for how Jaden meets Dimash, a toddler at the baby house.

I’m not sure what book to compare it to. It’s very unique, or I just haven’t read much like it. I think it would appeal to kids who like more literary fiction or books with “issues.” Although this book is so much more than that!

Have you read any books that really moved you lately?

If you're looking for Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.


  1. Awesome you picked this up after hearing about it. It sounds fantastic, especially for adopted kids and their parents. And it sounds realistic. Kids that are older may not be super nice right away with such big changes in their lives.

  2. As the author of a character that was difficult to like at first, I can testify that it's tough to do!

  3. What an interesting premise to write from the POV of a boy who is getting an adopted sibling. Although I've read several adoption-themed books, this is definitely unique in that aspect. As always I appreciate your reviews, Jenni.

  4. This was a really interesting read -- not your usual adoption story. I didn't think I would like Jaden when I started this book, but I ended up really wanting and hoping things would work out for him.

  5. This really sounds so good. I have it on my TBR list now. I'm impressed you can remember where you read about a book! I read a lot of blogs and never can keep them straight. Thanks for your very thoughtful review.

  6. I've read a number of books lately with protagonists who might have been hard to like but who we end up rooting for. Definitely hard to pull off, but I think they're the most interesting protagonists.

    You hooked me with your description of Jaden's interest in Dimash. I think I really want to read this one.

  7. I love books that take me to a new place.

  8. This book sounds lovely, and you're right - totally unique. I know there are MG books about adoption, but not like this. layered and complex and a little challenging. Very cool.