fiction · middle grade

Book Review: Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata

Sometimes you learn about the existence of a book and everything about it just clicks for you. Main character is a tween adopted as an older child from overseas? Whoa. He’s struggling badly to connect to his new family? Holy cow, never seen that done in middle grade before. His parents are adopting another child and the majority of the story is set in Kazakhstan? Whaaaaaaat??? Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014) went onto my TBR immediately, and I was thrilled to finally be able to pick up a copy at the library in the next town over. What an incredible and sad book.

Jaden is twelve, adopted from Romania at the age of 8 (although his parents thought he was much younger, since he was so very small when they brought him home). He’s struggling badly: struggling to connect to his parents, struggling to feel anything other than rage at having lost the only home he’d ever known (the comforts of this home now don’t matter; that kind of loss is still trauma), struggling to control his behavior: hoarding food, lighting fires, shutting down. He’s receiving help for all of this, but none of it is easy and Jaden knows exactly how difficult it is on his parents. That’s why they’re adopting a baby: because they’re tired of him and want a kid who doesn’t do all these things.

The whole family is traveling to Kazakhstan for this new adoption, but once they’re there, things don’t go anywhere as smoothly as they’d hoped. The baby they thought they’d be adopting has already gone home with other parents. Jaden’s folks are devastated and while they begin to consider the other babies at the orphanage, Jaden meets a toddler, Dimash, likely with special needs, with whom he bonds – and for the first time, he’s able to feel a connection with someone. Dimash is about to age out of the baby orphanage, and Jaden knows exactly the kind of life that’s in store for him when he does. Can he convince his parents that having Dimash as his brother, a boy he already feels protective of, is what will truly bond them all together as a family?

This is one of the saddest middle grade books I’ve ever read. Jaden is a tough case, but the thing is, none of his behaviors are abnormal for a kid who’s been through what he has, and that’s what’s so heartbreaking about it. Nothing in his formative years was terribly stable; he lived in terrible conditions until he was eight, when he was pulled away from the only place he’d ever known and thrown into a new country, with a language he didn’t understand, in a family he couldn’t quite get the hang of interacting with. How long until all of this fell apart and he’d be thrown into the next situation? All of what he’d been through, including having been given up by his mother (whom he couldn’t quite fully remember), was traumatizing, and Jaden is absolutely suffering in this book.

His parents are well-meaning but often get things incredibly wrong. Dad is way more distant than he should be; Mom already seems exhausted (and they’re adding a baby into this mix!); together, they make some really bad decisions, like leaving Jaden alone in the apartment while they run off to the market in Kazakhstan – he’s twelve, but emotionally, he’s a LOT younger. And of course, predictably, he leaves the apartment under the guise of finding them…and gets lost. Bad move, Mom and Dad.

Jaden’s connection with Dimash was really well written and incredibly sweet to read. For the first time in his life, he’s able to see something outside of himself and his own pain, and this is a major breakthrough. The scenes where the two of them were interacting were so sweet, maybe a little bittersweet, a little like the sun breaking through storm clouds.

This is a heavy book for middle grade, and younger kids may struggle to comprehend the depth of Jaden’s trauma-induced anger and his more difficult behaviors, like starting fires. They might not fully understand why he often still sleeps on the floor like he did in the Romanian orphanage, when he has a perfectly good bed in his American room. This would make for a good parent-child read-together or book club selection; if your kiddo is reading it alone, be available to answer questions and have some discussions about what trauma is and how it can manifest.

Beautiful, heartbreaking book, one that will stick with me.

Visit Cynthia Kadohata’s website here.


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