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Award-winning ‘Far From the Tree’ is teen tale of adoption and long-lost family

What makes a family? Blood? Circumstance? Closeness? In author Robin Benway's "Far From the Tree," she tells the story of three siblings who are put up for adoption as babies, and grow up without knowing each other exists. Benway, who won this year's National Book Award for Young People's Literature, joins Jeffrey Brown for a conversation.

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  • Miles O’Brien:

    Now the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

    The winner of this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature addresses a grown-up subject, adoption.

    Jeffrey Brown spoke to author Robin Benway recently at the Miami Book Fair about her new young adult novel, “Far From the Tree.”

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So this is a book about — I mean, in one way, it’s about adoption.

  • Robin Benway:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But it’s about more than that, clearly, about family and family ties.

    How did you come to think of it?

  • Robin Benway:

    It was actually a song lyric that inspired the very basic idea.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A song lyric?

  • Robin Benway:

    A song lyric, yes.

    I was in a Costco parking lot, and I was desperate for ideas, and I had just told my publisher, I’m so sorry, I don’t have any ideas. You are going to have to wait a while. And they were lovely and very fine with that.

    And I heard a song while I was in a parking lot, and I was just immediately was like, this book is about adoption. And that’s how the…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What was the song?

  • Robin Benway:

    It was a Florence and the Machine song.

    I have heard it 1,000 times before, and I have heard it 1,000 times since, and, for some reason, that alchemy of that day in that parking lot just made me think of adoption.

    And a biological mother may be putting her daughter up for adoption and hoping that some of the love she has for her child stays within that child as that child goes through her life that she won’t get to see.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So fill in a little bit of the story. There’s three siblings who have been — who are biological siblings, but have been separated.

  • Robin Benway:

    Exactly, so, three siblings, none of whom know about each other. They have all been put up for adoption as babies.

    The oldest, Joaquin, doesn’t end up getting adopted. He actually grows up in foster care. And his younger two sisters, Grace and Maya, are privately adopted.

    And the book opens with Grace, the 16-year-old, getting pregnant and putting her own daughter up for adoption. And she suddenly feels that connection with her biological mom, and she decides to go looking for her, with her parents’ support, and, in looking for her mom, finds Joaquin and her younger sister, Maya.

    And the story is told from all three of their perspectives, and you see how their, as siblings do, as their lives start to intertwine and intersect.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     And for you, this became a way to look at, what? What is — nature and nurture and all kinds of…

  • Robin Benway:

    You know, I think one of my favorite topics is the idea of family, and specifically found family.

    You know, what makes your family? Is it blood? Is it circumstance? Is it time? And is it closeness? And so I think I examined all of those things sort of inadvertently as I looked at all three of their stories and how they came together.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     And how did you build these characters?

  • Robin Benway:

    It took a very long time. It was about six to eight months of research, because I personally am not adopted, and I haven’t adopted.

    And I knew that I was wading into a very, very deep sea of information. And I just wanted to make sure that — I don’t think there’s any way to get it right, and there’s absolutely no way to capture every single adoptee’s or adoptive parent’s experience.

    But I just wanted to make sure that these three stories were as accurate as possible.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So what kind of research did you do?

  • Robin Benway:

    I read books. I read blogs.

    At one point, I had so many books on my dining room table that a neighbor came over and said — like, saw the stack of books about adoption and went, oh, my goodness, congratulations. And I said, no, no, no, it’s for a book. It’s for a book.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Oh. Oh. Yes. Yes.

  • Robin Benway:

    No baby, just a book.

    And, yes, I did a lot of personal interviews. I talked to adoption attorneys. I talked to parents who privately adopted, talked to foster parents, social workers.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And you ended up using these stories or using pieces of them?

  • Robin Benway:

    Every single one. Yes, people were just so lovely and open with me. And they told me so much about their lives, you know, all these intimate details about their children and about their parents and the experiences that they have had.

    And, yes, the adoption attorney told me about the women that he’s met. And, yes, I didn’t use any of their stories personally, but just the circumstances behind them were really helpful.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But all toward fiction, right?

  • Robin Benway:

    Right.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You never thought about, well, I should write a book about adoption at this point.

  • Robin Benway:

    But, no, because the thing with fiction is that you can expand the world or decrease the world as much as you want.

    And with nonfiction, you are working with facts, and which you should. And so I thought, I really want these siblings to be fictional characters, but, at the end, they felt so real, and they still feel so real to me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    By giving them different histories, you are able to look at different aspects of American life, right?

  • Robin Benway:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, class and race. You wanted to get into these things?

  • Robin Benway:

    You know, I wouldn’t say I wanted to. You know, those are really treacherous subjects sometimes.

    But I wanted — I didn’t know how to tell a story about adoption without talking about those things. And if I didn’t, I thought the book would be a little anemic.

    Private adoption is so expensive in America. So does that mean that only wealthy people can adopt a baby, you know? When you look at the cost — there was a big NPR story about the cost of private adoption based on the race of the baby. And that was really eye-opening and awkward and strange.

    And then I looked at foster care, and I look at who ends up in foster care, not only who ends up in foster care, but who stays in foster care. You know, these boys of color don’t get adopted and they become men of color at 13, 14, 15, and seeing, you know, how they stay in the system.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, you’re writing in these different voices in alternating chapters. How do you capture teen voices?

  • Robin Benway:

    You know, I think it’s a mistake to try to capture a voice, because you have to remember the way teenagers talk to each other, the way they talk to their parents, the way they talk to their teachers, and then I think, most importantly, the way they talk to themselves, you know, that inner voice.

    And the way that they feel about things, sometimes, it’s difficult for them to articulate, as it is for all of us.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Robin Benway:

    But I think you have to remember that the fear and the longing and the excitement and the emotion of it, and you just try to be as honest with that as possible.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And you remember that?

  • Robin Benway:

    I remember it painfully vividly, yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, the book is “Far From the Tree,” winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

    Robin Benway, thank you very much.

  • Robin Benway:

    Thank you. Thank you so, so much.

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