Talking about adoption with children is not easy. No matter how well counselled foster or adoptive parents are, or how prepared to handle the tough questions, finding the right words and the right approach is hard when it comes to speaking to your adopted child.

In India, adoption is still a delicate issue with many parents preferring to side step the subject, dress up the truth as a fable or simply hold out as long as they can. However, counsellors and therapists urge parents to normalise the concept of adoption, to start talking to their children about how they came to be a part of the family and to not make it a secret.

Even then, a little help in the form of a relatable story or an anecdote can go a long way in bolstering the confidence of adoptive parents who struggle to ease their children to the facts. Former actor turned child rights activist and author Nandana Dev Sen’s latest book, In My Heart intends to address this concern, with illustrations by Ruchi Mhasane and text that are perfect for interactive reading.

It tells the story of Mia, a little girl who is curious about where babies come from and with a little help from her parents, goes back to the place where she came from, to look for her “tummy mummy”. On her quest, she meets people who have all played an important part in her life, loved her and shared some beautiful moments with her. Even as Mia does not find her tummy mummy, she realises she is blessed with a different but extremely loving family and it makes her happy.

Illustration by Ruchi Mhasane from 'In My Heart'
Illustration by Ruchi Mhasane from 'In My Heart'

In My Heart is a deceptively simple and gentle story that takes on one of the most difficult parts of parenting an adopted child. Its tender moments and pleasant illustrations make for splendid bed time reading, with the trickiest issues addressed in a language that appeals to children.

In an interview with Scroll.in, Sen spoke about the inspiration for the book and why it is important for every family to find its own language to discuss adoption.

Most parents find it hard to find age appropriate literature that would help them talk about adoption. Was this book born from a similar experience?
The truth is, for as long as I’ve been working with children in India – most of whom were institutionalised, displaced or homeless – I’ve been struck by the glaring scarcity of books that talk about adoption here. We all agree that loving families would transform the lives of thousands of vulnerable Indian children, yet adoption is rarely addressed in our books for kids, our popular culture, or even our mainstream media. This absence of coverage reflects a deep-seated anxiety about adoption, and reinforces a pervasive culture of silence.

Consequently, there is a widespread if unspoken stigma attached to adoption in India, and much confusion about how to address it with transparency. For example, many adoptive parents still fear that their child may be bullied if they speak about their history, and at times, they can even feel threatened that their child may reject them once she finds out that she is adopted. I wanted to write a gentle and inclusive children’s book that would encourage us all to be more open to adoption, and help families discuss it more freely. I hope that In My Heart allows children and parents to explore together, through a child’s love-filled adventure, the fact that all families are inseparably connected through the heart.

“Heart babies” is perhaps one of the most commonly used “codes” for adoptive children. Parents are often at a loss for words, metaphors, fables, fairytales, imagery to talk about adoption and no amount of counselling or reading up is enough at times...
I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s a very personal choice, and I think every adoptive family must find its own language and imagery that feel right, to embrace its particular history of becoming. In a sense, all children’s literature uses “coded” or child-friendly vocabulary to communicate with children. I believe that it is extremely important for children to get used to hearing and accepting the term “adopted” from a very early age, to ensure that they feel no stigma attached to it. At the same time, as you say, we do also need metaphors for children – “adoption” is a big mouthful of a grown-up word to literally explain to little ones, whereas “heart baby” speaks to every child. I agree that as a culture, we need to find more ways of including adoption in our stories for children, though ironically, our epics are in fact full of inspiring heroes who were adopted – whether Sita or Shakuntala, Krishna or Karna.

Nandana Dev Sen \ Photo by Mala Mukerjee
Nandana Dev Sen \ Photo by Mala Mukerjee

In your story, Mia wants to find her tummy mummy and eventually finds happiness in her adoptive family. Adoptive parents are often wary of this milestone. What has been your personal experience?
Our daughter has not asked about this yet as she’s a bit too young, but I’m close to many children who wanted to embark on a search for their “tummy mummy”! I’m sure that our child too will have many questions about her history as she gets older, but no, I’m not wary of it – Meghla is well aware that she is adopted, and that I am not her “tummy mummy”. It’s totally natural to have a need to find out more about your birth mother, and even if it’s impossible to know all the answers, of course it’s right for the family to act supportively. I hope this book makes it easy for families to discuss this delicate issue, which, as discussed, can sometimes become emotionally fraught for both the child and the parents.

One of the challenges that most adoptive parents face is that of social stigma. Very often children, who do not look like their parents, are singled out. Mia, in your book, is a “lot like her parents”. In the sense, she likes the same things, experiences etc. How does one deal with the lack of physical resemblance that is often a delicate issue in our society?
In My Heart emphasises that Mia is like her parents because of what she loves and how she behaves, not how she looks. Unfortunately, physical resemblance is, indeed, still a sensitive issue in our society, where, to this day, many prospective adoptive parents shy away from adopting a child who has a markedly different skin tone or physical features. I think the best way to break out of this cycle of fear and regressive thinking is to be absolutely upfront about adoption to the child, and to the world – to be celebratory rather than apologetic, joyful rather than silent.

How would you, as an author and mother, want families to discover/read In My Heart? At what stage of parenting?
I conceived and wrote In My Heart for it to be read to a child at any stage – it is up to the parents, or the child, to take the discussion further if the time is right. Happily, I’ve done sessions now on this book with close to 3,000 kids of varying ages. The younger children are enthralled by it simply as a fun family story about love and belonging, whereas older kids are immediately curious and full of lots of perceptive questions! As for the very different matter of when to discuss a particular child’s own adoption story, that is an entirely personal decision of course. I strongly believe that it should be initiated well before the child is in a public and socialised space such as school.

Illustration by Ruchi Mhasane from 'In My Heart'
Illustration by Ruchi Mhasane from 'In My Heart'

How important is it to sensitise other/non adoptive kids and their biological parents, about “heart babies” and the different ways families are created? Would you recommend this book for all children?
Yes, I absolutely wrote this book for all children. It’s a priority for In My Heart to encourage children of every background to understand the “normality” of alternative family units. Families come together now in so many different but equally wonderful ways – adoption, surrogacy, second marriages, LGBTQ parenting. Given that the dynamics of any unique family situation have much to do with the respect and ease with which the world around it accepts it, I wanted to write a book that would inspire all children, from traditional as well as non-traditional families, to appreciate the fact that beyond genes it’s the universal bond of love that unites every family, biological or adopted. Equally, I hope that this book resonates with other alternative family units, as they celebrate their distinctive identities in an openly proud and positive way.

As an author writing for children, how has parenthood impacted your storytelling?
As much as parenting, working with children for over two decades has had a very strong influence on my storytelling. In fact, my first book published in India, Mambi and the Forest Fire, grew directly out of a workshop I did with a group of amazingly resilient and creative kids, in a children’s home called SNEHA. Meghla, my daughter, who is super chatty, mischievous and imaginative, is a wonderful muse to me every day, and so are the six marvellous nieces and nephews I’m blessed to have in my life. In fact, the first book I ever wrote, Kangaroo Kisses, was inspired by and dedicated to my beloved and brilliant niece Hiya, who was a strong influence behind In My Heart as well. Also adopted, Hiya is Meghla’s hugely adored and dazzling “Didi”.

There seems to be a lot of you in the book – the illustrations, the story itself. Could you tell us a bit about the journey of In My Heart?
In a way, my own “adoption story” started many years ago, when I decided as a teenager that I wanted to adopt a child. That said, I can’t honestly claim that In My Heart reflects my personal journey. The book deals with fundamental questions that every adopted child is bound to ask – I witnessed them being raised (and resolved) by adopted kids within my own circle of family and friends long before I became a mum. Going through the process of adoption myself made the topic more emergent, of course, but the story was brewing “in my heart” much before that.

Illustration by Ruchi Mhasane from 'In My Heart'
Illustration by Ruchi Mhasane from 'In My Heart'

Did “Mia” read the book when it was ready? What did she have to say about it?
Mia isn’t Meghla, but Meghla absolutely sees herself in the story, as I hope other adopted children would too. I didn’t read the book to her before it was published, but when the first copy arrived, she stood patiently in line with rest of the kids at the Hindu Lit for Life Children’s Fest and instructed me to sign her copy to “Meghla Mia Devsen Makinson”. Although Meghla is a true bookworm and loves books of every kind, she insists that we read the “Heart Book” to her every day. And whenever I do readings from In My Heart, whether in schools, bookstores, children’s homes, or lit fests, Meghla confidently takes over on her own, and proudly presents it to the audience as her book. She carries the “Heart Book” with her everywhere, and recites every line of it from memory, pretending to read it out.

In My Heart ends with the reader wanting to know more about Mia. Will she eventually meet her tummy mummy? Will she go on her next big adventure? Will her heart mummy put more of Mia in her stories?
That question remains open in the book and in my imagination, but the truth is that most adopted children in India may never get a chance to meet their birth mothers. Are you asking if I am going to write a sequel? (smiling) I am not planning to write one, but it would be great to have such a strong and determined hero who celebrates her identity as an adopted child. If kids demand to find out more about Mia, of course I will! For example, Mambi the Marvel has become a series now because the character is very popular, and children want to see much more of this spunky monkey. Let’s see how Mia’s story speaks to other children.