My daughter is a voracious reader which is why as a sixth grade student, she still receives books from beloved former teachers via the back packs of little brothers and sister. Recently, Miss S., a first grade teacher, sent home an interesting book titled Barkbelly with our youngest for my sixth grader to read. Since it was sitting on the counter after all the kids had rushed off to school, I picked it up and read the first page…and didn’t stop until about page 50 or so because the story picked me up and carried me away just like that.
Cat Wetherill is magnificent as an author and spinner of this yarn. Barkbelly, a wooden boy who begins life in an egg, is unknowingly dropped in a field and hatches into a old fashioned Grimm-like fairy tale world complete with an woodsmen and wife longing for a child, a quest, Dickensian factory work, a traveling circus and supernatural hedgehogs. As I read the story, I felt as though I was sitting at a campfire under the spell of a master story teller, keeping my eyes open so that I wouldn’t miss a single detail. What I didn’t expect in the fairy tale’s unfolding was a rather interesting and bumpy adoption tale.
Due to circumstances beyond his control, as an egg, Barkbelly hatches in a part of the world unfamiliar with wooden people. Fortunately, this happens in the company of woodsmen and his wife who had been admiring his egg and longing for a child. The couple lovingly adopts him. As a wooden boy, Barkbelly has unusual strengths and talents that help him grow but also cause him trouble and send him running away at a young age. When Barkbelly learns that he’s not alone—that there are other wooden people like him in the world — he sets out to find his “birth family”.
As the mother of adopted children I was pleased to see positive adoption language woven early into the story until toward the end of the book when the troubling term “real parents” popped up. Then, when Barkbelly does find his birth family they are disturbingly not what he had pictured them to be. They do not provide him with the sense of reassurance and wholeness he was seeking from them—which rockets him back to face the consequences of his trouble and toward the arms of his adoptive parents. At this point, supernatural hedgehogs reappear in Barkbelly’s life to save the day. Isn’t that just like a fairy tale?
As I finished the book I was a bit agitated and had to admit to myself that I do have a sort of fantasy about my children’s birth parents. I imagine them loving and wonderful….simply not able to provide the home my child needs. I never pictured them in the manner Barkbelly’s birth family is portrayed. I was thrown for a bit of a loop by Wetherill’s plot twist here. However, the story is a fairy tale fantasy and a happy, albeit strange, ending ties up threads of the story in a satisfactory way.
In the end, I enjoyed Barkbelly, but more importantly I’m glad that I got a chance to read it before my children. If and when they pick up this book I will have an opportunity to ask them what they thought about threads of the plot associated with adoption and if the depiction of the birth family was troubling for them. I’ll ask them how they would write Barkbelly’s story—similarly or differently than the author. I hope it will lead to some good family discussion time soon.
I did a little checking on Barkbelly and see that Common Sense Media reviewed the book. CSM gives Barkbelly four out of five stars and recommends the book for ages nine and older as some of the content can be violent and involves a mother rejecting her son. School Library Journal and Booklist also provide reviews for Barkbelly at Amazon.com which gives the book 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Barkbelly by Cat Wetherill. Alfred A. Knopf Publishers. New York. 2005. ISBN: 10:0-375-83327-7.
Barkbelly is a good read….but one that adoptive parents should receive a “heads up” on. Here is your “head’s up”. What do you think? Have you or any of your children read Barkbelly? Did it generate interesting responses or discussion in your adoptive family?
Linda Mitchell is a wife and mom to four, blog contributor for Love Without Boundaries and volunteer at her kid’s school, student of School Library Media, K-1st Sunday School Teacher…..and creative writer when she can get a word in edgewise.