Jeanette Winter; Harcourt Books, Inc. 2006
Jeanette Winter’s book uses simple, color-drenched paintings and only two words to tell a story about the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean near Indonesia. With compelling illustrations and only the words “Mama” and “Baby” Winter invites readers into the experience of a young hippo separated from his mother by a raging tsunami, and his subsequent connection with a 130-year old male giant tortoise named Mzee. Mama tugs at reader’s emotions while evoking questions about family, loss and possibility. The book is targeted to ages four through eight, but with its minimalist style, Mama appeals to children and adults alike.
While Mama wasn’t written explicitly as an exploration of adoption, Winter’s tale depicts Owen’s loss of his first mother and his adoption—of and by—Mzee. With its sparse language and straightforward plotline, the book offers a beautiful stage for conversations about adoption. Because “Mama” and “Baby” are the only words repeated throughout the book, readers are encouraged to flesh out the tangible and emotional details of Owen’s journey themselves. This allows readers of all ages and developmental stages to engage with the story in different ways, either alone or in conversation.
Through the lens of adoption, Mama is a compelling story. Readers glimpse a full-circle telling of Owen’s journey that honors his early life with his mother as they eat, play, snuggle to sleep, and swim together. Owen and his mother are clearly connected, loving, and devoted to one another. When the tsunami hits, they look for each other and call out to find their way together, distraught by the danger and their potential separation. Tears cover Owen’s face as he searches for his mama and is rescued by Kenyan wildlife officials. Owen continues to seek his mama, and a mama, as he acclimates to his new environment. When he sees Mzee, Owen’s face breaks into a grin and he exclaims: “MAMA!!!” Clearly, this ancient and enormous tortoise is not his beloved hippo mama, but Owen feels a connection and a pull towards Mzee that allows him reach out joyfully. Mzee reaches back, swimming and eating with Owen, cuddling with him under the stars, and calling him “baby.” On the last page of the book, as Mzee and Owen sleep curled together, Owen’s hippo mama appears above and around the sleeping pair, watching over them.
Mama isn’t a universal or definitive depiction of adoption, but it succeeds at validating important elements. Owen’s hippo mama is present throughout the story—she doesn’t disappear from Owen’s memory or dissolve when Owen connects with Mzee. Owen’s early life with his hippo mama is portrayed tenderly, and at the end of the book, her presence is strong and comforting. Winter also depicts the sadness and loss felt by Owen and his hippo mama, and doesn’t gloss over the tragedy that caused their separation. Finally, Owen and Mzee are infinitely different from each other, but they still bond and attach as family. Winter’s gorgeous illustrations and compelling story set the stage for important conversation about first parents, grief and loss in adoption and transracial or cross-cultural parenting. Mama is a beautiful and tender story, evoking emotion and inviting dialogue.