“The Unadoptables: five amazing kids. One UN-ordinary adventure to find the home they deserve,” by Hana Tooke, is a middle grade historical fiction that is Dickens-esque while it also charms and touches the heart. The story takes place in Amsterdam and begins in the year 1880, over the course of which five infants are abandoned on the premises of the Little Tulip Orphanage.
No five children could be more diverse than these five, given their unusual names by the horrid woman who runs the orphanage, Elinora Gassbeek. It’s apparent from the first page that she dislikes children and, in fact, works them harshly, feeds them little, and forces them to live in unhealthy, unheated quarters.
When an infant girl is left at the orphanage and another orphan picks her up and notices she has “a lotta fingers,” the matron names her Lotta. When another infant is left in a coal bucket wrapped in a grubby shawl with a pattern reminiscent of eggs, he becomes Egbert. The third infant somehow appears in a picnic basket, and when fennel seeds fall from the baby’s hair, she becomes Fenna. Pity poor Sem, who arrived as an infant dressed in a wheat sack with the word Semolina Flour written on it. And lastly, the main character in this story arrived inside a coffin-shaped basket, hair and eyes the color of night, wrapped in a velvet blanket on which was embroidered her name, Milou.
The five orphans are best friends, and at the advanced age of twelve, they are the oldest orphans left at the orphanage. When they realize that Gassbeek is planning on selling them to an evil ship’s captain, Meneer Rotman, who plans to use them as workers until they die, and then to procure more orphans to work his ship, the five orphans escape. Barely.
And from that point on, the story is filled with excitement and adventure as the five unlikely friends make their way across Amsterdam in search of Milou’s parents. Milou is a storyteller, and she is sure that her parents are looking for her. She just needs to find them. They find clues and follow them. They end up in an abandoned windmill, and it seems that they will be found and sent back to the orphanage, but they are all determined to take control of their fate.
Each of the five is extremely talented. Milou is the storyteller, Fenna is a talented cook, Lotta is brilliant at math and science, Sem can sew anything, and Egg is an amazing artist and cartographer. Through their journey and their adventures, we learn to really like these intrepid children. And they learn what is most important in life. While Milou had thought that the most important thing was to find her family, she and the others realize, at the end, that family is what you make it. And these five have certainly discovered that they are family, and they must be together.
There are many Dutch words strewn throughout the book, and through Tooke’s vivid descriptions, we can picture the bleak winter landscape of the Netherlands. The icy canals and powdery snow and the frigid temperatures are important aspects of the story. There’s also an almost-fantasy aspect to a few parts of the story, including Milou’s ears, which itch and seem to send her important messages in times of need. Her shadow, too, seems to warn her at times.
By the end of the story, we are completely engrossed in the lives of these youngsters. We want them to find a home, a family. We want them to be safe and to escape the evil Rotman. We want a happily-ever-after for these brave and impressive kids. The ending will bring a tear to the eye of any adult reading the story, and children will enjoy it for many reasons: the unique characters, the unusual setting, and the journey that we feel a part of.
It would be a fabulous choice for a book study, and it’s certainly a book that should be on every library shelf.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, Penguin Young Readers, for review purposes.