Whistling for Angela – With Author Robin Heald

Adoption, Blog, Featured Bloggers

As every adoptive and birth parent knows, adoption is a journey. It’s a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, twists and turns. It’s a journey sometimes of elation and at other times, of devastation.

Our son Dylan’s adoption went fairly smoothly. This was not true in the case of my daughter, Zoe’s, adoption. Zoe’s birth mom had established contact with us when she was five months pregnant. We corresponded by hand-written letters and spoke by phone.

When she gave birth we got a call from the adoption agency letting us know that she had changed her mind. Few people understand that the altering of an adoption plan is as devastating as a miscarriage. Extended family mourned with us. My son who was 4 ½ cried in the bathtub, “That’s OK, it means that another baby will be waiting for us.” I shared an office at the public primary arts school, where I taught creative dramatics,  with two very buff gym teachers. We wept together. Within a month our adoption agency matched us with another birth mother. When she also had a change of heart, our funds were exhausted. We had paid for the hospital expenses.

 In June, before the end of my school year our adoption agency called, letting us know that our first birth mother had reached the decision that she wanted us to raise her daughter. I prepared myself for a disoriented 4 ½ month old, grieving for her birth family. I’m sure that sometimes happens. We were fortunate in that our daughter acted like she was at a party.

The day we met Zoe and her birth mother was joyful, and it was heartbreaking. Her birth mother was saying goodbye. We hugged, and I promise we would keep in touch. When she left, my son ran after her. Later I asked him what he’d said. “I told her don’t worry, we’ll take good care of the baby.” 

My son’s words inspired my picture book, Whistling for Angela (released May of 2022, by Pajama Press). I wrote the first draft of Whistling for Angela when Zoe was eleven. When I passed it around at a writer’s conference my future agent said, “You know this is a lovely story, I think I can sell it.” What makes ANGELA unique is that it features the birth mother front and center. She is not a fantasy figure but a three-dimensional human being, cognizant of the pain of the day. 

There is no doubt that my book has limitations, too. It’s a specific story, a domestic adoption, and a situation in which the adoptive parents are both able to be present. The book, in which there is sadness, needed to be balanced with lightheartedness. I’m not sure how the idea of whistling and birds came into the writing. I think my subconscious knew that I needed a parallel rite of passage for Daniel beyond, but related to, his becoming a big brother. 

Whistling seemed like a challenge that would be more dynamic than, say, learning to tie shoelaces. The potential for humor was there. I wanted to honor the birthmother and show how bonding can develop between adoptive and birth families, not limited to the child they have in common.

It was a testament to my literary agent’s persistence that the book was published. She submitted ANGELA no fewer than 63 times. In the meantime, two of my other books were published,  but this was my heart book. Fortunately, it was my agent’s heart book, too. “I’ll get this book published if it’s the last thing I do.” I felt as though it was easier to get a book on war or homelessness or death published, then it was to get editors to acquire a book about adoption; specifically, a book that is realistic and doesn’t sugar coat the scenario. Six of the editors took me through multiple revisions, but ultimately during editorial roundtables rejected the piece. All editors in one publishing company usually have to be in agreement. The specificity of the subject matter was a deterrent. One of my strengths as a writer is to take all suggestions or at least to try them. I have 30 versions of this picture book.

Ultimately, the book was acquired by Pajama Press, and very few changes were made. Pajama Press matched me with an illustrator, Peggy Collins, who’s colorful, funny, and moving artwork work beautifully to balance the seriousness of the material. Although no mention is made in the text of Daniel (the protagonist) having been adopted, the editor and illustrator decided to make him a biological child. I think the decision was a good one; it allows readers to focus on the adoption taking place in the story. From idea to book release, it was twenty years. My agent started submitting ANGELA eleven years ago.

Every birthday, since my daughter was three years old, we call her birthmother. Zoe now does this on her own. I make my own call to her. 

When Zoe was 16, she announced that she wanted to visit her birth family before, she “left for college.”  Zoe is generally a chatterbox, but when she saw people that looked like different facets of her, she was speechless. It turned out that Zoe’s birth mother’s husband – not Zoe’s birth father – was adopted. He and I spoke at great length during those three days, giving space for Zoe to connect with her birth mom and sisters. Did I have emotions ranging from happiness to jealousy and defensiveness? You bet. But this is what my daughter needed. It made us closer, this acceptance of her family of origin, a big part of her.

Whistling for Angela is dedicated to Dylan and Zoe and to their birth mothers.

Robin Heald

Before becoming a teacher, Robin was a stage manager in regional theaters and on and off Broadway.

She taught drama to children of all ages in public and private schools for over 30 years. In 2006 she founded the Pomegranate Preschool for the Arts, in Ashland, OR.

Her articles have appeared in Exceptional Parenting Magazine and Children’s Literature in Education. Her published picture books are: Pat, Roll, Pull (Hachai Publishing), Liberty Saves the Day (Colonial Williamsburg Press) and Whistling for Angela (Pajama Press). Robin was the 2015 recipient of the Katherine Paterson Prize at Hunger Mountain, the Vermont College of Fine Arts Journal for her unpublished picture book, Isadora’s Sandàlias.

Robin holds an MFAW for Children from Spalding University. She is represented by Susan Cohen at Writers House.

Robin hails from Philadelphia. She now lives in Ashland, OR with her husband, actor Anthony Heald. They have two grown children Dylan and Zoë.


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