The Angel Tree was clearly written with the best intentions. However, at times, the portrayal of blindness was lacking.
Every Christmas, a tree is put up in the town where the protagonists of this story live. People can tie slips of paper with their wishes written on them to the tree and the community will try to grant them. Four children in the town decide to try and find out who is behind the tree.
One of the children, nine-year-old Lucy, has a guide dog with cancer, and her family can’t afford to pay for the treatment it needs. I genuinely felt for her when reading. The costs of owning a service dog can be prohibitive for some disabled people, so the fact that the author was tackling this issue was very positive.
I did, however, find problems with the way the author portrayed Lucy and her family. Firstly, Lucy counts the steps within her house. She knows the stairs are ten steps away from her chair. Step counting as a technique is used in fiction far more often than real life as it is very unreliable. If you are angled slightly differently, or if your stride length alters, the step count won’t stay the same. There are also no rugs in her house, supposedly because they are a tripping hazard for a blind person. This again is not the case, blind people have houses that are pretty much like anyone else’s … in fact, I am probably one of the least tidy people in existence, with things all over the place!
I don’t live in the US, but I’ve asked around, and as far as I know children aren’t given guide dogs, at least not children as young as nine. Although I think it’s great to see a blind character, and one with a guide dog, readers should be aware that it’s not necessarily an accurate portrayal. You also wouldn’t work a service animal, especially not a guide dog, if it was dying of cancer. That would be considered unfair to the dog.
Another point that bugged me is that when Lucy’s dog is with the vet, her mum has to walk her to school. Although some blind people don’t have the skills to travel, Lucy—who has a guide dog—should have also received cane instruction. She should be able to still travel alone.
Lucy’s awkwardness about not fitting in and her desire to exclude herself from situations rather than inconvenience others was realistically handled. Although many blind children won’t experience this, it is something that others will consider. Is it worth spending time with others? Am I going to hold them back? I’m glad the author showed that Lucy’s disability isn’t a reason why she shouldn’t have friends and enjoy spending time with them.
I want to praise the author for being very committed to diversity. Not only has she written a book with a Chinese blind character, she also included a boy with a learning disability and other people of colour. So although she got some of the details about blindness wrong, she does seem keen to write characters with different experiences. I think that with more research and by spending time speaking to blind people, she could have written a more accurate portrayal.
I would recommend this book to readers of middle grade level. Although the portrayal of Lucy was somewhat inaccurate, I did enjoy it. It’s important to recognise even when there are issues with the way a disability has been written, stories can still have value.