A couple of weeks ago, I received a very polite note from Eric and Terry Fan, author/illustrators of the stunningly beautiful The Night Gardener, a picture book about an old man who transforms a dreary neighborhood with marvelous topiary and inspires a young boy to follow suit. They wanted to bring my attention to a parenthetical statement in the review that described the Night Gardener as white. They were taken aback, you see, because their mental model for the Night Gardener was their dad, who is Chinese. They explained this and sent along a photo of him to prove it. Horrified, I looked at the book again and saw that although the Night Gardener is literally white—as in nonpigmented, since we see him only by the light of the moon—he is indubitably Asian.
I am an idiot, I wrote back to the Fans, along with an explanation for the gaffe. I imposed the description "white" on the Night Gardener in editing the review, since we are doing our best to describe all characters by race whenever possible (or applicable). Adults buying books for children everywhere should know whether they are buying books that are mirrors or books that are windows or books that are both. And our nonwhite readers shouldn't have to operate under the assumption that unless otherwise named, characters are white.
It’s a dreadful irony. In specifically looking for diversity, instead of seeing a clearly Asian character, I saw an avuncular old white man with his eyes peacefully closed. (That he was successfully navigating ladders with his eyes closed and then wielding sharp instruments didn't seem to strike me as problematic. Like I said: idiot.) That parenthetical statement about race has been replaced by this sentence: "The Night Gardener is Asian, the child pale-skinned, the neighborhood warmly multicultural." No parentheses.Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor.