I think it’s fair to say that Michigan’s own Patricia Polacco is truly the Queen of positive aging children’s literature. In her own words she has a “…genuine curiosity for the wonder of living a very long life,” and it is always evident. Many of her more than 50 published books feature an older character that not only warms the heart, but interacts with children in such an affirming way. On her website Ms. Polacco shares that this is no accident—she spent most of her growing up years living with one set of grandparents or the other, and she states, “Personally, I feel that this is the most valuable experience of my life.”
Patricia Polacco’s There’s Something About Hensley’s is an important book, as she highlights an elder valued by his community. “Old John” is the manager of a general store and beloved and respected by the residents of Union City, Michigan, Ms. Polacco’s own hometown. She illustrates her own books and portrays him lovingly, age spots, thin white hair and all. This is a rarity in today’s children’s literature, as is the engaging length of her text. Most current picture books are now under 900 words, many at 500 or less, and the buzz at a kid lit workshop was that only Patricia Polacco is allowed to write stories featuring older people. (This blog post is over 500 words).
Something About Hensley’s celebrates the warmth and kindness of Old John and his almost mystical ability to know what the people of his town need. The store is a hub of the community and John Soncrant solves problems for a medley of townspeople young and old. Hensley’s draws in two young sisters new to town and Old John manages to help both the sisters and their single mom. The message of an elder’s wisdom, caring and competence comes through loud and clear.
Next Steps in Challenging Ageism
There are many children’s books out there featuring older people who are ill, on the decline, and needing the help of family and friends. Far too few illustrate an elder in the role of helper. In my own experience, even older adults challenged by illness or disability can very often be the ones to expertly soothe a child or pass on important family legacies, at the very least. In my career working with survivors of stroke I have known many whose accomplishments would knock your socks off. (More on them later). The reality is that there are elders in every community doing good things, but we rarely hear of them and I’d love to see that change.
Talk to kids about the softer skills we see around us every day—the random acts of kindness, the patience shown, the insights, the generosity of time given freely. Read them positive aging children’s literature, starting with those by Patricia Polacco. We can all counter the shows and ads on TV telling us you are worthwhile only when young and beautiful.