Diversity issues are creating quite a buzz these days in the children’s literature world—authors, agents and publishers are chiming in. Just watch for the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
Many believe kids of different races, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds need to see themselves represented more frequently and more accurately. Huge support exists for eliminating sexism and empowering young girls, in part through books featuring confident, capable female characters.
I’d love to see more diversity around age also. Ageism is a cousin to racism and sexism—the cousin in the closet. It still flies under the radar much of the time, but a large part of ageism is treating people over “a certain age” as if they are all the same.
The forgetful grandpa, the beloved grandma who dies, the grumpy old man in need of childish cheering, the sad and lonely old woman down the block—they tug at our heartstrings. More than likely that’s the reason so many of these characters live in books for kids. But they don’t truly represent the diversity of people over the age of 65.
Sadly, kids get sick also, but these images do not dominate literature and the media. It is ageism that forces us to see an entire cohort of people, often from several generations, as identical—their strengths, individuality, and capabilities fading from view.
Children need to see the more accurate heterogeneity of older adults. A diversity of culture certainly, but also a diversity of abilities, talents, and interests. Empathy for those less fortunate is a terrific thing to teach, but instilling a happy anticipation of their own future is essential.
Whatever their sex, skin color, or cultural heritage—if they are lucky—children will grow up and eventually grow old. Research tells us they will become what they think as they get older. Internalized attitudes to aging affect physical and mental functioning, employment, relationships and enjoyment of life.
I believe books for children must balance what is fed to them from the moment the electronic babysitter kicks in. Negative age stereotypes predominate in the media. Cartoons, ads, TV shows—take a hard look. (Modern Family and The Simpsons can make me laugh, but I count an ageist message every five minutes.) Even toddlers exhibit negative attitudes to older adults—believing them less capable than those younger says research at the University of Alberta.
Yes, of course some older people do live isolated from neighbors and even family, all grandmas reach the end of their lives, and Alzheimer’s disease claims many victims.
But, what is truly an epidemic is fear of Alzheimer’s according to myth-busting author Ashton Applewhite. She shares, “fear of dying is human, but fear of aging is cultural. In America we tend to look at aging through the lens of loss.”
The truth is, only one out of nine adults over 65 has Alzheimer’s and unless you have a rare gene mutation you don’t have to lose mental alertness as you grow old. (Ashton blogs at both This Chair Rocks and “Yo, is this ageist?”–a Q & A blog. “Go ahead. Ask her.”)
The Gifts of Growing Older
Recently, I heard Applewhite speak locally, along with Dr. Bill Thomas, geriatrician, author, and changing-aging guru. He shared research telling us we grow happier as we grow older—we learn to filter out the negative and focus on positive emotions. Better decisions are made when fear takes a nose dive and optimism blossoms. Basically “the healthy aging brain is wired for wisdom.”
Much of what we know about aging are myths, but older people are different from younger ones. The older brain tends to assimilate new information more slowly and find other info, like names, with less speed, but apparently experience and knowledge trump both issues. Aging brains work smarter and quicker—making connections and discerning patterns to arrive at the logical endpoint more quickly.
Different, but not inferior—just the message we aim for around human diversity.
Other gifts of growing older abound—creativity blossoms in combination with rich life experience and inner growth goes on, and on… Dr. Thomas quoted Michelangelo in his ninth decade, “I am still learning.” Marriages and other relationships often thrive with the years, and loving grandchildren may be added to the mix.
As parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, as writers, teachers, and librarians—as people growing older and wiser with each day—let’s teach kids to appreciate the amazing diversity of older adults.
Let’s show them loving life, meeting the challenges, learning, and growing. Let’s paint the possibilities—for all our children their whole life long.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below—
Do you notice ageist messages in the media? What would you like to see when older adults are characters in books for kids?
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See my book reviews of books in images–click on links below:
Here Comes Grandma by Janet Lord, illus. by Julie Paschkis
The Grandma Book by Todd Parr
Gabby and Grandma Go Green by Monica Wellington
My Teacher by James Ransome
Silly Frilly Grandma Tillie by Laurie A. Jacobs
Copyrighted images courtesy of Julie Paschkis, Todd Parr, Monica Wellington, James Ransome, and Laurie A. Jacobs.
Excellent post, thank you! I would also like to point out that, especially in YA, I don’t recall the last time I saw an author over 55 on a, say, teen festival panel.
Authors over 45 are increasingly rare–maybe one or two out of slates of 20 or more.
It’s better on the teacher-librarian conference circuit, especially with regard to authors and illustrators of younger children’s books. But there’s still a bias at work in the industry that’s being passed on to kids.
Cynthia, thanks so much for your comment! You bring up a point I haven’t thought about, and there are tremendous authors who are enjoying long careers. People like Marion Dane Bauer for example–I recently heard her speak at the Vermont College of Fine Arts conference in Ann Arbor.
Then there are others such as the talented author Karen Cushman, MG writer, a prime example of blossoming creativity in the second half of life. She published her first book in her 40’s I believe and established the new “Late Bloomer” award for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Unfortunately, age bias is so subtle because our society makes us see it as normal. I appreciate your insights!