Late Bloomer: Author Cynthia Surrisi

 

I’m pleased to present the first in a series of guest posts at “A is for Aging, B is for Books.”

     Late Bloomers defy age stereotypes and help show us the way to tap into our creativity using life experience, energy and positive attitudes.

“Creativity keeps us fresh, keeps us alive, keeps us moving forward.”   

Rollo May, psychotherapist and author of Courage to Create

 

Late Bloomers: Cynthia Surrisi on launching her writing career:

I was fortunately born with an indomitable creative spirit. I believe we all are. Mine has survived every attempt to douse it. By that I mean long days, months, and years of attention to what can be the dry details of legal contract negotiations at work; house management, billing paying, and other domestic matters at home; personal losses, and far too many air miles of business travel.

But these years were also enriched by flourishing children, wonderful relationships, successes of many kinds, and warm sun on my face.

What I didn’t have all those years were hours to dedicate to creative writing, which I longed to do. I have a BFA, a law degree, and finally now, an MFA.  While technically I can say I retired from law, I really just stopped doing it in favor of returning to a more creative life.

Because I learn best in a structured environment, and I felt I had a relatively short horizon to really learn to write, I entered an MFA program. I chose the low-residency, Vermont College of Fine Arts and it worked splendidly for me.

 

I’m a hard worker and an over achiever. I gave it all the attention it demanded and more. I thoroughly enjoyed being back in graduate school. Within weeks of getting my MFA I got a book deal that led to a three book, middle grade mystery series and a picture book.

Perhaps because I knew I wasn’t seeking a thirty-year, fifty-book writing career, and I never fancied myself chasing the Newbery Award, I have not felt pressured by my late start. Don’t get me wrong, I’m acutely aware that a late-blooming career naturally has limitations. It takes a good long while to write the books, and they are two years from contract to publication on average. But I have a greater ease about it, I think. 

When I get feedback from my editor or agent that something needs to change, I’m all about the change. Not because I’m not invested in principle, but because I trust their judgment. If they don’t like one book, I’ll come up with another and another.

There are some obstacles to navigating this business as an older adult. I’m sixty-nine. I was fifty-seven when I first joined the Society for Children’s Writers and Illustrators, sixty-four when I started the MFA program; and sixty-six when my first middle grade mystery was published.

Four books and three years later, I’ve done book launches, library conferences, book festivals, writer’s conferences, blog tours, maintained two critique groups, and taught at the university level. I’ve passed on many opportunities to promote the books because I am wearied by the promotional aspects of the business. I would rather spend the time writing new things. I have to make hard choices about where to put my energy these days.

Frankly, I don’t know how long this will last. I’m not worried about it either. Because I’ve written three mysteries it has earned me membership in the Mystery Writer of America and the Sisters in Crime. I’m now enticed by writing adult cozies. You see, there goes that indomitable creative spirit with a mind of its own.

Cynthia Surrisi’s website

 

Late Bloomers are guest blog posts sharing thoughts and insights from individuals who have launched notable creative efforts in the arts in their Third Age.

(For further resources, see books Secrets to Becoming a Late Bloomer: Extraordinary ordinary people on the art of staying creative, alive and aware in mid-life and beyond by Connie Goldman & Richard Mahler; The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life by Gene D. Cohen M.D.; What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life by Bruce Frankel.)

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Using Picture Books to Change Attitudes to Aging

Back in 2013, when I first began blogging about images of aging and older adults in picture books, I believed it to be a rather lonely effort. Awareness of the need to diversify those images in both text and illustrations was largely lacking. But there are others out there—individuals concerned about ageism blossoming in very young kids.

And people aware that research shows we all age more healthfully when we hold positive attitudes to growing older.

Also, those long dedicated to promoting aging education for kids using children’s literature.

They all inform my own efforts in different ways as I refine my message. Below are brief insights into the educators who point the way—I’m honored to follow in their footsteps:

  1. Sandra L. McGuire, who has published and presented on aging education for children for over 25 years, believes strongly that children’s books should help promote positive attitudes about aging. Our society bombards both kids and adult with negative stereotypes and myths about aging. Read her article in Creative Education Journal.

    Groundwood Books/House of Anansi

    Dr. McGuire has compiled an extensive list of children’s literature with only positive portrayals of older adults rather than books that “mirrored our society’s ageist attitudes.” Her criteria eliminate, “Books that focus on death, dying, dementia, illness and disability…These topics are not synonymous with aging.” You can find her list here and also on my website. I’m truly honored that Dr. McGuire has lent her expertise and experience as an advisor to my website and “A is for Aging” blog for several years now.

 

  1. Barbara M. Friedman’s excellent book, Connecting Generations, shares strategies for integrating aging education. She advocates that educators expose children to all types of books, while recognizing that “…many intergenerational trade books have examples of ageism, stereotyping, and age-related negative attitude portrayals.”

Lee & Low Books

Ms. Friedman further states, “Students often believe that what they read in books is true and right,” but she believes children should be helped to develop the critical-thinking skills needed to assess the value of the books. Her book shares many excellent ways to teach kids about growing older and to develop those skills.

(Connecting Generations: Integrating Aging Education and Intergenerational Programs with Elementary and Middle Grade Curricula. Allyn and Bacon, 1999.)

  1. A 2013 issue of the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships reports on related research in “Images of Old: Teaching About Aging Through Children’s Literature.” Recognizing teachers’ reluctance to teach about aging—unsurprising given our society’s mixed messages—researchers Elizabeth Larkin, Ed.D. and Patricia Wilson, Ed.D. asked the question—- “…how do children build a nuanced understanding of what ‘old’ means?” Teacher interns in culturally diverse K-5 classrooms selected books thought to appeal to students and critical thinking was encouraged. (Vol. 11, No. 1, 2013. Pages 4-17)

    Picture book “Harry and Walter” celebrates inter-generational friendship

Key findings included “…children can be helped to recognize older adults in the school and the community as role models for growing older so that their understanding of the aging process includes a wide range of capabilities and interests…”

 

The article added, “Children’s literature with likeable, realistic older adult characters offers an effective doorway into conversations about how we are all aging from the moment we are born.”

 

Current developments are very encouraging. Numerous organizations and individuals that advocate for older adults are campaigning against ageism. Two to definitely check out: Ashton Applewhite, activist and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism.

And Dr. Bill Thomas’s Changing Aging efforts—this recent guest post calls on teachers to change the focus of “100 days of school” celebrations. (Read my thoughts on ideas for celebrating 100 Days of School here.)

 

In the world of kidlit we are fortunate to have the powerful winds of change brought by the We Need Diverse Books organization (WNDB), a grassroots organization advocating for changes in the publishing industry.

They are pushing for “A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.” The WNDB website states: “We recognize all diverse experiences, including) but not limited to LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities.

 

In addition, NYT bestselling author Cynthia Leitich Smith has been a strong supporter on her blog Cynsations since the inception of “A is for Aging.” Cynthia also teaches her students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program that avoiding a reliance on age stereotypes is essential to showing a diversity of older characters in our writing.

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Here at “A is for Aging, B is for Books” I’m looking forward to adding more voices, including those of teachers and librarians sharing strategies for engaging kids in conversations about growing older.

Watch for a fascinating guest post soon by Joanne Corrigan, librarian for a school located in the same building as a long term care center for older adults.

Also, “Late Bloomers” guest blog posts will begin here next week and share thoughts and insights from individuals who have launched notable creative efforts in the arts in their Third Age.

The inaugural post is by Cynthia Surrisi, author of picture books and middle grade mysteries. She was 66 when her first mystery was published.

 

Please consider joining the conversation—what do YOU think is vital in teaching children about aging? How do you envision using picture books for kids in that effort?

 

 

Read my post “5 Stereotypes Positive Aging Picture Books Avoid.

Nature's Friend The Gwen Frostic Story by Lindsey McDivittPlease look for my new picture book from Sleeping Bear Press about an amazing older role model, Gwen Frostic.

(My own ever developing list of picture books with positive and accurate images of aging began in 2013 with a list used with permission of the SEA Change project. It was initiated by Dr. Gene D. Cohen at the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at The George Washington University.

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The Teacher Who Would Not Retire Retires

By Letty Sustrin; illus. by Thomas H. Bone’ III

Blue Marlin Publications 2017 (Ages 4 and up)

In The Teacher Who Would Not Retire Retires, twenty years have passed in the life of teacher Mrs. Belle since the School Rules forced her into reluctant retirement. It is the final book of a fun series that chronicled those decades.

The Teacher Who Would Not Retire

The Teacher Who Would Not Retire Goes to Camp

The Teacher Who Would Not Retire Becomes a Movie Star

The Teacher Who Would Not Retire Discovers a New Planet

The Teacher Who Would Not Retire Loses Her Ballet Slippers

First book of the series

In the first book, the gray haired first grade teacher donned creative disguises and slipped back into school—as a window washer, the lunch lady, and finally as the fire inspector. Her beloved students always recognized her distinctive ballet slippers.

Then Mrs. Belle volunteered weekly in her former classroom. I can count on one hand the number of picture books I’ve found portraying an older adult being of service to their community. Yet the “…the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2009) estimates…that 23.5% of adults aged 65 years and older volunteered in 2008…”

In this final book Mrs. Belle decides it’s finally time to retire and she launches her new stage of life with an exciting cruise. She is accompanied by friends featured throughout the series—Mr. Rivera, Kitty Belle the cat, and Magic the dog.

Illustrations for the series are by cartoonist-animator Thomas H. Bone III. For me the pictures are reminiscent of The Jetsons, a much loved futuristic cartoon once enjoyed on Saturday mornings with a bowl of Fruit Loops or Cocoa Puffs.

Five things I love about this book:

  • Belle’s friends and former students in Laurelville Town planned the trip as a gift in return for the joy she has given them over the years. She is a valued member of her community.

“There she is, our Mrs. Belle.

As she retires, we wish her well.

The Dancing Lady is her ship.

We all know she’ll have a great trip!

  • From the moment Mrs. Belle is ushered to a seat at the Captain’s Table we see her recognized. Captain Scott announces—

“On this trip, we are honored to have a very special person with us. Her name is Mrs. Belle, and not only is she celebrating her retirement, but many years ago she was my first grade teacher. She’s still wearing her colorful ballet slippers!”

  • The intergenerational friendships in this picture book are warm without a hint of condescension. At every stop on the cruise Mrs. Belle is welcomed by a former student and now in their twenties they enjoy fun times with her.

 

  • Retiree Mrs. Belle is not sitting on the sidelines! Author Letty Sustrin portrays her as game to try anything from cliff diving to dancing and the Limbo.
  • Older adults authored this series—Letty and Sheila Sustrin, twin sisters both retired from teaching, enjoyed a long second career as writers for children. Sadly, Sheila Sustrin passed away in 2015 and Letty completed this book in honor of her sister.

Let’s talk about aging and retirement with kids—

It’s important not to treat talk about aging as taboo. Kids, like many adults in our culture, then view getting older as a negative looming in their future according to Elizabeth Larkin Ed.D. and G. Patricia Wilson Ed.D in the Journal of Intergenerational Relationships.

The Honeybee Man by Lela Nargi & Krysten BrookerBooks like this seem the perfect way to open conversations with children and encourage them to see aging as “…including a wide range of capabilities and interests.” We can help kids build upon their pre-conceived notions of “old” for a more nuanced understanding of what it really means to grow older beyond the teen and adult years.

—First, dig a little deeper into modern retirement possibilities—

The article Finding Success Well Past the Age of Wunderkind offers inspiration about olders’ creative pursuits. “Maybe they are not making millions, or wielding a brush like Rembrandt.

Still, many people are discovering that the latter part of their lives can be just as (or even more) rewarding creatively, emotionally and spiritually.”

In another fascinating article an older adult dubs her adventures “rewirement,” (“…an alternative twist to the usual retirement story of rest, relaxation and occasional grandparenting duties.”)

Ask kids a few simple questions after reading some books in this picture book series (be sure to include the first book).

  • Do you know what retirement means?
  • What kinds of things might older people do after they retire from a job?
  • Do you think older people can learn new things?

“Teachers…can include the idea of aging in the curriculum simply by introducing children’s literature with older adult characters so the topic is comfortably discussable,” say Larkin and Wilson. I would add—we need to avoid age stereotypes and expose kids to a diverse array of older characters.

 

Find more picture books avoiding age stereotypes, including the fabulous    My Teacher by James Ransome.

Nature's Friend The Gwen Frostic Story by Lindsey McDivittAnd please look for my own brand new picture book biography from Sleeping Bear Press—Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story

You will LOVE the gorgeous illustrations by Eileen Ryan Ewen. Available in all the usual places, and in case you’re wondering how you might help a new author promote her first book 😉

—check out these ideas in Thirteen Ways to Support an Author Without Ever Spending a Dime. (As simple as requesting your local library or bookseller carry it.

(Source of journal article information and quotes: Journal of Intergenerational Relationships. Vol. 11, No. 1, 2013. Pages 4-17)

Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book. I was not required to write a review and I received no payment for this post.

 

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Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods

By Mary Quattlebaum; illustrated by Laura J. Bryant

(Dawn Publications 2013;     ages 1-4)

Dawn Publications has been “Connecting Children and Nature since 1979” and the Jo MacDonald series of picture books definitely fits that mission. Far fewer children grow up roaming the woods and fields freely like award-winning author Mary Quattlebaum  (and me). All three picture books use inventive text and bounce to the familiar tune of Old MacDonald had a farm.

Like many of us who grew up before electronic playthings, the author places tremendous value in early years spent out in the natural world, often with little adult supervision. The majority of today’s kids don’t have that freedom or easy access to nature. In fact we might even apply the term “nature deficit disorder” to far too many of them.

 

Another author, Richard Louv, shares fascinating research in his book for adults titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Kids from Nature Deficit Disorder. Problems in both physical and emotional health have been linked to a lack of direct exposure to nature. Grandparents can actually play an important role in rectifying that by introducing kids to ways in which they enjoyed the outdoors growing up.

 

 

In the delightful picture book titled Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods, a young girl named Jo hikes with her fit and active grandfather. They encounter all manner of wildlife including a snake, skunk, moth and owl. The sense of adventure will captivate kids. The camaraderie and affection between the intergenerational duo shines in the lovely watercolor illustrations by Laura J. Bryant.

 

Four pages of back matter share terrific information on the plants and animals of a forest community. There are also related and fun indoor activities. (scroll down on that page.)

 

 

There are two other picture books in this fun and informative series—

Jo MacDonald had a Garden and Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond. Both also portray young Jo exploring nature and she has the help of a young boy with the garden. The pond is a farm pond filled with noisy and interesting critters.

These books include extensive information on garden and pond communities that is sure to prompt kids to look more closely at their environment. Terrific resources and indoor activities are included. I found it exciting to find the author took it to the next level for children with how to be a naturalist and a citizen-scientist.

Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods is a lovely picture book depicting positive aspects of aging. The other two in the series show far less of Grandpa MacDonald unfortunately, but the illustrations are very engaging with an active child and equally active creatures. I highly recommend all three books as ideal for inspiring kids to notice, enjoy and protect their natural surroundings. (They are also available as board books for younger kids.)

Many thanks to author Mary Quattlebaum for the review copies. Images other than the covers are my own photographs.

Consider checking out these picture books with a nature theme:

Butterfly Kisses for Grandma and Grandpa (are you also a long distance grandparent?)

Honey Bee Man

Miss Rumphius

 

Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs  (I adore this book!!)

 

  Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story

Northwoods Girl    

The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps

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Resolutions, Role Models, Big Changes and News!

2018. I like the sound of that. It seems somewhat auspicious. But perhaps it’s simply that I’ve just turned 60, and personally I’m in transition—on many levels. From child raising to empty nest. From Michigan to Minnesota. From married to unmarried. I know 2018 will be a momentous year in my life. A new chapter.

As I moved officially into the life stage of “young-old” I’ve been thinking of friends, family and mentors who made big changes successfully. Those who faced down huge challenges and joyfully embraced a different life. The realization of how fortunate I am to have so many inspiring me is very heartening. Role models matter.

At times they waded their way through the muck of hard times, and naturally there was pain involved—heartache and sorrow and fear. But very few individuals reaching the age of 60 or 70 do so without challenging years. In honor of those survivors, I’m adopting the mantra “You must navigate the narrows to get to the open waters.”

 

Those of you who read this “A is for Aging” blog on a regular basis realize this post is far more personal than most. I started this website and blog because I believe strongly that it’s important we show even young children strong role models of every age. Choosing to highlight Positive Aging picture books made sense. Presently I am fully realizing the importance of older role models in a very personal way.

Our beliefs around the possibilities in each life stage drive our decisions, also our attitudes to ourselves and our confidence that we can transcend tough times. Knowing deep down that happiness is possible in later life strengthens me. I’ve seen with my own eyes—careers continuing into the 80’s, 90’s and beyond. Satisfying new work found—either paid or unpaid. New friends made and new love embraced. Relationships strengthened. Each day enjoyed.

Split Rock Lighthouse

Like a lighthouse on my beloved Lake Superior, I have a bright spot beckoning me ahead—the excitement of my first picture book to be published this June 2018 by Sleeping Bear Press. And the thrilling news that a second picture book biography will be published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers in the near future.

 

You might not be surprised to learn that both books shine a spotlight on the lives of those who lived long—real people who made a difference to the world in the last third of their life.

My picture book bio coming out in June features Gwen Frostic, a Michigan nature artist and early environmentalist. For most of her 95 years she strived to open people’s eyes to the importance of our natural world. Gwen fought negative stereotypes of people living with disability in addition to the low expectations assigned to women of her era.

Miss Rumphius

Miss Rumphius made the world more beautiful

So, if I’m blessed with continued good health…I’m determined to not only survive, but hopefully to make a small difference somewhere.

Gratitude to stroke survivor friends met in my past career encourages that aim. People like Judi, Herb, Marion, Justin and Dave whose lives were turned upside down overnight. They proved it’s possible to do more than survive.

These stroke survivors thrived—despite physical abilities that changed drastically, jobs that evaporated, and important relationships that disappeared. These stroke thrivers made the lives of others better.

 

 

Life isn’t Candyland, all sugarplums and lollipops. You and I know that the vast majority of people must stand up to difficult days, months and years in their lives.

I’m holding an image in my mind—one of stones worn smooth by the waves and polished by tiny pebbles and sand.

 

So join me in resolving to enjoy each day as much as possible? I think that’s a most important resolution for 2018. (I also resolve to post to A is for Aging more frequently!)

What about you? Are there fresh challenges to face? New goals on the horizon? Are you inspired by an older role model? Please feel free to share in the comments.

I’m wishing you all the very best life has to offer in this New Year.

Lindsey

For writers—Please consider seeking inspiration from author Cynthia Leitich Smith’s series of blog posts by longtime writer survivors. Find them here at Cynsations. (Special thanks to Cynthia who has been a tremendous champion of this blog and of avoiding negative age stereotypes in our writing.)

Also, check out a few older role models in these fantastic picture book biographies. Read about:

Jane Goodall

Julia Child

George Moses Horton

Henri Matisse

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Thomas Jefferson

And more! 

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Gus & Me

Gus & Me: The story of my granddad and my first guitar

By Keith Richards with Barnaby Harris and Bill Shapiro; illustrated by Theodora Richards (Little Brown and Company, 2014.)

We all get our start somewhere, even legendary rocker Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and he credits his grandfather. Long considered one of the world’s best guitarists, he says,

 

“Every time I walk onstage, every time I write a song, every time I reach for a guitar and play a few dinka-plinks for my own grandchildren, I say to myself, Thanks Granddad Thanks Gus!”

Gus & Me is the true story of Keith Richards and his beloved grandfather Theodore Augustus Dupree (Gus). Gus played violin, saxophone and guitar. He had been a soldier, a baker and a leader of a dance band.

Personally I love that this picture book reminds kids that grandparents lived other roles in life prior to becoming grandpa or grandma. It also shares the key roles grandparents can play in a child’s life–including those of role model, mentor and favorite companion.

Keith shares the happy anticipation he felt while growing up in Dartford, England not far from Gus.

“There was nothing like visiting Gus. The closer to his house I’d get, the bigger my smile would grow. By the time I landed on his doorstep, I was all teeth.”

Gus, Keith and the dog Mr. Thompson Wooft would dodge the “honey-do list” presented by Gus’s wife and make a bee-line for the door. They walked miles and miles through towns and countryside, Gus humming tunes all the while.

One such ramble took them too far to return home for the night, so they slept under a tree.

Another took them all the way to London and an instrument shop churning with activity.

“Violins hung from the ceiling by wires.

Horns clung to the walls.

Men in long brown coats

Fixed broken instruments and built new ones.”

All the hubbub and excitement of the shops seemed to flip a switch—Keith Richards was in love with instruments.

As promised, Gus handed Keith his first guitar just a few years later when he was deemed big enough. “When you learn how to play ‘Malaguena,’ you can play anything,” he said.

Dinka-plink dinka-plink dinka-plink.”

(An audio CD is enclosed that includes a brief excerpt of the song “Malaguena” by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona.)

The illustrations in this picture book are by Keith Richards’ daughter Theodora Dupree Richards, named after her great-grandfather Gus. They are an interesting mix of deep black line drawings and bright washes of color. Theodora interviewed her father, traveled to England and consulted family photos in her research.

Keith Richards has five children and five grandchildren. (And a collection of over 350 guitars!) It’s great fun to see this non-traditional grandfather in loving photos with his grandkids. At the end of the book he shares—

“The bond, the special bond, between kids and grandparents is unique and should be treasured. This is a story of one of those magical moments. May I be as great a grandfather as Gus was to me.”

Your comments are always welcome–Did you have a special bond with a grandparent in your life? Was your life influenced in some significant way?

This book review was of my own copy of the book. Images from book were photographed by me. The majority of Positive Aging picture books reviewed here are donated to literature projects in the city of Detroit.

Read another review at Rollingstones magazine here.

Find more grandfathers in Positive Aging picture books:

Babu’s Song

These Hands

Betsy’s Day at the Game

A Respected Elder

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A Grandparents Day Gift that Keeps on Giving

It’s Grandparents Day—would you care to give something more valuable than a greeting card? Perhaps you are a grandparent yourself and contemplating the type of recognition you’d appreciate? Maybe like me—that sweet, special status is something you long for—someday…

I’m proposing that on this Grandparents Day we resolve to set aside the rampant ageism to be found in too many books for children. It may be well meaning, but it’s there. Please consider replacing it with true respect for grandparents and pick up a Positive Aging picture book (or two).

Just imagine yourself in that precious role for a moment—a grandmother or grandfather. A Nana or a Papa to a sweet six year old.

Let’s call her Lily. Lily snuggles close to you in a cushy armchair. She strokes the soft wrinkles on your cheek and calls them crumples.

Then Lily tugs your arm and hands you a picture book to read out loud. You lean your silvered head in close to hers and begin to read.

The pages reveal attractive and playful young children. The illustrations are rendered in bright fun colors. A bouncy rhythm of rhymes makes the reading fun.

But there is also an older character—a woman rather witch-like. Or perhaps sad. Maybe it’s an old man. Grouchy, or ill. And unfortunately, words like fusty, dusty, rusty, and musty. Also grumpy and frumpy.**

Do you—

  • Read with your good nature intact and shrug it off?
  • Stop mid-page and throw the book at the wall?
  • Quickly recapture the pig latin of your youth and improvise…ustyfay, ustyday, ustyray, umpygray!

Personally, I look forward to being a Nana someday (or an Ouma), but my pig Latin is no longer that good. Also, my now grown kids will tell you if you ask, that I would never choose the first option and shrug it off. Nope.

Illustration in These Hands by Margaret H. Mason & Floyd Cooper

That’s because I know ageism is a cousin to racism and sexism. The cousin in the closet—it still flies under the radar much of the time. In large part because we have ALL been steeped in it from since we were small.

Ageism is treating people over “a certain age” as if they are all the same. It is acting as if all the aging myths and negative stereotypes we’re exposed to are actually true. It is discriminating against older adults.

And as activist Ashton Applewhite has written—“it is ageism that creates the pictures of ugliness and hopelessness around normal aging, and blinds us to what we gain as we grow older.”

Kids get grumpy too, and sadly they also get sick. Quite often. But these images do not dominate picture books. It is age stereotypes applied to older adults that forces us to see an entire cohort of people as identical—their strengths, individuality, and capabilities fading from view.

Illustration from Betsy’s Day at the Game by Greg Bancroft

Diversity in Kidlit is important to many these days. Rightly so. Many parents and grandparents pay close attention to avoiding racism and sexism in books for kids.

You may think it’s not possible that modern day children’s books are riddled with negative age stereotypes. But unfortunately it’s true.

From where I sit—currently alone in the armchair, with regards to age stereotypes there seem to be three basic types of children’s books to beware of:

  • Those that totally exploit age stereotypes (sadly, madly, and badly)
  • Those that are well-meaning, even tender, but perpetuate “older adult means lonely, sick, forgetful, dependent….”
  • Those with illustrations sending messages that older people are funny or freaky or frumpy or foolish

The bottom line? There are too few books for children that make having many birthdays seem like a good thing. And the vast majority of us adults pay little attention to the messages around aging that we feed young kids.

These messages matter. Enormously. If we are fortunate, we will all grow old and we will become what we think as we get older.

Well regarded research by Becca Levy at Yale University tells us that internalized attitudes to aging affect much of our life as older adults. Taking in the negative age stereotypes affects our physical and mental functioning, employment, relationships and enjoyment of life.

As with many things with regard to our health its best to start young. Researcher Sheree Kwong See observes the seeds of ageism being planted in children as young as toddlers. She recommends that advocacy start early.

“Right from the very beginning we need to show realistic images of older people. If we want people to rely less on stereotypes, we need to show them the exceptions;”

So please let’s choose a New Option. Let’s nip ageism in the bud. Choosing Positive Aging picture books is an easy way to give kids more accurate images of growing older.

Let’s give all grandparents the ultimate gift—respect for their age and recognition of their strengths, individuality, and capabilities.

**Please note: all of the images shown in this post are of Positive Aging picture books!

    Resources:

Below is a sample of diverse ageism-busting picture books to check out:

image from A Gefilte Fishy Tale

A Gefilte Fishy Tale  

Betsy’s Day at the Game

Crouching Tiger

Grandmama’s Pride

Jingle Dancer

Last Stop on Market Street

My Abuelita

Northwoods Girl

These Hands

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5 Picture Book Biographies Highlight Older Role Models

Picture book biographies including the third stage of life offer huge benefits to young readers. Kids absorb adventure, perseverance, creativity and joy shown over the course of an evolving life.

Unlike the majority of picture books with an older character, the protagonist often stays active and well into old age.

 

Children need older role models devoid of negative age stereotypes such as sick, sad, lonely and forgetful. Research teaches us—a narrow view of aging can actually be harmful. Taking in negative age stereotypes over a lifetime are associated with poor health and function in later life.

As an enormous fan of picture book biographies I’m always on the lookout for new ones. If the subject labors with joy and tenacity at a pastime that brings them happiness and satisfaction in later life—it definitely makes my list.

It’s important to “help children to see their elder within,” say researchers Sandra McGuire, Diane Klein, and Donna Couper in their article Aging Education: a National Imperative. “The potentials in old age are limitless.” We need to “help children to see these potentials and envision the things they could do…”

Positive Aging picture books highlight the possibilities of ongoing goals, continued learning, and new interests and endeavors. You can read more at my post 6 Reasons to Seek Out Positive Aging Children’s Books.

 

The newer picture book bios below share the “elder heroes and role models” recommended by Dr. McGuire and her colleagues.

Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus. Illustrated by Evan Turk. (Atheneum 2014)

Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson tells the story of how his grandfather taught him to turn darkness into light in this uniquely personal and vibrantly illustrated tale that carries a message of peace. Read full book review at Kirkus.

Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus. Illustrated by Evan Turk. (Atheneum 2016)

This picture book is a terrific follow-up to the book above, but it’s not a picture book biography.

At Grandfather Gandhi’s service village, each day is filled, from sunrise to sunset, with work that is done for the good of all. The villagers vow to live simply and non-violently. Arun Gandhi tries very hard to follow these vows, but he struggles with one of the most important rules: not to waste. (Book descriptions from website Grandfather Gandhi.) Read an interview of author Bethany Hegedus at Readerkidz.

 

Gus & Me by Keith Richards; illustrated by Theodora Richards (London Orion Children’s Books, 2015. ©2014.

A nostalgic look back at happy childhood days as Rolling Stone Keith Richards remembers his grandfather – a former big band player who encouraged him to take up the guitar. (Book description from Worldcat) Review at Rollingstones.com

 

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes her Mark by Debbie Levy; illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley. (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers 2016)

Traces the achievements of the celebrated Supreme Court justice through the lens of her many famous acts of civil disagreement against inequality, unfair treatment, and human rights injustice. (Book description from Worldcat)

Book review at School Library Journal

 

 

 

When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike by Michelle Houts; illustrated by Erica Magnus (Ohio University Press 2016)

It took her two tries, but in 1955, sixty-seven-year-old Emma “Grandma” Gatewood became the first woman to solo hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one through hike.

Gatewood has become a legend for those who hike the trail, and in her home state of Ohio, where she helped found the Buckeye Trail. In recent years, she has been the subject of a bestselling biography and a documentary film.
In When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike, Michelle Houts brings us the first children’s book about her feat, which she accomplished without professional gear or even a tent. (Description from Amazon.com)

 

Miss Colfax’s Light by Aimee Bissonette; illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen (Sleeping Bear Press 2016)

In 1861, at the age of 37, Harriet Colfax took on the job of lighthouse keeper for the Michigan City lighthouse off Lake Michigan. It was a bold and determined endeavor, especially since there were very few female lighthouse keepers in the country at that time.

For 43 years, until the age of 80, Harriet kept her light burning, through storms, harsh winters, and changes in technology. This true story focuses on Harriet’s commitment and determination to fulfilling her charge and living life on her own terms. Excerpts from her actual log are included. (Description from Sleeping Bear Press)

Pointing out the potentials in picture book bios is a terrific start to important conversations—“Help children to…envision the things they could do; things such as attending Elderhostel, traveling, flying a plane, biking, joining the Peace Corp, using computers, being community leaders, going to school, working with Habitat for Humanity, being an environmental activist, learning a language, climbing mountains…”* 

*Aging Education: A National Imperative; Educational Gerontology, 31: 443–460, 2005

Read an earlier post here–about 6 picture book bios that also showcase the arc of a long life well-lived.

—And below are other Positive Aging biographies reviewed at A is for Aging:

It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw

Miss Moore Thought Otherwise

Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton

The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Everything 

The majority of picture books reviewed are donated to community centers in Detroit. Thank you to the authors and publishers for their review copies.

 

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8 Acts of Kindness to Share with Older Adults

Guest post: Doing Good Together, Minneapolis, MN, and A is for Aging have similar goals and values. Here they share “8 Acts of Kindness & Stereotype-Busting Service to Share with Older Adults” 

Let’s all make time to celebrate older adults, whether they are friends, family, or friends-to-be. Who’s with me? The thoughtful acts of kindness and service listed below are sure to keep that generous, Valentine’s feeling in your heart – and in the heart of a senior friend – for weeks to come.

Even better, these projects just might help your family strike up a new friendship, or deepen an existing relationship.

Opportunities for meaningful intergenerational friendships have diminished substantially in recent decades. Families are moving more frequently and farther from one another. Communities specialize their services for Older Adults versus young adults versus families with young kids, keeping us in our silos.

Whatever our age, we all gain a great deal from a diversity of friendships, including those across the generations. They broaden our perspectives, give us hope and encouragement, and brighten our days. In fact, when giving the gift of friendship, it’s impossible to tell who the giver and the receiver truly is.

Picture book “Harry and Walter” celebrates inter-generational friendship

 

Here are eight friendly acts of kindness your family can share with older adults from the kindness experts at Doing Good Together.

  1. Give an Award.
    Use this free printable, along with our instructions and conversation starters, to give the gift of recognition to a senior you admire. Then take time to listen to their story.
  2. Listen Deeply with StoryCorps. 
    Watch this animated introduction to the StoryCorps mission, then use the StoryCorps App to record an extended interview with an senior friend or relative.
  3. Visit Older Adults.
    Reach out to older neighbors as well as residents at a nearby nursing home and incorporate some of our conversation starters or The Legacy Project’s creative ideas to make the most of your visit.
  4. Make and Bake.
    Share holiday treats with a senior neighbor, and make time for a visit when you share your deliveries.
  5. Become a Senior Angel.
    Through weekly correspondence, your family will let older adults know they are remembered and loved. Follow our project instructions to be matched with a senior citizen, then share your weekly greetings with a senior in need of a smile.
  6. Start a Grandparent Journal.
    Our friend Cait over at My Little Poppies recently shared this creative, compassionate family project on our blog. Her instructions are thorough and inspiring.
  7. Support Meals on Wheels.
    Make time to deliver meals as a family, or check out five other great ways you can support Meals on Wheels.
  8. Read Together.
    Set the stage for your great intergenerational friendships with these two new, stereotype-busting book lists. Check out our favorite picture books or our chapter books that celebrate older adults and aging. These books show older adults as the dynamic, complex people they are.

Whichever project you choose, be sure to talk to your child about it afterwards. By reflecting on how you felt during the project, how you made others feels, and what good you accomplished, your child will likely be more eager to start a new kindness project very soon.

For more reflection tools, service project ideas, and tips for raising compassionate kids, sign up for the Doing Good Together newsletter.

With a little persistence, you’ll create new friendships with older folks while starting a lifelong habit of giving back.

Picture book “Mrs. Katz & Tush” by Patricia Polacco

 

Sarah Aadland, MPP is striving to make family volunteering a meaningful habit for her three animal-loving, social-justice-seeking, mud-pie-making kiddos. As Director of Doing Good Together’s Big-Hearted Families™ Program, she creates resources for families that want to develop a kindness practice at home. For her own family and for participants in the Big-Hearted Families Membership Circle, Sarah has watched family volunteering create empowered kids, more connected families, and stronger communities. In addition to her children, Sarah tends a large garden, a small flock of chickens, and a habit of mindfulness amid the necessary rituals of parenting.

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A Gefilte Fishy Tale

 

gefiltefishycover_2

 

By Allison and Wayne Marks

Illustrated by Renee Andriani

MB Publishing (2016; ages 4-8)

One giant jar of Gefilte fish, one grandson and one set of grandparents—a surprising formula for a fun and lively delight of a picture book. A Gefilte Fishy Tale quickly draws in young and old with its bouncy rhymes by Allison and Wayne Marks, all spritzed with Yiddish. This gentle and humorous adventure roams through their town as they prepare for Shabbos, their Friday evening Sabbath meal.

Bubbe (grandmother) Judy hopes to include grandson Jack’s favorite—gefilte fish. But the lid of the huge jar is stuck and everyone from Zayde (grandfather) to their local auto mechanic gets involved as they schlep it from person to person in attempts to loosen the lid.

Silliness abounds and the Yiddish terms sprinkled throughout in italics are words many of us have heard and used, perhaps unaware of their origin.

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-5-56-22-pm

“They basted it with butter

And spritzed some pickle juice.

They slathered it with olive oil—

It wouldn’t wiggle loose.”

 

“They lugged it to their auto shop

And schmeared it well with sludge.

But even with a monkey wrench

That lid refused to budge.”screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-5-57-17-pm

Delightful illustrations by Renee Andriani show a nicely diverse town where both racial and gender stereotypes are avoided. When the town doctor diagnoses “a dreadful case of Liddy-stuck-a-tosis everyone from the dentist to the plumber is consulted for a potential fix.

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-5-58-14-pm

“They stopped to noodge the plumber.

She sniffed the yummy sauce.

“Don’t give up. If I have time,

I’ll show that jar who’s boss!”

When it’s time for Shabbat dinner an intergenerational array of family members tackle the task with creativity and humor. Naturally it’s young Jack himself who is successful—

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-5-59-33-pm“Jack thought perhaps a magic word

Would do the trick with ease.

He bowed beside it, tapped it twice

And softly whispered, “Please?”

A Yiddish-English glossary for the whole mishpocha anchors the beginning of this book and a recipe for Gefilte Fish Mini Muffins and a light hearted Shabbat song are included in the back.

We Need Diverse Books

A Gefilte Fishy Tale is a treasure celebrating both Jewish traditions, and the enrichment of languages and cultures with the addition of words from other languages.

It’s my hope this picture book will be shared not only in Jewish families, but in families of many different religions and ethnic backgrounds. Cultures are continually enriched by other cultures. Diversity is a gift and both America and the world are in great need of gentle reminders. 24559-1

In addition, older adults are an important part of most families and aging is a normal part of life. Older characters should be shown as a valued part of a diverse society.

Myths about Grandparents

This little book also assists us in busting a few widely held erroneous beliefs about grandparents. A blog post at “The Grandparent Effect” by Olivia Gentile shares “5 Myths about grandparents that it’s time to trash.”

Included is the myth that most grandparents are old. “As of 2010, 54 percent of American grandparents were younger than 65, and 80 percent were younger than 75, according to the MetLife Report on American Grandparents.”

Older Couple on BeachFortunately more and more writers and illustrators are catching on—fewer now portray grandparents with stereotypical traits or treat all older adults as if they are all of the same generation.

And yet, libraries still house stacks of picture books filled with stereotypes of age such as frail, forgetful, freaky and funny.

Picture books that, as in one published fairly recently, show an old man getting lost between the sofa and the TV—yet fail to address the fact that that is NOT aging, it is dementia, a disease. (In fact, a disease that is declining as the population ages.)

Parents tote home negative stereotypes of aging with a total lack of awareness that these images damage the health and well-being of all ages. More than likely they chuckle as they read bouncy rhymes about biddies and witches.

Publishers continue to publish books that either leave out older adults entirely (ageism by invisibility), or show kids fixing the so called “problems of aging” such as grumpiness.

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith

But there are encouraging signs of change also. The good news—my list of newer Positive Aging picture books to review is now quite long! And this blog at A is for Aging is even being used occasionally as a resource for writers of children’s literature. Thanks mainly to author Cynthia Leitich Smith who teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Perhaps someday diversity in books for kids will naturally include older characters.

Find my review of Paris Hop! also from MB Publishing, and their new picture book Rome Romp! is hot off the press! 651469

 

ParisHopCoverCheck out this article “Early Children’s Literature and Aging” recently published in the journal Creative Education. It is written by Sandra McGuire Ph.D. and she kindly cites this blog—A is for Aging, B is for Books. Dr. McGuire has compiled a list of Positive Aging picture books and I am in the (slow) process of adding them to the Picture Books tab of this website.

Perfect-Pic-Book-BadgeIt’s Perfect Picture Book Friday at Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog most Fridays—find more great books reviewed there.

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