Meena (for ages 5-9) by Sine Van Mol is an unusual book, and not simply because it’s a Belgian import. On the surface it is seemingly not a Positive Aging book, but it definitely serves my goal of increasing intergenerational understanding.
Having wrestled with children’s reactions to the changed looks of the very old I’ve come to the conclusion we need to talk about them to normalize the changes for kids. After all, those many gap toothed six year old’s with the bruised shins would look a little scary if we’d never seen one before right?
I happened upon a blog on the website for Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (publisher of Meena, 2011) written by Rachel Bomberger, an employee and mother of three, almost four young children. She takes it to the next level–the importance of helping children see beyond appearances. Today, a significant portion of this post is her words—used with permission, because I truly could not have said it any better. Thank you Rachel:
“I was so thrilled to find a book like Meena. It’s not a Halloween book. It was never intended to be a Halloween book. But, somehow, it works perfectly as a Halloween book.
Halloween trick-or-treating can present a wonderful opportunity for children to get out and meet their neighbors. But what happens when those neighbors are a little . . . scary? In Sine van Mol’s Meena, the children of Fly Street are convinced that their elderly neighbor Meena is a toad-eating witch. But is she really? This humorous and hopeful book about overcoming misunderstandings will remind children that things are not always what they seem — and that sometimes the best of friends can be found in the most unlikely places.
Many of the neighbors our family calls on during our Halloween trick-or-treat extravaganza are a lot like Meena. They’re old. They’re stoop-shouldered. They’re pale. They don’t move quickly. They may have bushy eyebrows, sunken eyes, wiry hair, deep wrinkles, or even (like Meena) warts. Some of them do indeed bear a mild resemblance to the witches…that fill the pages of many typical Halloween picture books.
But — also like Meena — there’s nothing wicked-witch-y at all about our neighbors. They’re good. They’re kind. They’re loving. They’re gracious. They shower our children with candy, smiles, and delight.
This is why I’m so glad to have met Meena. Despite the stream of abuse and bad behavior coming from her suspicious neighbor kids, she treats them with gentleness, patience, and great slabs of homemade cherry pie.
Meena helps me prove to my children that not everyone who looks scary is scary — and that external appearances are not always (or even often) a good gauge of internal loveliness.
“Do you know what I find scariest about the book?” I asked them when it was my turn.
“The part that gives me the shivers is when the children treat Meena so cruelly. It frightens me to think that you or your friends might ever treat our neighbors the way those kids treat Meena at the beginning of the story.”
“Oh, Mama. You don’t have to be afraid. We would never be like that.”
“Oh, I’m so glad. That makes me feel much better. I won’t have any nightmares now.”
In interesting multi-layered illustrations, by Carianne Wijffels, Meena looks like a grandma, but she is very large and she has a wart on her chin. There is nothing menacing about her, but let’s face it, there are far too many books for kids with older women portrayed as witch-like, even if only in the illustrations. These children feed their fears with every observation—they even conclude that young Anna, who visits Meena frequently, must be under a spell. “’MY. GRANDMA. IS. NOT. A. WITCH!’ Anna roared” back at them.
Meena shows that even very old people who look quite different are much the same inside, and there are warm and wonderful benefits to an intergenerational friendship. Miss Rumphius is the only other book I’ve come across that touches on kids’ initial fear of interacting with a very old woman, and also their realization of how special she is. (Book review of Miss Rumphius.)
Rachel’s wise mothering shows us the importance of talking about how we should treat older people and how they might feel. Suspecting some parents may hold strong opinions about this beautiful book I peeked at reviews on Amazon. I found one who described it as about kids bullying an adult. You don’t often hear about adults victimized by children, but whether we call it bullying behavior or not, most parents would be horrified to hear their child call an older person “fat Meena” or a witch. (I’m sure most of us have dealt with our sweetie cringing away from a kind stranger, or worse…)
Personally I’ve always found very old people fascinating. I was the sixteen year old “Geri-teen” volunteer in a nursing home and the twenty two year old inhaling pancakes at Perkins with Axel, aged 93, on my day off. But I realize some young people become fixated on certain features of folks fortunate to live an impressively long time—for instance the hair growing out of great-grandpa’s ears… And if we merely tell kids that’s what happens when you grow old without elaboration, that is all they will learn about late life stages and we miss the chance to teach empathy.
So consider reading Meena with a child and then moving on to my other book reviews for thoughts on Positive Aging to offer children. They are listed by category at top right of the blog page, OR click here to see a list of books (many with book reviews).
I’m interested in your thoughts on this post. What do you think of using this book for discussions with children?
Click here to read Rachel’s original blog post.
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. Photos courtesy of the publisher.