Can We Talk About Ageism in Picture Books?

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Deepening discussions around diversity in books for kids gives me tremendous hope for our world. Racism and sexism are being addressed in amazing ways, but ageism? Not so much.

Aging gets a bad rap. But whatever their sex, skin color, or cultural heritage—if they are lucky—today’s children will grow up and eventually grow old.  “…In 1940 only 7 percent of Americans lived to be 90. Old age was the domain of the lucky few…But we are privileged to witness a new stage of life,”* said Dr. Robert N. Butler, who coined the term “ageism” in the 1960’s.

What we believe about aging greatly impacts how we will age. And—it’s best to start young with positive attitudes to growing older. Which brings me to what we share in books for kids.Jingle_large

Recently I discovered an excellent blog post by Uma Krishnaswami, at the website of Cynthia Leitich Smith. In her illuminating post of 2009 she writes about creating characters from countries other than the US and Europe. Uma Krishnaswami wisely reminds us—

“The thing is, you can’t see people as fully human if all you can feel for them is pity.”

000 coverThe recognition that eliciting pity is not the same as recognizing equality, dignity, and worth means we have come a long way, baby.

But pity seems to be the default setting when writing about growing older.

“Americans have been socialized to understand the problems and pathology of old age. What they do not understand is the great potential for activity, happiness, and wellness throughout long life” *(Fran Pratt, founder, Teaching and Learning about Age Project).

Much of what we think we know about growing older is myth or stereotypes. There’s no need to feel guilty, for our minds are polluted daily by inaccurate information around aging. But we do need to change the conversation.

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Sad, sick, lonely, grumpy, and forgetful—we are not doing anyone any favors with these portrayals. Unlike Amos McGee, most are in decline, rather than a mere case of the sniffles. In picture books with older adults as characters, you will find few that recognize equality, dignity, and worth as the books in this post all do.

And it is a very rare book indeed that highlights the creativity and joy of an older person coping well with challenges, as Jeanette Winter does in Henri’s Scissors.

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As Barbara M. Friedman, author of Connecting Generations,* *states, “Students often believe that what they read in books is true and right…a book may be sensitive and caring, may provide a wonderful lesson, and may be very enjoyable and still contain ageism or stereotyping.” 

Pull picture books from the shelf and you will search through many to even find an older adult. That’s “ageism by invisibility,” says Sandra L. McGuire, Ed.D who has studied the importance of aging education for decades. Her efforts have resulted in a list of only 200 picture books still in print showing older adults in positive, meaningful roles—this over a span of 30 years. “Old” is rarely addressed in kidlit—but it’s time for age to come out of the closet.

Cover of "Nelson Mandela" by Kadir Nelson

Cover of “Nelson Mandela” by Kadir Nelson

The good news? Many birthdays are a positive thing—

  • “American children have the potential to live longer, and will likely spend more years in old age than in youth”
  • Less than 5% of adults over 65 live in nursing homes
  • Only one out of nine gets Alzheimer’s disease
  • Normal healthy brains may find some info with less speed, but recent research tells us aging brains discern patterns and work smarter and quicker.

The bad news? Many books for kids lead them to believe that old=bad. It’s not their natural inclination, it is us socializing them to believe it–by not showing them a more diverse older population.

Here Comes Grandma by Janet Lord & Julie Paschkis

Here Comes Grandma by Janet Lord & Julie Paschkis

In the interest of busting a few age myths, I’m letting you in on a little “locker room” talk. For me swimming balances all the “butt in chair” action that goes with writing, and I share the locker room with a cadre of women, ages mid-70’s to mid 80’s.

9780375869440Their lively chat reveals—entire summers spent at the cottage up north with four grand-sons, camping trips with two new puppies, great-grandchildren splashing in the pool, and an upcoming bike trip in Tuscany—post double knee replacement. Meanwhile my 91 year old neighbor Russ is there walking laps on the track.Layout 1

This is just a small sample of the active, healthy older adults under-represented in books for children. We could add Barbara Beskind, the 90 year old woman enjoying her 5th career—with IDEO, a global design firm, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (aka The Notorious R.B.G), not planning to retire at 81.

Noticing great older role models, we can all make better choices, and live longer and more healthfully.

coverI’m not advocating we ignore the unlucky ones, those facing dementia for example, just as we shouldn’t ignore poverty, racial strife, or young girls in slavery. But a better balance is essential, and there is no need to imply illness and disability make an individual pitiable either.

"Nana in the City" by Lauren Castillo

“Nana in the City” by Lauren Castillo

The portrayal of older characters in books for children should not be aimed at evoking pity. That is ageism. Older people are different than those younger, but not inferior. That’s the message we aim for around human diversity isn’t it?

All of the books featured in this post are examples of Positive Aging picture books.

For more discussion of age diversity please read here. I’m pleased to share that Sandra L. McGuire Ed.D. is now collaborating with me at A is for Aging. Coming soon—our “Wish list for Older Characters in Picture Books.”

Jingle Dancer (my book review soon)

My Teacher

A Sick Day for Amos McGee

Henri’s Scissors

Nelson Mandela

Here Comes Grandma

Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child

Grandfather Counts

The Matchbox Diary

Nana in the City

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Sources:

*Aging Education: a National Imperative, by Sandra L. McGuire, Diane A. Klein, & Donna Couper. 

**Connecting Generations:  Integrating Aging Education and Intergenerational Programs with Elementary and Middle Grades Curricula by Barbara M. Friedman (Allyn and Bacon, 1999)

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