I’m always on the prowl for Positive Aging picture books, but not all books with an older character make the cut.
Too few feature older adults kids can admire. And there are attributes to admire in every older. Those enjoying later stages of life also tend to be ignored.
Children should be taught empathy, respect and understanding, but they should not be taught “old equals bad or sad.” Sickness and disability do not represent growing older, but they seem to in books for kids. We simply need greater balance when it comes to images of aging in books for children.
Too many show older adults evoking pity—characters challenged by dependency or memory loss, or too little joy in life (i.e. grumpy). Let’s be clear. These are stereotypes, not accurate representations of growing older.
And they could be damaging our minds and bodies, and setting kids up for future trouble.
In the latest research from Becca Levy, associate professor of psychology and epidemiology at Yale, she and her colleagues found a link between negative age stereotypes and the brain changes leading to Alzheimer’s disease.
Actually, they believe it is “the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging” that we all take in from many sources.
“Participants holding more negative beliefs about aging had a significantly greater number of plaques and tangles. The age stereotypes were measured an average of 28 years before the plaques and tangles.” (Read more about Dr. Levy’s extensive research here.)
The picture books listed below all touch on romantic love in late life, or its possibility. Nothing too racy, but messages to warm your heart, and encourage children to anticipate late life with pleasure.
(Did you know that Nelson Mandela married on his 80th birthday?)
Late Life Love
In The Cats on Ben Yehuda Street by Ann Redisch Stampler (Kar-Ben, 2013) we begin with a budding friendship between two older neighbors. Initially Mr. Modiano is only annoyed by cats at his Tel Aviv Fish Palace, and also those of neighbor Mrs. Spiegel, who dotes on her pets.
Children will enjoy “plump cats and skinny cats, spotted cats and striped cats,” illustrated beautifully by Francesca Carabelli. Then there’s the “little grey cat with a pink collar” who gets lost. Can you guess who finds her?
Mr. Modiano rejects invitations to tea along with cats. But Mrs. S. reaches out in friendly fashion and inch by inch he not only learns to meet her halfway, but he saves the day.
Neither is portrayed as pathetic or lonely, and thankfully grumpy is also avoided. But it’s obvious that as they learn to accept others as they are, their lives are enhanced.
It is also unusual in featuring a grade-school age grandson hanging out with his interesting grandmother—and why not?
Grandma is a Jewish matchmaker who changes herself several times over attempting to please Mr. Sussman—perhaps prompting feminists to wonder. But eventually she sends him packing, and when he returns they find love together.
Long time love—
Fancy Nancy: Bonjour Butterfly, one of the series filled with “fancy” words by Jane O’Connor, deserves recognition for showcasing Nancy’s grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. All too often we see only one grandparent in picture books.
Nancy is heartbroken to miss the fanciest birthday party ever—for friend Bree, but it falls on the same day as the big anniversary party. Once there, Nancy is “ecstatic” to be at the “extraordinary” night. (Ages 3-6. Harper Collins 2008. Illus. by Robin Preiss Glasser)
Mr. George Baker by Amy Hest for ages 6-9 (Candlewick 2004.) Mr. Baker is 100 years old and learning to read. He and young neighbor Harry ride the bus together and all the kids clamor for Mr. Baker to sit with them.
Their friendship and also the long-standing love between Mr. Baker and his wife are a real rarity in kidlit. Mr. and Mrs. B. dance together on the front porch to the bemusement of young Harry.
A publisher’s note encourages parents and teachers to use Mr. George Baker for discussions with children about friendship, Black History month and multi-culturalism.
I’m looking forward to the time when publishers also suggest discussions about normal aging and older role models. Someday!
Perhaps few parents, teachers or librarians have positive aging on their radar, but a little nudge in that direction might be all it takes. Have I told you about my 96 year old neighbor who reads to pre-schoolers every Thursday?
Activity: Select an array of picture books with older characters, ensuring some are not stereotypes. (See picture book resources.)
Ask kids to decide how accurate the portrayals are. Are ALL older people forgetful, frail, sad, or grumpy for example? (No!) Do you think older people are all different, just like younger ones? (Yes!)
Gift a “Positive Aging picture book” to someone young or old this holiday season!
(This is a lovely picture book/gift book geared to gift older adults.
The Cats on Ben Yehuda Street and Older Love review copies courtesy of the author and publisher. All others were library copies.