10 Positive Things about Aging We Need to Show Kids in Books by Lindsey McDivitt
Childhood is an important stage of life, but it’s time limited. The fact is—we all have lots of living to do beyond age 18, yet the images of growing older in books for kids are often skewed to portray negative stereotypes as truth. Adulthood is frequently ignored and late life is often seen as sad.
There is growing support for increased diversity in the characters portrayed in children’s books. Greater attention is given to race, culture, ethnicity, gender and sexual identity—with the belief that all kids need to see themselves in books. children also deserve to see their future selves devoid of the ageist myths and negative stereotypes so prevalent in the media. They (and we) deserve exposure to older role models and a more accurate diversity of abilities, talents and interests.
These images are all important, however
Many books for children focus on warm relationships between grandparents and grandchildren, or on evoking empathy—all good things. But too often the older characters are uninteresting, one-dimensional and dependent on the child to fix a problem.
Let’s all make an effort to show kids:
- Aging is normal, natural and lifelong, as in the beloved picture book classic Miss Rumphius (aka “The Lupine Lady”) by Barbara Cooney.
- Late life is often a time of happiness and satisfaction. (see Mr. George Baker by Amy Hest; Betsy’s Day at the Game by Greg Bancroft; Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman; Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo; When Grandma Gatewood Took a Hike Michelle Houts.)
- Normal aging is not about stereotypes like death, disease, dementia, loneliness and grumpiness. Of course, just like stereotypes around race and gender, we can always find negative examples. (For positive examples, see; These Hands by Margaret Mason, illustrations by Floyd Cooper; Northwoods Girl and Miss Colfax’s Lighthouse by Aimee Bissonette.)
- An individual of any age or ability deserves to be valued and treated with respect. Different does not mean inferior. (Find Katz and Tush by Patricia Polacco; It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor started to Draw by Don Tate & illus. by R. Gregory Christie; and Miss Rumphius.)
- Older adults possess skills and strengths because of age and life experience. (see My Teacher by James Ransome; Mr. Cornell’s Dream Boxes by Jeanette Winter; Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena; Crouching Tiger by Ying Chang Compestine; The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau by Michelle Markel, Grandmama’s Pride by Becky Birtha.)
- Amazing older role models are all around us. Older adults can make a difference in the world, small or large. (Find Mandela by Kadir Nelson; Grandfather Gandhi by Bethany Hegadus & Arun Gandhi; I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes her Mark by Debbie Levy & Elizabeth Baddley; Shoebox Sam by Mary Brigid Barrett, illus. by Frank Morrison;* Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs by Linda Vander Heyden.)
- People of all ages have much in common and much to gain from intergenerational relationships. (see Drawn Together by Minh Le & Dan Santat ; Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith; Harry and Walter by Kathy Stinson & Qin Leng; Mrs. Muddle’s Holidays* by Laurie F. Neilson)
- Aging into late life we can enjoy many kinds of relationships including romantic relationships, friendships, and family—including precious grandchildren. (Find Someone for Mr. Sussman by Patricia Polacco; The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster; A Morning with Grandpa by Sylvia Lui; The Wakame Gatherers by Holly Thompson, illus. by Kazumi Wilds.)
- Long life experience can enhance creativity. (see Henri’s Scissors by Jeanette Winter; It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor started to Draw; Bon Appetit: The Delicious Life of Julia Child by Jessie Hartland.)
- Older adults are actually an interesting and varied lot—the truth is that people grow more diverse with age and experience. (Find A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant; Rosie Revere: Engineer by Andrea Beaty; My Hippie Grandmother* by Reeve Lindbergh; The Creative World of Grandma Prisbrey* by Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker.)
From our earliest years we are all confronted by negative views of aging—those trumpeted by TV, magazines, movies and books. In a body of important research at Yale University, Becca Levy Ph.D. “…has found that people who internalize positive age stereotypes lived up to 7.5 years longer than those with negative age stereotypes. Simply viewing old age and aging in a positive light boosted cardiovascular health and people lived longer.
Children’s books with positive, accurate images of late life can expand narrow views about growing older, challenge ageist attitudes and plant the seeds for late life health and happiness.
*Some titles are sadly out of print, but unusual so still worth citing.
Friedman, Barbara M. Connecting Generations: Integrating Aging Education and Intergenerational Programs with Elementary and Middle Grade Curricula. Needham, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.
Larkin, Elizabeth and G. Patricia Wilson. “Images of Old: Teaching about Aging in Children’s Literature.” Journal of Intergenerational Relations Vol.11, no.1, (2013): 4-17
McGuire, Sandra L. Growing Up and Growing Older: Books for Young Readers. An Annotated Booklist of Nonageist Literature (Pre-school-Third Grade). 2011.
Graham, Judith. “Older People Become What They Think.” The New York Times “New Old Age Blog.” December 19, 2012. https://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/19/older-people-are-what-they-think-study-shows/
Lindsey McDivitt writes fiction and non-fiction for children and her picture book Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story was published by Sleeping Bear Press (2018). She co-edited a book of true stories of hope and healing by stroke survivors during her first career in health education. Lindsey is passionate about tackling ageism in books for children. Find her reviews of picture books with accurate, diverse images of older adults at www.lindseymcdivitt.com (blog + “A is for Aging” on Facebook and Twitter). Lindsey has spent most of her life near the Mississippi River or the Great Lakes, searching the shore for stones, especially agates. After eight years exploring marvelous Michigan, she now lives in Minnesota.