Ten Ways to Add Diversity in Aging to Picture Book Collections by Lindsey McDivitt
In childhood we celebrate every birthday and developmental milestone. As adults we cheer on milestone birthdays like ninety and one hundred yet stereotype older adults. Somehow our naturally increasing years are tainted with a sense of doom and failure. This is ageism, not reality. This needs to change, and picture books can be an important tool to counteract ageism.
Growing older is normal and natural. It’s simply survival. And—it is accompanied by increasing diversity. Young children are far more like each other than older adults are similar to each other. A lifetime of experiences and choices creates unique individuals. As anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite tells us, “If you’ve seen one eighty-year-old, you’ve seen one eighty-year-old.” Skewed images in all media often portray more myths than truths around aging. They tell us “the elderly” are much alike.
Add to that inaccuracy the fact that taking in negative age stereotypes is bad for our health, well-being and longevity. Simply changing how children think about growing old is better for them than eating all their veggies. In extensive research on adults at Yale University, Becca Levy Ph.D. “found that those with positive age stereotypes lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative stereotypes.” Simply seeing old age and aging in a positive light affected cardiovascular health and helped people live longer. Dr. Levy describes the process of “stereotype embodiment” as occurring over time (from childhood to old age) and from society to the individual.
We can nip ageism in the bud. After all childhood is brief. 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…”
Here are some actions that parents, grandparents, librarians and teachers can take to add aging diversity to picture book collections.
- Actively add books that show later life as a time of happiness, satisfaction and growth. Research tells us in our society people in early life and later life report greater happiness than those in mid-life (the U-shaped curve of happiness). Find books with happy grandparents minus problems children must “fix.” All too often the desire for an active child protagonist pushes a negative attitude to aging. Nana Akua Goes to School is a positive example.
- Purge picture books that contain common negative age stereotypes such as witchy, grumpy, lonely, sad and forgetful. Like any stereotype, you can find matching examples in real life, but they perpetuate false beliefs that that is what later life holds for us.
- Instead, share picture books that challenge the stereotypes directly like The Truth about Grandparents by Elina Ellis. The pictures directly contradict the aging myths in the text. Showcase late life creativity as in It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate. And add a little romance with the delightful and surprisingly flirty Grandparents by Chema Heras.
- Avoid books that equate aging with disease, decline, dementia or death. Naturally many young people will lose a loved one, or know someone dealing with these challenges. But dementia is a disease, and aging is normal. The majority of people enjoy many positives as they age. Look for A Map into the World, by Kao Kalia Yang and Henri’s Scissors by Jeanette Winter. Both do a terrific job of portraying the resilience of an older adult even after the loss of a spouse or illness.
- Add picture books acknowledging abilities and interests that increase with age and experience. In The Ocean Calls by Tina Cho many of the haenyeo diving deep for ocean treasures are in their seventies and eighties. My Teacher by James Ransome illustrates the skills of a longtime teacher in her classroom.Search out picture book biographies that show interesting accomplishments in later life stages. Marjory Saves the Everglades: The Story of Marjory Stoneman Douglas is a fantastic example by Sandra Neil Wallace.
- Take note of those books that portray older characters as generically “old” and conflate multiple generations in text or pictures. Many children today know both their grandparents and their great-grandparents. In The Match Box Diary by Paul Fleischman a small great-granddaughter gets to know her great-grandpa along with his memories of immigration. Also add picture books like Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith that include an array of older relatives close to the child.
- Look for older characters making a difference in the world—in ways both large and small. Many older adults qualify, but the number of picture books showing this fact is meager. Look for picture book bios like Stand Up and Sing!: Pete Seeger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice and my new book A Plan for the People: Nelson Mandela’s Hope for his Nation. Linda Vander Heyden’s Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs is a sweet treat.
- Beware of illustrations that make older characters look freaky or foolish. Evaluate the message. Sadly it may even conflict with the text. Don’t be afraid to point that out to kids. Any time we note stereotypes can be a teaching moment.
- Definitely include books that invite discussions of changes with normal aging. There’s not many in print, but add beautiful books like Meena by Sine Van Mol—neighbor kids jump to the conclusion Meena is a nasty witch based on appearances. In Grandfather’s Wrinkles, by Kathryn England, grandfather explains his wrinkles with a light heart looking back on life.
- Warm inter-generational relationships are great, but a book in which the child benefits from knowing the older adult is far better. Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love features an abuela that strengthens Julian’s confidence and sense of self. The grandmother in Ten Beautiful Things by Molly Beth Griffin is taking on the care of a small granddaughter and delicately teaches a coping skill for stressful times.
“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.”(Barbara M. Friedman, author of Connecting Generations)
Lindsey McDivitt is the author of Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story, and Truth and Honor: The President Ford Story from Sleeping Bear Press and A Plan for the People: Nelson Mandela’s Hope for His Nation, releasing March 30, 2021 (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers). Christmas Fairies for Ouma is coming in 2022 from Familius Books. Find her at www.lindseymcdivitt.com where she reviews picture books with accurate images of aging and older adults on her blog “A is for Aging.”