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Picture Books Minus the Age Stereotypes and Ageism

Imag­ine for a moment — you are read­ing to a sweet six year old grand­child. Per­haps you have sil­very hair and a few wrin­kles. Or per­haps you are not there, yet. This six year old snug­gles close and hands you a pic­ture book to read out loud. The pages reveal a boun­cy rhyming rhythm, chil­dren, an old­er char­ac­ter, and unfor­tu­nate­ly — words like fusty, dusty, rusty, and musty. Also grumpy and frumpy.

grandpa reading

Do you?

  • Read with your good nature intact and shrug it off
  • Stop mid-page and throw the book at the wall
  • Quick­ly recap­ture the Pig Latin of your youth and improvise…ustyfay, usty­day, ustyray, umpygray!

Per­son­al­ly, I look for­ward to being a Nana some­day soon, but my Pig Latin is no longer that good, and my grown kids will tell you that I would nev­er choose option A.

Mod­ern day children’s books rid­dled with neg­a­tive stereo­types of age? Sad­ly yes, they are all too easy to find. In part because pub­lish­ers desire a child pro­tag­o­nist. This neces­si­tates adding a prob­lem if the writer includes an old­er char­ac­ter. Many authors reach for stereo­types, because much of what we think we know about grow­ing old­er is myth, not fact. But stereo­typ­ing old­er adults con­tributes to ageism. And in the end that hurts us all.

From where I sit, writ­ing pic­ture books, there seems to be three basic types to beware of:

  • Those that total­ly exploit the stereo­types (sad­ly, mad­ly, and bad­ly).
  • Those that are well-mean­ing, even ten­der, but per­pet­u­ate “old­er adult means lone­ly, sick, for­get­ful, depen­dent….”
  • Those with illus­tra­tions send­ing mes­sages that old­er peo­ple are fun­ny, freaky, frumpy or fool­ish.

For­tu­nate­ly, pic­ture books do exist that make hav­ing many, many birth­days seem like a good thing. Those that show late life as inter­est­ing and reward­ing. And por­tray aging as a life­long process, both nor­mal and nat­ur­al.

It tru­ly mat­ters what young chil­dren believe. Research con­duct­ed by Bec­ca Levy, Ph.D. of Yale Uni­ver­si­ty finds that tak­ing in neg­a­tive age stereo­types shapes our old­er years and even short­ens our lives. Sim­ply see­ing old age and aging in a pos­i­tive light helps us make good deci­sions, affects our car­dio­vas­cu­lar health and helps us live longer and health­i­er. By up to 7.5 years!

We become what we think as we get old­er. Today’s chil­dren are like­ly to live long. Let’s all plant the seeds for their late life health and hap­pi­ness. Nor­mal aging is NOT about stereo­types like decline and death, ill­ness and demen­tia, or lone­li­ness and grumpi­ness. In fact, research tells us there is a “U‑curve of hap­pi­ness” — with hap­pi­ness peak­ing in child­hood and late life. Our old­er years are most often a time of sat­is­fac­tion and growth.

San­dra L. McGuire RN, EdD has long stud­ied images of aging in children’s lit­er­a­ture. She notes that far too many are neg­a­tive, or make old­er adults invis­i­ble. “I like pic­ture books that por­tray old­er adults in diverse roles like lead­ers, work­ers, vol­un­teers, artists, teach­ers and care­givers,” says Dr. McGuire. “Bio­graph­i­cal books that illus­trate grow­ing up and grow­ing old­er are impor­tant also.”

Old­er adults are actu­al­ly an inter­est­ing bunch. Ageism robs us of the recog­ni­tion that we pos­sess skills and strengths because of our age and expe­ri­ence. It steals away indi­vid­u­al­i­ty caus­ing youngers to believe in a mono­lith­ic “elder­ly.”

On my web­site and blog “A is for Aging” Dr. McGuire and I high­light pic­ture books that por­tray old­er adults and grow­ing old­er in pos­i­tive, affirm­ing ways. Minus the neg­a­tive age stereo­types. Old­er role mod­els, even in pic­ture books, show us the knowl­edge, inner strength and cre­ativ­i­ty in peo­ple in lat­er life. Let’s show kids ter­rif­ic old­er role mod­els. Let’s all make an effort to nip ageism in the bud.

For starters, please check out this list of cur­rent non-stereo­typ­ic pic­ture books about old­er adults. Many more are list­ed at www.lindseymcdivitt.com. Please con­sid­er sign­ing up for blog posts reviews of new “Pos­i­tive Aging” pic­ture books.

  • Grand­par­ents by Chema Heras
  • Har­ry and Wal­ter by Kathy Stin­son
  • Henri’s Scis­sors by Jeanette Win­ter
  • Jin­gle Dancer by Cyn­thia Leitich Smith
  • Julián is a Mer­maid by Jes­si­ca Love
  • George Bak­er by Amy Hest
  • McGinty’s Mon­archs by Lin­da Van­der Hey­den
  • My Teacher by James Ran­some
  • Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Fros­tic Sto­ry by Lind­sey McDi­vitt
  • North­woods Girl and Miss Colfax’s Light by Aimee Bis­sonette
  • The Ocean Calls by Tina Cho
  • The Wakame Gath­er­ers by Hol­ly Thomp­son
grandma reading

One Response to Picture Books Minus the Age Stereotypes and Ageism

  1. Heidi Hammond October 17, 2020 at 10:32 am #

    Thank you for this arti­cle! Thoughts about aging cer­tain­ly do con­tribute to whether one has a pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive expe­ri­ence. It’s help­ful for every­one to have the expec­ta­tion that adults of mature years will have vital, engag­ing, and hap­py lives.

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