We must plant the seeds for positive images of aging starting young

Lindsey McDivitt

It bothers me enormously that we are indoctrinating young children with inaccurate, negative images of what it is to grow older

Lindsey McDivitt, children’s book author

Ever since I spoke with Loredana Ivan, Associate Professor of the College of Communication and Public Relations at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration of Bucharest in Romania, I’ve been mulling about visual ageism and how we become ageist. It’s more or less the same question one asks about how people choose to be on the “wrong side” of history. How are we brought up to think what we think and therefore do what we do? Loredana pointed out that children, from a very young age, show discriminatory behaviors towards older people. Clearly, we’re brought up this way.

As I started to dig deeper, I stepped into “A is for aging” the blog of Lindsey McDivitt. Lindsey is not simply an author of children books - and that would already mean a lot - but she’s an author who intends to promote intergenerational understanding by giving children a stereotype-free type of literature. The objective: to help them to look up to the older stages of life as moments of change and growth and not necessarily as a time of decline. After publishing Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story (July 2018, Sleeping Bear Press), Lindsey will publish two bios of real people who made a difference to the world in the last third of their life. 

Books play a capital role in shaping our ideas and our world, but rarely do we question their content. It’s as if the covers are a guarantee of an intrinsic quality. At the same time, we’re not used to question what is on the market. For example, we devour a certain genre when it appears, but we do not ask publishers for it before it’s “invented.” For aging, the story could be different. We know that the younger generations need a different perspective, but as Lindsey points out, they are an underserved group of readers. There are no books in print for kids about aging or growing old. With a growing lifespan, it’s a detrimental choice.

Can you tell us something about yourself and your background?

I worked for many years in healthcare, primarily with survivors of stroke and their families. I developed education and support programs to assist them in coping with the major changes to their lives after a stroke.

How did you become a writer for children? 

At the age of 52 I was laid off from my job at a hospital during an economic recession. There were no jobs in my field and I’d always wanted to write. It was the middle of a Minnesota winter so to keep myself sane I’d head for a coffee shop with my laptop.

Writing is very soothing for me and it helped tremendously, but the learning curve was very steep. Writing picture books is much more difficult than it looks—much like writing poetry. Every single word counts. And you must think of the future art that an artist will add, and the lyrical properties, so it is a pleasant read-aloud experience.

How did your interest for aging and books collide?

When I began writing I realized I needed to read many modern day picture books to become more familiar with what is being published now. I was rather horrified to come across many age stereotypes in children’s books. Older characters were too often shown as frail, forgetful, sick, sad, grumpy, and lonely. Growing older was often equated with illness and death.

Like all stereotypes, you can certainly find older people to fit those characteristics, but there was little diversity. I knew that older individuals are very different from each other. Even in my years of working with survivors of stroke I knew so many interesting, dynamic older people. Many showed amazing resilience even after major changes in their lives.

Why did you decide to launch A is for Aging?

When I learned it’s highly recommended that authors have a website and blog, I pondered what was important to me. It bothers me enormously that we are indoctrinating young children with inaccurate, negative images of what it is to grow older.

As I’m not comfortable pointing fingers at the ageist picture books, I decided it made sense to shine a spotlight on the books I like. And to at least point out the kinds of stereotypes that are used too frequently.

I'm always very curious to go to the roots of our ageist culture. From what I've seen up to now, my feeling is that we are bred ageist. What do you think?

I believe we are indoctrinated with ageist beliefs from when we are very young, and there is research to support that. Even toddlers exhibit negative attitudes towards older people and mistrust that they are as competent as other adults.

Sadly, even children’s picture books are contributing to this. So is most adults’ lack of knowledge and understanding which makes it difficult for them to talk about growing older without equating it with illness and decline.

What have you learned so far about ageism in children's books?

Publishers in America wish for the child characters to be the protagonist—the one to take action and solve the problem. Consequently, if an older person is in the story, children are often shown as helping the older person in some way. This puts pressure on the writer to come up with a problem and they reach for the problems most believe are a part of growing older.

Unfortunately, most of us have been exposed to so many myths about aging for so long. Most writers have no idea what it’s really like to grow older. They don’t realize that research shows that people actually grow more diverse with age, and also generally they become happier.

What are the most common age-related stereotypes you have noticed in children's literature?

The most common problem is that older people are often simply missing from the majority of books for children. Many publishers believe that kids don’t have an interest in older adults. But the age-related stereotypes that are most common are probably those of being dependent on others and rather uninteresting.

What is your perception of the market for children's books? Are the publishing companies increasingly sensitive for a topic like age or is it just considered nice to have?

Few publishers seem to recognize that aging should even be included as a topic for children. There are currently no books in print for kids about aging or growing old. It seems to be completely taboo. I’ve submitted many versions of my manuscripts on the topic and haven’t found any interested publishers yet.

On a positive note, the popularity of biographies in a picture book format has definitely been a bit of a game changer. Publishers have embraced the life stories of interesting people. This has increased children’s exposure to long lives well-lived. It’s also highlighted many accomplishments in later life.

Children are amazing observers: how do you navigate the challenge of presenting a complex and nuanced topic as being an older person without falling into the trap of the stereotypes so common in mainstream media?

Simply recognizing that we are constantly bombarded by inaccurate information and negative stereotypes is a start. But I think a writer must realize it’s a challenge similar to that of portraying a character of another race, religion, or culture. If you haven’t lived it yourself, you must be very cautious. And even if you’ve lived it, yours is merely one individual’s experience. Educating oneself and recognizing how much we don’t know are very important. In the end, what matters is the child reader, and how we are affecting their perceptions of the world.

“Older adults” are a very diverse group. They might be considered to be 60 years old to 100 plus. Children may have grandparents in their 40’s or much, much older. Many kids these days will also know their great-grandparents.

Writers must educate themselves about later life in order to recognize aging stereotypes and myths about growing older. We can’t be too sure of ourselves—it’s a big responsibility to show children a glimpse of who they might become. I’m not sure who first said this, but it’s important we remind ourselves that the view is very different from the mountaintop. Many of us think we know how we will feel at 70 or 80, or coping with an illness, but we might be very wrong.

Do you think that the limited presence of aging characters in children's literature might be a (subconscious) way to avoid the concept of death? Another taboo topic in our society?

Yes definitely. Often an entire third of our adult lives is wrongly equated with illness and death. I’ve often noticed that if I even mention the word “aging,” people respond with anxiety. The positives that many people actually experience in later life are not talked of often enough. And the vast number of good years, the incredible variety of older people—they’re frequently invisible.

Having positive role models is a fundamental component in anyone's psychological toolbox. What are the positive attributes of age that you notice in children's literature? 

As we age we often become more appreciative of the people in our lives. We choose how we spend our time more carefully. I believe this might be the most common attribute we see—represented in children’s literature as the loving acceptance in relationships between children and older adults—usually grandparents. But sometimes we see other wonderful intergenerational friendships also. As I mentioned earlier, the new trend to picture book biographies does sometimes show kids interesting accomplishments in later life.

Can you name your favorite examples of children's books that paint a more diverse and inclusive picture of aging?

Those below are fabulous picture books that do just that! 

My Teacher by James Ransom (Dial Books 2012; ages 6-9) openly acknowledges that most people will first note how old this teacher is versus noting her skill: “My teacher has been teaching at my school for a long time. Some people joke and say she was teaching before schools were even built…” Adults can take this opportunity to talk a bit about ageism here. Then the young student shares, “she could have retired a long time ago,” and then one by one she highlights the strengths her teacher has honed over many years of teaching.

Mr. George Baker by Amy Hest; illustrated by Jon J Muth (Candlewick Press 2004: ages 6-9) Mr. Baker is 100 years old and learning to read. He and young neighbor friend Harry ride the bus together and all the kids clamor for Mr. Baker to sit with them. The long-standing love between Mr. Baker and his wife is a real rarity in kidlit. Mr. and Mrs. B. dance together on the front porch to the bemusement of young Harry.

Northwoods Girl by Aimée Bissonette; illustrated by Claudia McGehee (Minnesota Historical Society Press 2015: ages 3-7). The title refers to a grandmother who strides along hiking paths with her granddaughter. Despite being widowed and living alone in the woods, she is determined to stay there. The text reassures us that Grandma has supportive neighbors, but it affirms her strength and individuality

Henri’s Scissors by Jeanette Winter (Beach Lane Books 2013; ages 5-8) is a picture book biography of artist Henri Matisse, focused on his creativity and happiness despite the significant physical challenges in late life. He is severely limited by illness—confined to bed or a wheelchair for some years. Yet he “draws with scissors’ by cutting sinuous shapes from colored paper. Matisse created some of his most famous work and found absolute joy.

Finally, Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs by Linda Vander Heyden, illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen (Sleeping Bear Press 2016; ages 4-8) is one of the rare picture books showing an older adult being of service. Mr. McGinty involves a grade school class in helping to save monarch butterflies after their habitat is cut down.