Ageism in pop culture is ubiquitous, found in movies and TV shows, advertisements, even in songs.
Lindsey McDivitt spots it in what kids are reading.
“Today, children’s books show greater diversity regarding race, religion [and] gender, but there’s not enough awareness of attitudes about age. That matters, too,” said McDivitt, 61, of Minneapolis. “As a society, we often unknowingly indoctrinate children with myths and unfortunate stereotypes about people in their later years.”
Since 2013, McDivitt has curated a blog, “A is for Aging, B is for Books” (lindseymcdivitt.com) that highlights picture books featuring what McDivitt calls “interesting older characters.” She counts educators, librarians, parents and grandparents among the loyal readers who seek out her reviews.
“In children’s literature, the child is the protagonist. I get it that publishers want the child to be the active character,” she explained. “But too often, older people in their lives are portrayed as feeble, grumpy, needy or dependent, instead of living rich, active lives. That’s what’s realistic.”
Research shows that attitudes that devalue aging begin to form when children are barely out of diapers. In an era of ever-lengthening life spans, McDivitt emphasizes the importance of reading books with positive images of older people to youngsters who can’t yet read by themselves or are just beginning to sound out the sentences.
McDivitt is practicing what she preaches by contributing to the bookshelf of stories that expose youngsters to aging as natural, not negative, and later years as a satisfying time of life.
Last year, her first picture book, “Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story,” was published by Sleeping Bear Press. The biography of Frostic, a prolific Michigan printmaker and poet who continued creating art into her 90s, is geared at readers between ages 5 and 9.
McDivitt is in the final stages of revising two more picture books. Her biographies of Nelson Mandela and Gerald Ford will be published within the next year, both telling stories of notable leaders with long and productive lives.
“I’m drawn to stories where real-life characters use their experiences to accomplish things they couldn’t have when they were younger,” she said. “I want children to see realistic examples of older adults using the skills gained over a long life.”
POSITIVE PICTURE BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS FROM LINDSEY MCDIVITT
‘My Teacher’ by James Ransome
The book begins by confronting ageism, acknowledging that most children will first note how old the young narrator’s teacher is: “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. ... ” Page by page, the narrator highlights the strengths her teacher has honed through her many years in the classroom.
‘Northwoods Girl’ by Aimee Bissonette
A granddaughter looks forward to visits to her widowed Grandma’s remote home, learning to share her appreciation for the natural world. “I love how the text in this reassures us that Grandma has supportive neighbors while affirming her strength and individuality,” McDivitt said.
‘Henri’s Scissors’ by Jeanette Winter
A picture-book biography of artist Henri Matisse. Despite physical challenges in late life, the focus is on his creativity and happiness. Matisse “draws with scissors” by cutting shapes from colored paper to fashion some of his most iconic work.
‘Meena’ by Sine Van Mol
“This book tackles the witchy stereotype common in portrayals of older women,” McDivitt said. “This lovely story will generate lots of discussion as it shows children’s misconceptions about an old woman who initially frightens them but turns out to be warm and wonderful.”
‘Harry and Walter’ by Kathy Stinson
“Harry was four and three-quarters. He had lived next door to Walter all his life. Walter was ninety-two and a half. He had lived in many places.” A picture book about true intergenerational friendship.
‘Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs’ by Linda Vander Heyden
A story about an older adult engaged in service. Mr. McGinty involves a grade-school class to save monarch butterflies after their habitat is cut down.