#WeNeedDiverseBooks b/c I rarely saw my older family in KidLit & then often as figures of fun...
I was surprised when reading through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag on twitter that while sexuality, gender and race were prominent issues, no one mentioned the need for older characters in KidLit to be more three-dimensional, or for there to be more books where the child protagonist is raised by their grandparents or elders. I'm not the best at fitting my thoughts into 140 characters, so when I tried to find out why this was, people thought I was accusing the campaign of being ageist. Only one person who read my original tweet Interested in views on
#agism in fiction - #WeNeedDiverseBooks didn't seem to cover too many older characters or portrayal of older ppl? recommended a Children's book that featured elders in a positive and respectful light. [I'd thought the "in KidLit" was implied by the use of the hashtag! Oops!]
So, here's another blog post inspired by the "maturity" aspect of life and literature, represented by Capricorn... because pretty pictures. And the challenge of doing twelve different blog topics inspired by zodiac personality traits.
So, after I had managed to clear up the embarrassing misconception that I was accusing an excellent campaign of being ageist, I managed to engage in some interesting conversations with people. It turns out, I'm not the only one who has noticed the absence of elders or a positive model of maturity or growing old in KidLit, and it intrigued me that while one person instantly understood what I meant, there were three or four others who misconstrued my question. Admittedly, my question was badly phrased. #HowBritishOfMe [!]
Are we blind to an aging population, and do we think that children are just too young to notice the old?
The Guardian reported in October 2011 that the UK was one of the worst countries in the EU for ageism, with the belief that old age starts at 59, and that "youth" ends at 35. In Greece, old age was thought to begin at 68, and youth ended at 52.
Daniel Boffey wrote, " the statistics show that, while there is admiration for the elderly, more people pity than envy those they regard as old, suggesting a perception that age brings weakness and unhappiness."
When so many children in less advantaged areas - the very children for whom literacy and education is so vitally important, and the very children who are the least likely to engage with either - are being brought up by grandparents, often single grandparents, or who have more contact with their grandparents than with their parents who are working and unable to look after their children without using their own aging parents for help with childcare, it's important that they too see models of family they can relate to.
When society is telling children to prize their youth (and innate within youth, the toxic concept of subjective beauty) more highly than anything else, including their own individualism and self-worth, then is it a wonder they have no respect for the elderly? Funnily enough, aging is an international issue, too.
So what do we all have to look forward to, once we pass the end of youth? After all, when you get old, you lose the looks that you spent so much time perfecting as a child and young adult. The elders in society somehow don't feel the need to dress up and impress complete strangers in the street with the latest fashion trends. They talk a lot about their past, and try to impart out-of-date wisdom when everyone knows you can just google that shit. Which you're not going to, because you have facebook, and what's happened TODAY is far more important than ANYTHING ELSE EVER.
Is this really what children and teens think, though, or is this view itself a stereotype of younger attitudes? According to GrandparentsPlus, 4 in 5 teens say that grandparents are the most important people outside their immediate family.
So why aren't they being championed in KidLit and YA as often as they could or should be? Where are these families, and where are the voices telling these stories? Why am I not telling this story? This story is my story, and yet I write about "norms" and two-parent families more often than any other type. I'm not even telling my story. I guess that for me, that's a personal thing that is quite private and often painful to expose to the critical eye of a reader who doesn't see the story I've written through the same filters as I do. Perhaps it's a protective instinct, of whom or of what I'm not entirely sure, and perhaps I'm afraid of what I might write if I did start writing. I don't know. It's not something I've ever really considered before.
And yet, perhaps the antidote to a lack of self-worth among the younger generation and the lack of respect towards the older generation, not to mention the unnatural pressure put on children to look perfect and "respect their youth" by becoming over-sexualized from a disturbingly young age, is to encourage them to see getting old in a positive light. Just because you lose your firm skin and toned muscles when you age does not mean you automatically lose your value to society or your innate worth as a human being. It does not mean you stop contributing to your community and the lives of others, and growing old is not something to be afraid of. Even growing old as a single person is not the terrifying, lonely prospect we are all told it is. I know a number of fulfilled, happy, full-life-living over 70s, all of whom never married. They are the lucky ones, with a number of friends, active interests, and maintain various degrees of independence.
|Miss Marple, fictional detective created by Agatha Christie, was my childhood hero: older single/unmarried women solve murders, and then go home and have tea with friends!|
I also know older people who have been completely ignored, cold-shouldered and abandoned in their old age, living secluded, lonely lives because no one takes the time to knock on their door and find out if they would like some company and a cuppa once in a while. AgeUK figures show that a staggering one million older people go a month or more without seeing or speaking to anyone.
In the UK, we live with an aging population whom no one seems to know what to do with - and I would suggest that tackling attitudes towards older people should begin by normalizing them and the variety and diversity of their lifestyles, with KidLit as a key vehicle for this positive portrayal.
So if children are reading books where it's funny that granny lost something and can't remember where she left it, or is always doing "hilarious" things like putting a goldfish in the kettle (read: has dementia), or infuriates Mum and Dad by mishearing everything they say, then the image you end up with is that getting old is a process that happens to other people, and when it does, should be laughed about. Old people are annoying, smelly, and forgetful. They are often deaf. They are often completely absent altogether.
I've read books like this, and, as a girl brought up by her grandparents and great-grandmother, it was upsetting. I also find it a bit worrying that I can think of very few contemporary TV shows that positively portray older characters, whether those shows are aimed at children or not. With a few CBBC exceptions, though!
I'm not the only one to have noticed this: here's a fantastic blog post from Lindsay McDivitt on Positive Images of Aging in KidLit, with an excellent list of points for writers about crafting older characters and how to (and not to) use vocabulary and illustrations.
Debbie Reese has also recently blogged about the positive portrayal of elders in Obijwe culture as part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and the inclusion of Native American literature. She reviewed Hungry Johnny by Cheryl Minnema, and it's exactly the kind of thing #WeNeedDiverseBooks is about.