archived, Zodiac Theme

The Zodiac Posts: CAPRICORN [2] Ageism in Fiction

#WeNeedDiverseBooks b/c I rarely saw my older family in KidLit & then often as figures of fun…

Originally posted on blogspot 2014; edited 2018 rather than completely rewritten or reblogged.

So, here’s another blog post inspired by the “maturity” aspect of life and literature, represented by Capricorn… because I’m doing the challenge of doing twelve different blog topics inspired by zodiac personality traits. Capricorns are meant to be down-to-earth and mature, so here we are.
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 e in fiction – didn’t seem to cover too many older characters or portrayal of older pplrecommended 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, 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 are so vitally important, and the very children who statistically are the least likely to engage with reading due to lack of resources and support, and also more likely to be failed by the education system – are being brought up by grandparents, often single grandparents, or who have more contact with their grandparents than with their parents for a variety of reasons, 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 (apparently, if you read certain kids’ books, or listen to views in the media) 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. There are multiple preconceptions about the older generations to challenge and unpack. And there are the stereotypical views about how younger people think, too: elders talk a lot about their past, and try to impart out-of-date wisdom when everyone knows you can just Google it. 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 stereotype in touch with reality? According to GrandparentsPlus, 4 in 5 teens say that grandparents are the most important people outside their immediate family.
Across the country, it is estimated that 200,000 grandparents and other family members are raising children who cannot live with their parents. This may be because of parental illness or disability, drug or alcohol misuse, imprisonment, bereavement or relationship breakdown. These kinship carers ensure that children stay within their families, providing the essential care, love and support they need. However, the carers themselves can often feel isolated and stigmatised, ignored by government policy and practice.
The Grandparents Plus Support Network brings together grandparents who are raising their grandchildren and other kinship carers to give them a voice, to share experiences, to find solutions and to tell government, children’s services, the NHS, drug and alcohol agencies and others what needs to change.
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…
And yet, perhaps the antidote to a lack of self-worth among the younger generation and the unnatural pressure put on children to look “perfect” is to encourage them to see aging 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.

Loneliness is a massive issue for people in later life in the UK. Half of all people aged 75 and over live alone, and 1 in 10 people aged 65 or over say they are always or often feel lonely – that’s just over a million people.
Shockingly, half of all older people consider the television their main form of company. ––/

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. It really wasn’t funny. Thinking about it made me deeply concerned about my grandparents’ health and mental health, because if they began to do the “funny” things the Gran character in one particular book did, I didn’t know what would happen to us as a family. Would They take me away? Take them away? (I don’t know who ‘They’ were in my head at the time: Social Services? the Government? Men in Black?)
It got so that if I read characters like that I couldn’t finish the book. I avoided books with any mention of grandparents in the blurb even if they were positively portrayed, just in case. So maybe that’s why I don’t write them now, either? A sort of trigger hangover? I don’t know.
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 absolutely loved watching the older actors on CBBC programmes my youngest goddaughter watches. It would be great if books followed suit.
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.
Hopefully we’ll see more of this in future, and there will be more guides to writing older characters, especially older care-givers. Please do add your own links in the comments, it’s hard to collate resources! Sharing is caring 😉❤️

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