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Problematic Savior Tropes Stigmatizing Older Adults in Kidlit
[Image description: Illustration from ‘Rain!’ by Linda Ashman and Christian Robinson. In the illustration, a young child with brown skin tries on an older white dude’s hat. The man is shocked to see the child mocking him, wearing a frown and shouting “You!”]
This season, we’re exploring bias against older adults and teaching our kids to identify harmful assumptions about age
This article & book list is a part of the anti-elder ageism series. Start from the beginning: Why Young Activists Depend on the Fight for Elder Rights.
Only You Can Prevent The Arrogance of Mediocrity
My five year old enjoys explaining things to me. His brain has spontaneously combusted with imaginary facts, taking that “anything is possible” nonsense, transposing it to mean if he can imagine it, it’s a fact.
Which sounds very….post-truth. Everything about social media, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, and our government makes more sense now. No one told these bloviated windbags that no matter how many times you repeat bullshit, that doesn’t make it true.
Somewhere along the line, this five-year-old decided he had the authority to give me instructions.
He tells me how to gently turn the pages of a book. He tells me how life started on earth. (Aliens. He’s firm on this.)
It started out cute. I’d nod and smile and be like “Oh wow. Really? Aliens, you say?”
Now it’s just annoying. He tells me how to cut his apples, how to sweep the floor, and how I should wear my mittens. Sometimes he insists I stop and re-do it his way.
He’s starting to notice that he’s the littlest in the family, the littlest in his school. He can’t reach the sink, he can’t tie his shoes, he can’t pronounce his own name, but everyone around him can.
The whole world bosses him around and tells him what to do. Letting him bullshit me about aliens makes him feel confident. Speaking with authority on things he knows little about makes him feel smart and capable and in control of something.
This new discovery of the world + quest for confidence + me humoring it = makes these kids a little arrogant
His older brother is seven, and the seven-year-old has recently hit peak mansplaining.
(At least I hope it’s a peak. Good gracious it’s awful.)
We parents don’t do anything right. His teachers are in his way. His classmates play all wrong. No one knows how to do anything, except for him!
That angst! Thick with condescending sighs, frustrated whining, and eye-rolls – normal for seven. But the paternalism – that’s concerning. While he could maybe grow out of it on his own, I’m not gonna leave that to chance.
I see my part in this. I played along pretending he’s the smartest person in the room when he was little. In kindergarten, it was fun and adorable. Now that he’s huge, and it just comes off as arrogant and rude. Time for us to cut that nonsense out. My bad.
As the folks raising this next generation of kind and brilliant humans, it’s our job how to prevent the arrogant, mainsplaining nonsense of mediocre white dudes. Of all folks with privilege who blow smoke about why they deserve power, but are not responsible for sharing it.
It’s time to teach our kids about intellectual humility.
Unpacking saviorism & arrogance with kidlit
In this book collection, we’re teaching our kids to identify, name, and analyze microaggressions that target and denigrate people with lived experience. Kids getting all paternalistic toward people with decades of expertise. NICE AND OBVIOUS. Let’s explore youth saviors!
Practice #1: Watch your language.
First – let’s look at the ageist language we toss around on TV, kid’s media, and casual conversation.
When I type words like batty, poor, doddering, foolish, and frumpy into Google, ‘old‘ is the first word that auto-fills the search.
- Poor old dear – she’s just confused.
- Don’t mind Grandma, she’s stuck in the past.
- She’s such a Sunday driver.
- What a sweet little old lady!
- Must be having a senior moment!
Feeble. Frail. Brittle. Forgetful. Cranky old coot. Greedy old biddies. Senior moment. OK Boomer.
As the years pass, we internalize some nasty bias against our future selves. No wonder we see getting older as a problem. No wonder we try to avoid it.
No wonder we sub-divide ourselves as we age to avoid identifying as ‘old.’ If getting ‘old’ means our voice gets turned down, tone-policed, and overlooked – who would want that?
Practice #2: Stop excusing bigotry
We excuse denigrating language against older adults because we believe in fallacies of equality and model minority myths. This is a tool of oppression that keeps us complicit. We believe we’re punching up against people who hold power over us, when we’re really punching down.
- If we maintain the idea that older adults are wealthy and powerful, we don’t have to examine how we’re complicit in their oppression.
- If we view older adults as burdens on society who suck up resources that could go to better use (re: younger people), it’s easier to deny them support.
- If we attribute bigotry and unreasonableness to a person’s age, it’s easier for us to write off valid demands for equality from anyone based on their age.
- If we perpetuate myths that older adults are confused, helpless, fragile, and incompetent, it’s easier for us to ignore their directions on how to help – and decide we know what’s best for them. Saviorism!
As we discussed in the last article on listening to #OwnVoices Olders, stigmatizing older adults because of stereotypes about wealth and power further disempowers multiply marginalized older adults.
As Alice Fisher counters in Old White Men, those old white men decimating support for older people with disabilities aren’t regressive because they’re getting older, they’re bigots despite getting older.
Practice #3: Presume competence
Oppression requests that we see those with less power as incompetent.
Ableism requires that we treat people who need support as lesser because they need help. As if being interdependent is a moral failure, rather than an integral part of building strong communities. Ableism and ageism – those two are buddies. So watch out for that.
As if we didn’t get help getting here. (Who changed your diapers, buddy?)
We treat older people – particularly older women as if they’re ignorant and incapable. Calling them sweet and adorable is just bigotry with a smile. This trope de-fangs powerful women whose strength lifted us to this place. Tearing down older women with that nonsense takes us all out at the foundation. Sexism! Ageism and sexism! They need each other.
It takes time to learn patience, to hold space for multiple voices, to reflect on what we’ve gone through and use it to inform our actions. These are strengths. But bias against older people – and anyone with experience navigating complicated situations, tells us that these strengths are a weakness.
Showing up for rallies is not / contributing your hard-earned pay is not / painting visions as a goal to strive for is not / collecting coffee and eggs for struggling parents is not / raising courageous leaders is not / the same thing, but they all reach for the same progress.
Poor activism looks different than wealthy activism. The activism of a single parent raising two kids looks different than the activism of a child-free, young college student. Young activism looks different from activism cured with age.
We cheer for the explosions because that’s all we see, but we need slow burns. Older adults have valuable stuff to bring to the table. We need all kinds of work. We need all kinds of leaders. So it seens uniquely ironic that we remove older adults from leadership, force them to retire, and nudge them into silence because they have too much experience.
Finding better ways
Back to those Little Earthquakes of mine. The ones who are getting a smidge too arrogant for my tastes.
We have ways to build up our kids’ confidence that don’t involve pretending they’re smarter than we are. We have ways to empower them, help them feel capable and strong, without pretending we’re incompetent.
As parents and educators, we must be careful to value their contributions and affirm their awesomeness. Just not falling into the lazyness of letting them use someone else (even us) as pedestals. If you need to start that, read books with them about leadership, about celebrating how unique they are.
And if you’re feeling up to a challenge – read them the books below as cautionary tales of how our society insists we build kids up at the expense of older adults.
Saviorism is, Abuse is, Oppression.
Ageism is the root and fruit of ableism, sexism, poverty, and all that crappy stuff. If you wanna smash these things, you can’t leverage ageism to lift everyone up.
Oppression is systemic abuse. Abuse is about maintaining control over a target. Oppressors have the power to spin the strengths of targets, making that strength look like a weakness. The oppressor creates the rules and values about what is ideal, and what is flawed.
Once bystanders see a target as incompetent, it’s easy for abusers to say “We know what’s best for you,” to take control, to escalate.
Creating the illusion that targets are incompetent allows abusers to disguise our abuse as support.
We’re gonna take a hard look at our language – yes? We’re going to examine the inside of our guts, ask ourselves why we use ‘old‘ as a qualifier for when what we really want is to use the word ‘shitty.’
We’re gonna do the hard work of examining why young people are entitled to relief from pain, social support, opportunities for employment, education, and housing, and why we believe older adults are not entitled to those same things.
We’re going to presume competence. Older adults can take care of themselves. But we’re no longer going to treat power and equality as if it’s scarce, as if it’s something we need to take from someone older.
And we’re going to discuss what we’ve learned with our kids.
To make this easy, let’s start with adorable picture books with good intentions.
Which I am about to ruin for you.
Unpacking Youth Saviorism: Discussion Questions
As we go through this next series of books where older adults are depicted as incompetent buffoons, discuss with your kids:
- Who is centered? Who has agency and control?
- Who has problems? Who solves the problems?
- Who is depicted as stubborn and cranky?
- Who is depicted as smart and vibrant?
- Does the story give external reasons for these dispositions, or are we to assume this is the character’s natural state?
- Why does the older person need a young person to help them? Why couldn’t they have solved the problem on their own?
- What does it teach us about older people that they couldn’t come up with this basic solution on their own?
- Who is a burden, and who is a hero?
- Why did the author make this book? Who did they make it for?
- Who is hurt by this book?
- Does this book make you look forward to getting older, or does it make getting older seem scary and sad?
There are books out there that celebrate interage relationships and interdependence with respect and mutual support – which we can talk about in a future article. The books below are not those.
Tilly is completely incompetent.
The maker chose to depict her as a mole with huge glasses and a puffy white hat. Both of my kids confirmed – she codes as old and blind. Bigots like to use animal coding as a way to benefit from stereotypes because it’s not about an older disabled person. But it is. These stereotypes hurts older people and people with disabilities. You know it, I know it. The kids know it.
Tilly can’t hold a thoguht long enough to do any small task. Instead of accomodating her disabilities and offering support, everyone goes along with it, and things happen to work out serendipitously. I’m sure there’s a shortcut word for this trope already, but I don’t know it. So let’s just call it the Mr. Magoo trope.
This trope shows us that people with disabilities & older people are too stubborn and ignorant to seek help or work around their disabilities, and this makes them a liability for the rest of us. While things work out in the end – because this is kidlit and comedy – it’s just pure luck, but stresses the heck out of all the ‘regular’ people around them.
Story: Old and disabled people are a burden. At best, they can get lucky, and we can have a few laughs watching them bumble. But really, we should be managing them because they can’t manage themselves.
Oh right. Since this is a Thanksgiving book, there’s also the whitewashing.
There are so many great things about this book, undermined by this one shitty trope that just wasn’t necessary. So this one is complicated.
There’s an okay attempt at an inclusive holiday get-together. Our two lesbian grandmothers, Bubbie Ida Flora (depicted as feminine, with white skin), and Bubbie Rose (depicted as leaning toward masculine, also white) host a Seder dinner. There’s a bald white woman (her role is unclear), a person accompanied by a guide dog who codes as Blind, a child wearing a dress, long curly hair, and a headband who uses he/him pronouns, another child who uses they/them, some token people of color and a few multiracial families.
The illustrations are a little wobbly and unfinished (everyone looks like they are wearing flesh mittens). But you got some folks with darker brown and lighter brown skin. Some beige. I appreciate the effort, as books about Jewish holidays often leave out people of color. However it’s important to note that the book depicts the hosting grandparents as white, with only white or multiracial children of white people wearing kippas. The guests of color look like they married in or were…invited. It’s not quite Get Out-level obvious, but I kept searching for hints that the darker skin tones had some agency and didn’t find any. This is a problem, what with the great whitewashing of Judaism in kidlit.
But yay for normalizing lesbian grandmas! And a Blind character with agency who helps search for the afikomen! And a couple gender-non-conforming kids! And vaguely including/tokenizing people with alopecia and/or going through cancer treatments! (Unclear!)
Per tradition, Bubbie Ida Flora breaks the afikoman (Passover matzah) and hides it. All the young people spend an inordinate amount of time and effort searching for it. Because it turns out, Bubbie forgot where she hid it.
Actually, she didn’t even hide it, because she completely forgot to even do that, despite standing up and walking away from the table to do just that. Because she’s old! And old people forget things that happened just a couple minutes ago. So flighty, these old ladies. (/sarcasm).
It wouldn’t be an issue – if this wasn’t an intensely common trope that pops up over and over. Grandma is always the source of the humor in these stereotypes about ‘senior moments,’ and older adults are always butt of the jokes.
It seems light-hearted. Not a big deal. Until you realize how many older women are discriminated against employment, fired, forced into institutions, and refused medical care and life-saving support because they’re dismissed as batty and forgetful.
This shit is killing women. Stop.
If you are wondering, based on the title, if this book is culturally appropriating Japanese culture for some laughs, then yes you are right, they did a racism. Oh also everyone is white because of course they are.
Beyond the orientalism, which goes exactly where you think it will go (“Grandma made dinner instead. It was raw fish. It was horrible.”), Grandma tries to be a ninja. Pearls on her neck, chopsticks in her hair, carrying a handbag through the whole thing.
Hijinks ensue, because older women? Being active?! HA! What a ridiculously silly idea! (This is also sarcasm.)
Playing off the stereotype that older adults are by default weak, unable to learn new things, and grandmas are boring, this kid’s grandma learns karate and is good at it. We’re supposed to be surprised and amused by this.
But don’t let it get too far – Grandma is also not particularly bright, and she’s disruptive and kind of a burden to have around. Like, the makers couldn’t just have a laugh while denigrating older women and Japanese culture, they also had to add in another layer to remind us that even the best and most active older women are still kind of shitty at everything.
From Tomie dePaola, the maker of Strega Nona, one of the better depictions of older women, comes this shallow and unpleasant tragedy of an older woman navigating a disability without support, doomed to spend eternity searching for baby Jesus.
Silly old lady, she can’t tell that it’s been thousands of years and she’s looking for baby Jesus in vain!
This story just wouldn’t have the same charm (re: marketability) if a young person made this mistake. It’d be kind of sad, really.
I get that it’s based on an Italian legend. But we don’t talk about Santa Claus as if his generosity is a mistake. We talk about him like he’s a hale and healthy hero! Because he’s a man who ages well (we’ll get to that chestnut in a later article.)
The original tales of Befana are sometimes tragic, sometimes a moral lesson – but all of them include some complexity and depth to the woman. She’s not just batty and tragic for no good reason.
In this depiction, she’s wrestling with a compulsive disorder which makes her a harmless, but useless, person in the community and a bit of a village fool.
Sanism and ableism, always good for a laugh to make readers feel better about themselves. Unless we’ve got these conditions, in which case, the JOKE IS ON US. But it’s okay, because we’re not valuable humans due to our silly compulsions. Right? Why fight for equality, for folks to stop abusing and killing us, and for accommodations when we could just have a sense of humor about it. (/Bitter.)
The young protagonist in this story is obsessed with his friend’s age.
It feels like one of those white people who talk about me being Chinese all the time. Yes. We get it. I am your token friend/co-worker/family. Talking to me while adeptly avoiding the use of most slurs makes you a better person. A Not-Racist Person. Ugh. (It doesn’t.)
This kid kicks off every conversation with “How old are you?” or some comment about his age. He relates every single thing this dude does to his advanced age.
The moral of the story is – hanging out with older adults is a gift that young people must bestow as a good deed. Young people are tasked with saving older people from a miserable life of peace and quiet and not having young people constantly othering them.
The kid asks weird comments about how being old must be hard. Not because of like, the medical model of aging, hostile bigotry in public and business environments, or medical negligence. Just being old. The natural state of tragic oldness.
The author goes on to perpetuate stereotypes about the bland, inactive, and navel-gazing life of older adult. He spends his days smelling roses, walking, listening to birds, and hanging out with this child. These are “the things that keep me going,” which I guess he needs due to the tragedy of not being young.
There’s no deeper story about mindfulness or having had decades to learn what really matters. The reader is left to read bird-listening and flower-gazing as boring stuff left for older people who are boring.
Despite being active, optimistic, handsome, outgoing and vital gentleman who might want to talk about stuff other than his age, we’re supposed to see Mr. Tempkin as man past his prime, just puttering around, getting himself into things he can’t extract himself from, waiting to die.
The climax begins with the kid telling this grown-ass man that he is ‘too old‘ to climb a tree, as if Mr. Tempkin is too ignorant to know his limitations. This is all a set-up to prove the kid right. This foolish, benevolent old man! He falls out of the tree. Of course he does.
We had an opportunity here. When Mr. Tempkin decides to adjust a bird feeder, and the kid is like “aren’t you too old to climb a tree?” and Mr. Tempkin is like “nonsense.” This could be a turning point where this kid, being so obsessed with this guy’s age, gets a TWIST. We could have learned how older people know their own bodies, strengths, and limitations.
But NOPE. The steaming hot and stinky moral of this story is that older adults need supervision, rescue, and “Climbing trees is not for old men, and I guess I’m just a foolish old man.”
The book goes downhill from here – he can’t push his own wheelchair and the kid offers to help, making the kid ‘a mensch’ as opposed to ‘a decent freaking human who does the very basics of assisting a friend who asks for help.‘
(I go into more detail on the problems of setting the bar for ‘goodness’ so low as letting an older woman get on the bus first over here.)
“Dad says that spending time with Mr. Templin is a mitzvah” I wonder why the makers tell us whether spending quality time with a good friend your own age could also be a mitzvah. (I don’t really wonder. We all know it’s because this author thinks hanging with older people is an act of heroism, not a mutually beneficial friendship of equals.)
Also see: Say Hello, Lily, which contains more of that ‘being around old people is favor’ plus a nice heap of gerontophobia and the message that all older people belong in nursing homes. Eventually Lily realizes that older people are people too! It’s a icky combo of terribly boring and terribly condescending, toward readers of all ages.
Children coming up with blatantly obvious solutions for older adults
This next pile of books exposes the myth that older adults need young people to come in and rescue them.
Older Adult’s Problem: Depression.
Youth Savior Solution: A clean glasses wipe.
The Moral: A few levels to this, and they’re all disgusting:
The first is that an older man spent decades on this earth wearing glasses and never once thought to clean them off when they get scummy – he needs a young kid to realize they are dirty and need to be cleaned. Because we’re supposed to see older adults as…not very smart.
Which is supposed to be a metaphor for how we need fresh, young eyes and energy because older adults are too stuck in their ways to be creative or innovative. Great set up for employment discrimination and ignoring calls for equality from multiply marginalized older adults!
There’s also some stuff in there about Mr. Posey not enjoying new experiences, but the young kid is more open to them. That old trope about old dog, new tricks. Which is bullshit.
Also older adults get depressed, not due to say, social discrimination, but internal forces. And that depression is somehow easily overcome with an injection of Fun Kid Energy (TM) because older adults are too forgetful to remember how to cheer themselves up and depression is so easy to overcome if you just tried harder. Sanism!
Older Adult’s Problem: Obnoxious neighborhood kid wrecking up the place, a la Dennis The Menace.
Youth Savior Solution: Good intentions.
The Moral: In a relationship where the younger person is Dennis-The-Menacing all over the freaking place and breaking your shit and destroying your house, it’s okay. Because older adults are just so desperate for companionship they will settle for friends who take emotional labor, time, and destroy their home.
Also, intention matters more than impact. (NO! BAD! BAD LESSON! STOP TEACHING THIS TO WHITE GIRLS!)
The idea behind this story was decent (making mistakes, forgiveness) but it’s just so sloppy, and way, way better done in the book The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes. In Glaser’s story, the older women is not positioned as pathetic and lonely, and waiting for a youth savior to spice things up.
Older Adult’s Problem: Dementia.
Youth Savior Solution: Souvenirs.
The Moral: Dementia can be solved, but only by young people with Fun Kid Energy (TM). Probably only because the people experiencing it, the younger adults caring for them, and modern medicine is too incompetent to figure out how to overcome dementia without a youth savior.
Also if your grandparent is experiencing memory loss, confusion, or any of those scary things that come with dementia, expect great and immediate results. Perhaps, if it doesn’t work, youth saviors aren’t trying hard enough. Or perhaps great-grandma just doesn’t love you enough. Who knows!
As the author so pitifully writes ‘Poor thing.‘ Like suffering is acceptable and empathy isn’t an option. Just pity older adults. And wait for them to die.
Seriously, what the actual F was this author thinking? Way to set everyone up for despair.
Adding this to the loooooong list of books that teach kids dementia is common and inevitable for all older adults (it’s NOT.) There are some great books about how kids can understand illness and support a loved one with dementia – which we will talk about in a later article.
Meanwhile, us this to see how very unlike regular people older adults are, and how surprising it is that they might have memories of doing things (but only when they were young). Such othering! Much stereotypes! So pathetic!
Older Adult’s Problem: Empty, sad life caused by a death of wife and empty nest.
Youth Savior Solution: Plant-sitting.
The Moral: This is your standard Up!-style story (I love that movie too, but you see the problems in it now, right?)
The underlying moral is a good one – we all need something to care about, and if possible, someone to care for. Life gets a little empty if all we have to care about is ourselves. This is a great message!
But let’s not do it in a way that paints older adults as too oblivious to solve their own problems. This guy could have stopped by the garden store on his own, if he was so inclined. If the death of his wife and the empty nest left by his children was that bad and he truly wanted to solve it, a reasonably reasonable adult would go get a hobby or find something else to do. They don’t need a kid to come up with obvious solutions like ‘grow a plant.’
Older Adult’s Problem: Anxiety disorder. Or maybe agoraphobia? (or something like that, I dunno, I’m not a psychologist)
Youth Savior Solution: Several doses of Fun Kid Energy (TM)
The Moral: By now you see where this is going. Very real disabilities and mental health conditions that could use some community support, medical care, and assistance are diminished as if they can be blown away with a few doses of children’s pitter-patters or whatever.
As always, the root cause of this woman’s condition aren’t attributed to environment (like say, the terrifying things that are done to you in the course of being a woman in public), but are just assumed to be an internal, personal problem, naturally developing along with this woman’s personality, and presumably, her gender and her age.
Older Adult’s Problem: Grief over the death of a life partner and being targeted by gentrification and housing discrimination
Youth Savior Solution: More plants.
The Moral: Anything can be overcome with plants! Plants and kids, man. Solutions.
First – housing discrimination is a very serious problem when it comes to stigma and bias against older people. This book doesn’t address that. All we know is that this guy had a build a home he loved with his life partner, she died, and for reasons beyond his control, his home ended up demolished. Dude has reasons to be grouchy. At least the book let’s him have this complexity.
But – all that complexity is left as a subtle reveal at the end. You have to give kids (particularly younger kids) lots of time and nudges to even notice what’s left unsaid. Skilled storytelling, but leaves an unacceptable opportunity for kids to internalized the message that old men are by nature grouchy and insufferable, to be calmly tolerated and not listened to. Compounded by the fact that it’s just kind of a boring story that few kids will want to read twice and, well… impact matters more than intent.
This is a great story about community action and organizing, really one of the best books about building a community garden. Probably because it goes into details on stuff like getting permits. (Which is exactly as exciting as it sounds.)
But I am not cool with the way they leverage the grouchy old man trope as a pedestal for a young person to lift up higher. She’s a smart, hard-working character. She would have been smart and hardworking even if the author hadn’t added the grouchy old man back story in an attempt to give the story a bit of pizzazz. It’s an extra bummer then, that even after throwing older adults under the bus, the story still remains so freaking boring.
Permits! Humans are innovative creatures who can make anything interesting. There has to be a better way to make zoning laws and obtaining city permits exciting that doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes against marginalized folks.
Older Adult’s Problem: All of the baggage that comes with cultural assimilation – wanting to, wishing it wasn’t forced on us, etc. Also learning a new language.
Youth Savior Solution: Finding a dictionary.
The Moral: This should be a sub-genre of books. An older adult missed out on learning a language, and only their grandchildren are smart enough to go grab a book from a library so they can learn. (NO.)
I have to admit this smarts, because speaking a different language than your grandparent and not being able to tell them how much you love them hurts. From personal experience, it’s not so easy as sitting down with a vocabulary worksheet and pointing to a picture of a chicken and BAM, grandma knows English and you can tell her how much she means to you before she dies. No. You just say goodbye with hand gestures and gifts of clementines and hope she gets it, because unless you’re a wealthy kid with support from other adults, kids can’t just learn to communicate with the people they love just because they want to – no matter how much we wished we could. It’s hard to hold on to your language in a sea of whiteness, never mind learn a new one.
In Three Cheers for Catherine The Great, a grand-child shows her Russian-Speaking grandmother that learning English is possible. Which I have to assume her grandmother already knew? I mean…she’s raised two generations of humans and taught them Russian. So. Okay. This youth savior gives her grandmother the gift of starting to learn English. Okay.
In Stolen Words, a grandfather deals with the trauma of successfully being targeted and abused by colonists forcefully assimilating him, forcing him to lose the language of his nation and his family. His granddaughter takes a quick jaunt to the school library and happens to find a book in Cree. This is a gift for him, so he can learn. I liked this book initially – because it pulled at my heartstrings, at the pain of losing the Cantonese I spoke as a baby. It felt valid. If it was just a story about assimilation and cultural loss, it’d be so great.
But the ageism – that’s where the problem comes in.
Which, come on, do you know how hard it is to find a book in Cree? Do you know how hard our government has fought (and I mean fought, violently) to eliminate Indigenous languages? Thanks to the hard work of lots of dedicated Indigenous authors, it’s getting easier, but Cree dictionaries aren’t just like, hanging out in most school libraries. And if they were – Grampa would have picked one up a long time ago, he’s not a fool. Dr. Debbie Reese goes into this better than I can over in American Indians In Children’s Literature. But from a whitewashing perspective, this book has problems.
Beyond that – there are many, many more books like this, where a grandparent has an issue with language, a hole in their heart about having a piece of their culture taken away, or denied to them, and a youth savior pops in with a dictionary and solves everything. Which kind of belittles what a big deal this is, how hard it is to overcome, and how older adults don’t fail to achieve their dreams because they are old and incompetent, but because there were systemic barriers in the way that grow even larger as we age.
Older Adult’s Problem: It was a while ago, so I don’t even remember this book. Does grandma even have a problem to start out with?
Youth Savior Solution: Romance & Bigotry
The Moral: You two are both ____? You two should daaaaaate!
If you’ve ever been one of two ‘others’ in a room and had folks try to hook you up with the other weirdo just because you’re both of the same race, both have disabilities, whatever, you know what’s going to happen in this book.
This whats-her-face, this little girl decides to set up her great-grandmother and her great-grandmother’s neighbor. Based on nothing other than the fact that her grandmother has vision disabilities and this random neighbor dude is deaf.
Ewww! Not eww because of the romance – I mean great-grandma deserves to get some if she wants some (ageism & sexuality, a book list coming later on!) but eww to the idea of matchmaking people because they’re both ‘different.’ Both older, both with disabilities. How’d she like it if Great-grams hooked her up with some rando 11-year-old just because they’re both ableist and wearing braces?
Once you have an identity, that means your entire personality is defined by it, and you are now part of a big sexy orgy monolith. I guess. (Eww.)
Also see: Floaty, for another inexplicably grouchy older man rescued by a dog.
Older Adult’s Problem: Bad attitude & general curmudgeonlyness.
Youth Savior Solution: Mockery.
The Moral: Be a dick to older people. That will cheer them up.
This list is going to get harder as we go on, because we’re getting into the books I actually like. I adore Christian Robinson, and Linda Ashman’s books are often inoffensively solid in validating childhood challenges.
We actually read this book frequently to the kids, it’s particularly wonderful for the 4-6 age range when kids start to see every inconvenience as a grave insult and injustice. I like that it normalizes a kind and gentle boy of color. It helps us unpack the concept of perspective – how we have agency in seeing the things that happen to us, choosing our response to it, and how that informs what happens next.
But okay, here we go. This older man. He’s so grouchy. Why is he so grouchy? We don’t see how maybe, his dog died. Or his wife died of cancer. Or how he just got laid off from his job ‘to make room’ for younger (re: lower paid) employees.
He’s just grouchy. And that’s a problem – because the Grouchy Curmudgeon is a trope in kidlit that needs to die. It’s a stereotype that we grab when we’re too pressed for time (or lazy) to come up with scaffolding or back-stories on what causes an upset person to be upset.
For those of us who have been dismissed because we’re ‘getting too upset’ – due to our gender, our race, our disabilities, whatever, we recognize the way our identities are used to silence us when we have very valid reasons to speak up. People aren’t just naturally grouchy.
I mean sure, my default disposition is slightly to the left of irritable, compared to say, Santa Claus. But also Santa is a rich white man who grew up beloved and believed in despite multiple facts to the contrary…wait I’m just proving my case, never mind.
I mean to say – we can’t teach our kids that some folks are just grumpy and need to get over themselves. The solution isn’t to be super-duper cheery at them, nor is it to mock them until they get a sense of humor and catch up to the youths. We need to listen and then work for radical change that gets to the root of that curmudgeonlyness (this is a word now, I’m making this a word and you can’t stop me.) Or at the very least, hand the man his hat and just leave the dude alone.
If you know it’s rude to tell a strange woman to smile, ’cause she looks prettier that way, then you can see how expecting this guy to cheer up to make everyone around him happy is kind of problematic.
Older Adult’s Problem: Cultural conflict and the inability to reconcile the validity and wholeness of a biracial identity.
Youth Savior Solution: Symbolizing a biracial person and their identity as something objectifying. Say, a casserole, perhaps.
The Moral: Older people are too fixed in their ways and against racial, cultural, or ingredient mixing. Only young people can come up with some super obvious solution like fusion cuisine.
Okay I said this was gonna get harder. Remember how, in this collection, I recommend Chicken Soup, Chicken Soup because we can food stories to teach kids that not all Asians are a monolithic and you can own all of your identity even if both sides don’t want you? (Spork is even better for this.) BUT also there are problems with it. We’ll address this below.
What we’ve got here is a helpful, and lazy, device, where authors use stereotypes against older women – perpetuating the idea that they’re bossy, stubborn, and ignorant. And they need the help of granddaughters to show them how to do…really basic things like accepting that two ingredients can mix.
Which, honey, grandma knows. Either grandma is on board with having a mixed grandchild and is in the picture and loves the crap out of you, or she’s like “Ew. No.” No cooking class can fix prejudice.
Oddly, the male version of My Two Grannies (My Two Grandads, branding!) includes two grand-dads who collaborate and respect each other. The men in that multiracial family are less bickery and snipey, and less arrogant and rigid. Sexism and ageism! Partners in crap!
Other moral, aside from ageism: Biracial people like two whole things, cut in half or with pieces scooped out, then mush together whatever is left over. Like a centaur. Or a snake with the head of a human baby. ::shivers::
Like, for instance, this pervasive problem where monoracial people keep writing books and speaking like they know stuff about navigating life with a multiracial identity. Which perpetuates problems and makes things worse.
Older Adult’s Problem: Psychological impact of suddenly living with a permanent physical disability
Youth Savior Solution: A ramp.
The Moral: Older adults who develop physical disabilities are doomed to a life of despair without outsider help.
I’m getting picky on this one – only because I love this book soooo muuuch. Gay grampas! Multi/transracial family constellations! Nonbinary character who uses they/them pronouns! So lovely! And it’s all marred by a couple issues.
The first part of the book is gold – both Grampas are depicted as vibrant, interesting, and fun. They’ love their grandchild, Lou, but they don’t need Lou to entertain them. They have independent lives and taste. So sweet, and so nice.
But the dig is when one of the Grampas has a fall, and gains a permanen physically disability. Grampa is shook, which I get it – that’s a big life change to deal with. But the book wobbles a little toward disability as a life-ending flaw, which is pretty ableist.
From there, the gramps can obviously build a ramp themselves. But Lou does it for them, and that magically cheers up their depressed grampa. Which minimizes 1. What a big life change it is to go from abled to living with a disability, and how valid it is to need time to process that, and 2. The fact that grampas can come up with obvious logistical solutions on their own.
The ramp is a metaphor – I get it. A symbol of love and accommodations, and support. But because this book could swing either way, depending on the reader, it feels a little lazy. I will spell it out to my kids that grampa’s despair is about a life change, not because having a disability is a bad thing. I’ll also point out that obviously someone was going to build a ramp, and it’s the show of love and innovation that cheered grampa up, not the physical ramp.
But will casual readers?
So read this, enjoy it, and please be cautious to unpack the ableism and ageism kids will pick up if left to come to their own conclusions.
Older Adult’s Problem: Physical disability linked with age
Youth Savior Solution: Needing help
The Moral: We’re more effective when we’re abled & youthful
Aaah! I don’t want to write about this one, because Zetta Elliott is the best, I and other than this one nagging thing, I utterly love everything about this book. For accountability reasons though, I have to, because Elliott is one of my lovely and wonderful community supporters.
Here is the problem: That Magic Cure.
The Magic Cure is a deux ex machina (when we can’t come up with a clever solution for how a character gets out of a bind). Folks with disabilities suddenly lose their disabilities. This is supposed to be a good thing – as if being abled is better than being disabled. The Magic Cure is often metered out as a reward for a kind and brave young child. Little Timmy doesn’t need his walker any more, the Blind kid earns his sight, you know the drill.
Imagine, for a moment, if a kickass little girl of color was magically gifted with whiteness. As if her natural identity is some sort of cosmic punishment. Yeah. To those of us with disabilities – it feels a lot like that.
In the case of this book – we have an older woman (‘Auntie’) who uses a walker – and resents the heck out of it. She’s pretty miserable and grouchy and falls into the sad lump waiting to die trope. When Auntie meets a baby dragon, just meeting it suddently gives her a burst of energy “I feel like a girl again.”
It’s not clear whether it’s the dragon’s magic or she just suddenly overcomes her disability and age when presented with a will to live. Either way is problematic.
This is a setup so Auntie can sneak past the non-cool adults and get into some cahoots with kids and dragons. Shedding her identity as older and disabled – presenting as young, and abled, makes Auntie a more powerful character, with increased capabilities to assist our young protagonist. The bias in our cuture tells us that to be effective, you must be young, and you must have strong legs. Which is silly.
Her magic cure just wasn’t necessary. I’m confident in Elliott’s writing ability that the story would have been more interesting if Auntie had come up with an escape plan that involved slowly inching her way out the door with a walker. That’s the thing about fiction – you can do what you want.
This was a missed opportunity to depict a truly kickass older woman with a disability as powerful, smart, and effective not despite her abilities, but because of them.
But seriously though you should still read the book, the rest of it is flawless.
Coming up next
Next in this series about ageism – we’ll examine stories about older mentors and how these stories give kids a grasp on humility, patience, and the importance of learning from lived experience. Without swinging the pendulum all the way into childism.
- Why Young Activists Depend on the Fight For Elder Rights
- Believing #OwnVoices Elders
- Problematic Stories of Youth Saviorism Stigmatizing Older Adults
- Older Lives Are Worth Living: Fighting Ageism & Deathmisia In Children’s Books
- Anti-ageism kids books featuring intergenerational friendships