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Growing up and growing older: books for young readers.

First world societies are aging. In the United States, for example, a child born in 1900 could expect to live to be 47 years old, whereas a child born today can expect to live more than 77 years (Administration on Aging [AoA], 2002). More years have been added to the life expectancy of Americans in the last century than humankind experienced from the Stone Age to 1900 (Bronte, 1997). There are approximately 70,000 centenarians in the United States today, and within the next 50 years this number is projected to be more than 1 million (Aaron, 2000; Warshofsky, 1999). People 85 years and older are the most rapidly growing age group in the U.S. (AoA, 2002).

In general, however, Americans are not educationally, socially, or emotionally prepared for old age. Americans often reach old age with little or no formal education on aging, exposure to aging, or anticipatory guidance about aging. Yet, attitudes about aging have a critical influence on how well people adapt to their older years (Dychtwald, 1999). As today's children can expect to live well into old age, there is a great need to educate them about aging and promote positive attitudes toward aging.

A decade ago, I published an article in this journal about using early children's literature to promote positive attitudes toward aging (McGuire, 1993). This follow-up article explores current findings in relation to children's literature and aging, discusses using children's literature as an education tool about aging, presents a form that can be used in evaluating children's literature for ageism, and lists some excellent children's books with content on aging.

Portrayals of Older People in Children's Literature

Ageism is deeply ingrained in U.S. culture and has crept into children's literature. In Ansello's classic study on age and ageism in children's first literature (1977), and in his subsequent research (1988), he found older characters to be underrepresented and stereotyped. He noted that when older persons were portrayed, they usually did not have a major role in the story and were not readily noticeable. Ansello reported that the cumulative effect of these portrayals showed older people as unimportant, unexciting, inarticulate, flat, unidimensional, unimaginative, noncreative, and boring. He found that terms consistently used to describe older people were "old," "sad," and "poor."

Subsequent reviews of the literature largely concur with these earlier findings (James & Kormanski, 1999; McGuire, 1992, 2000). Early children's literature remains almost void of older people and frequently fails to develop older characters fully or give them meaningful roles. When older people are portrayed, it is usually as grandparents; older people from outside the family are rarely main characters. Myths and stereotypes about aging are pervasive, and meaningful and realistic characterizations of older people are scarce. The positive aspects of aging are often overlooked.

Older characters in children's literature often are shown as ill, disabled, or near death; frequently missing are portrayals of healthy older people who are actively involved in their families and communities. Older workers and volunteers are rarely found, nor do many books center on themes of companionship, famous older people, older leaders, intergenerational activities, similarities between young and old, lifespan activities, and planning for old age. Few books actually portray the real lives of older people. In general, children's literature provides few role models for aging and few elder heroes, and gives children little to look forward to in relation to growing old.

Selecting Children's Literature for Content on Aging

Reading is a process of constructing meaning (Tompkins, 2001). The images portrayed in early children's literature provide meaning, and play an important role in attitude formation. When reviewing specific children's literature, it is important to look at the role the older person portrays in the story. Is the older person portrayed as healthy, independent, and active in his or her community? Is the older person a role model for growing up and growing older? Are intergenerational relationships portrayed in the story? Are stereotypic adjectives and portrayals used? Are the illustrations in the story age-stereotypic? Are illness, death, and dying associated with the older characters in the story? Does the older person have a role other than grandparent?

Young children's literature that focuses on death, dying, illness, or disability in relation to aging should be minimized. These topics are not synonymous with aging. Focusing on such topics, and emphasizing the negative aspects of aging with young children, inhibits positive attitude formation (McGuire, 2000; Seefeldt, 1987). Instead, choose literature that gives the older character full personality development and characterization, and reflects older people as unique individuals.

Literature that presents children with older heroes and role models helps them to explore their "elder within" (a term originated by Dychtwald & Fowler in their book Age Wage, 1990)--the older person that they want to become--and illustrates the potential benefits of living to old age. Literature should expose children to "life span" activities (activities that they can do throughout life from childhood to old age such as music, art, walking, swimming). It should portray older persons with dignity and describe reciprocal relationships between children and older people (James & Kormanski, 1999). Illustrations and text should show older people as active, independent, and eager to share their love of life and learning (James & Kormanski, 1999). A form that can be used to evaluate early children's literature for aging content is presented in Figure 1.

Early Children's Literature With Positive Portrayals of Aging

The attitudes that people develop early in life will affect behavior throughout life (Couper & Pratt, 1999; James & Kormanski, 1999; Jantz, Seefeldt, Galper, & Serock, 1977; Pratt, 1992); therefore, it is important to promote positive attitudes about aging with young children. Although much of children's literature mirrors society's ageist attitudes, some children's literature contains positive, sensitive portrayals of older people.

Excellent books for young children with older characters include: Song and Dance Man (Karen Ackerman, 1988), Grandpa Is a Flyer (Sanna Baker, 1995), The Quiltmaker's Gift (Jeff Brumbeau, 2000), Butterfly House (Eve Bunting, 1999), Miss Rumphius (Barbara Cooney, 1985), Bigmama's (Donald Crews, 1991), The Disappearing Island (Corrine Demas, 2000), Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen (DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan, 1991), Good As New (Barbara Douglass, 1982), Something From Nothing (Phoebe Gilman, 1992), Miss Tizzy (Libba Moore Gray, 1993), Amazing Grace (Mary Hoffman, 1991), Catching the Fire: Philip Simmons, Blacksmith (Mary Lyons, 1997), All the Places To Love (Patricia MacLachlan, 1994), Grandmother's Dreamcatcher (Becky McCain, 1998), Granddaddy's Gift (Margaree Mitchell, 1997), Supergrandpa (David Schwartz, 1991), Grandmother's Alphabet (Eve Shaw, 1997), William's Doll (Charlotte Zolotow, 1972), I Know a Lady (Charlotte Zolotow, 1992), and This Quiet Lady (Charlotte Zolotow, 1992). An annotated bibliography of these books can be found at the end of this article. Unfortunately, many excellent books are now out-of-print.

Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius (1985) is a good book for introducing children to the topic of aging. The story shows a young girl, Alice, growing up and growing older, just as children are doing. At the conclusion of the story, Alice is an older woman, now known as Miss Rumphius. Miss Rumphius ends the story by talking to young children and passing on the message she learned from her grandfather: "You must do something to make the world more beautiful." The book was a American Book Award winner and merits a place in every child's library. This book, or any of the others on the list, could be used to develop focus units (Tompkins, 2001) to discuss age and aging.

The books mentioned here are from a more complete annotated booklist: Growing Up and Growing Older: Books for Young Readers (McGuire, 2002). This booklist will soon be available on-line at the University of Tennessee Hodges Library, Center for Children's and Young Adult Literature ( research.html). Other libraries could easily duplicate some or all of the book collection. Earlier versions of the booklist have been published within the Educational Resources and Information Clearinghouse (ERIC) system (McGuire, 1988, 1992, 2000).

Early Children's Literature and Aging Education

More than 40 years ago, the first White House Conference on Aging recommended life span aging education as a way to help prepare people for a long life. Unfortunately, little progress has been made in this area. Few school districts incorporate content on aging into their educational curricula or activities. Many colleges and universities do not require or encourage course work in gerontology. Parents seldom talk to their children about growing older. Yet children need to learn about aging if they are to view aging as a natural and important part of the life cycle and regard life's later years as potentially productive (Couper & Pratt, 1999; James & Kormanski, 1999; Kupetz, 1994; Pratt, 1992).

Some initiatives have encouraged education on aging and intergenerational activities, such as the state of Connecticut's Schools in an Aging Society (1992) series; the efforts of the state of Texas to evaluate its school texts for ageism; the Illinois Intergenerational Initiative (; and the work of such organizations as the National Academy for Teaching and Learning About Aging (NATLA) (, the Center for Intergenerational Learning at Temple University (, Generations United (, and Generations Together ( NATLA and the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA) coauthored a document: Teaching About Aging: Enriching Lives Across the Lifespan (NATLA & NRTA, 1998). Another excellent publication from NATLA is Learning for a Longer Life: A Guide for Developers of K-12 Curriculum and Instructional Materials (Couper & Pratt, 1999).

Education on aging exists naturally in our communities through intergenerational activities. Intergenerational reading and storytelling are good activities (Freeman & King, 2001), and can help to educate children about aging. Unfortunately, many communities do not have a formal intergenerational network. A good starting point for intergenerational activities, whether it is reading or other shared projects, is establishing a linkage between the local office on aging and the local school district. Also, community senior centers provide limitless opportunities for children to interact with active elders and learn about aging as a natural and lifelong process.

Fran Pratt, the founder and past director of both the Teaching and Learning About Aging Project and the Center for Understanding Aging, is one of the country's foremost educators on aging. Even in retirement, Pratt has made significant contributions to the field. Box 1 has an excerpt from his monograph Why Teach About Aging? (no date). These insightful comments illustrate the need for education about aging, with children and across the life span.
Box 1:

Why Teach About Aging?

Children learn about aging whether we teach them or not. The issue
is not whether they learn, but rather what they learn about the
lifelong process of growing up and growing older. If left to
happenstance, children learn about aging in the same ways they
learn about so many other things--simply by absorbing what they
see, often without being able to distinguish between fact and fiction.
We might call this learning by osmosis. All too often, what children
learn about aging is based on myths about the aging process and on
stereotypes o folder people that are deeply entrenched in our culture.
These myths and stereotypes are transmitted from one generation to
another in our language, humor and literature, and, through all the
media by which we perpetuate the knowledge, values and attitudes
of our society.... For all these reasons, children need to learn about
aging. It is better to prevent than to cure, easier to learn
than to unlearn. Children should begin at the earliest possible age
to develop a healthy and realistic view of aging, to understand that
they can maximize their own opportunities for quality of life, and
to develop understanding of the complex issues of living in an aging
world. None of us, and least of all the young, can afford to face our
individual or collective future(s) guided by ageist myths and
stereotypes or by patterns of age discrimination and gerontophobic
behavior. If preparation for the future was ever a goal of education,
then education aging clearly should be a high priority for all who
play a role in educating and socializing young children.

Excerpted with permission from Pratt, F. (undated). Why teach about
aging? Southington, CT: Center for Understanding Aging; Pratt, F.
(1992). Why teach about aging? In D. P. Couper & D. W. Gregg
(Eds.), Schools in an aging society. Social studies classroom
activities for secondary schools (pp. 101-102). Hartford, CT:
Connecticut Department of Education and Department of Aging.

In Conclusion

Children's literature can be used to offer positive portrayals of older people and help educate children about aging and promote positive attitudes about aging. Teachers need to include books with older characters in their children's reading activities and even use them to focus discussions on aging. Book collections in schools, libraries, bookstores, and homes need to have books that promote positive attitudes about aging and that integrate intergenerational activities. Teachers can ask students to write and share stories about older people and about growing up and growing older. Teachers can invite older people to classes to read and interact with the children.

We need to help children see the potential that exists for growth and development throughout life, and share with children the joys of aging. Developing children's knowledge about and positive attitudes toward aging (their own and others') will help them live each day more fully and have the ability, understanding, and self-confidence to adapt to aging. They will be able to understand that old age does not have to be a time of personal and societal devaluation, but rather can be a time of continued growth, development, and fulfillment.

The importance of educating children about aging and forming positive attitudes toward age and aging should not be underestimated. People can cope with their own aging and the aging of others by understanding age and aging when they are young. The potential exists for a generation of people who value the elderly and who will adapt successfully to aging. According to Jantz, Seefeldt, Galper, and Serock (1976): "Only as children view their own aging and the elderly positively will they be able to achieve the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that are considered rights of each in our society" (p. 3).

By promoting such attitudes, the quality of life can be improved for today's elderly and for tomorrow's elderly-of which today's children will be a part. From these positive attitudes, children can expand their knowledge about aging, make comparisons, begin to reach informed conclusions about the aging process, and start planning for the older person they want to become.
Table 1

Growing Up and Growing Older: A Literature Analysis Form
Sandra L. McGuire

Book Title --
Author --
Publisher --
ISBN / Cost --
Grade Level(s) --
 Never (0) Sometimes (1)
1. An older person(s)
 plays a vital role in the story
2. Older people are portrayed as healthy
3. Older people are portrayed as
4. Older people are portrayed as active in
 the community
5. The older person is a role model for
 growing up and growing older
6. Intergenerational relationships are
7. Older people are portrayed in roles other
 than grandparents

 Never (2) Sometimes (1)
8. Text includes age-stereotypic
 roles and adjectives
9. Illustrations are age-stereotypic
10. Death, dying, illness, and disability
 are associated with the older character(s)

Column Totals

 Usually (2)

1. An older person(s)
 plays a vital role in the story
2. Older people are portrayed as healthy
3. Older people are portrayed as
4. Older people are portrayed as active in
 the community
5. The older person is a role model for
 growing up and growing older
6. Intergenerational relationships are
7. Older people are portrayed in roles other
 than grandparents

 Usually (0)
8. Text includes age-stereotypic
 roles and adjectives
9. Illustrations are age-stereotypic
10. Death, dying, illness, and disability
 are associated with the older character(s)

Column Totals


Books with total scores less titan 10 are generally not good for
promoting positive attitudes about aging (scores of zero are not
good). Books that score in the "usually" (0) category for items
#8, 9, or 10 should be carefully looked at for their portrayals about
older people.

Books that deal with death, dying, illness, and disability are
likely to promote negative attitudes about aging in young children.
These conditions are not synonymous with aging; they occur across
the life span. It is often difficult for young children to focus
on the book's positive aspects once such topics are introduced.
Good choices include books that illustrate older heroes, older role
models, and lift, span and intergenerational activities, and that
help children to see their "elder within."


Aaron, H.J. (2002). The centenarian boom. In H. Cox (Ed.), Annual editions. Aging 02/03 (14th ed., pp. 29-31). Guilford, CT: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin. [Reprinted from Brookings Review, Spring 2000, pp. 22-25.]

Administration on Aging. (2002). A profile of older Americans: 2001. Retrieved from on March 20, 2002.

Ansello, E. F. (1977). Age and ageism in children's first literature. Educational Gerontology, 2(3), 255-274.

Ansello, E. F. (1988, March). Early socialization to biases through children's literature. Paper presented at the 34th Annual Meeting of the American Society on Aging, San Diego, CA.

Bronte, L. (1997). As quoted in the video The Gift of Aging. Available from Films for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Connecticut Departments of Education and Aging. (1992). Schools in an aging society. Hartford, CT: Authors.

Couper, D., & Pratt, F. (1999). Learning for a longer life. A guide for developers of K-12 curriculum and instructional materials. Denton, TX: National Academy for Teaching and Learning About Aging.

Dychtwald, K. (1999). Age power. New York: Bantam Books.

Dychtwald, K., & Fowler, J. (1990). Age wave. New York: Bantam Books.

Freeman, N. K., & King, S. (2001). Service learning in preschool: An intergenerational project involving five-year-olds, fifth graders, and senior citizens. Early Childhood Education, 28(4), 211-217.

James, J. Y., & Kormanski, L. M. (1999). Positive intergenerational picture books for young children. Young Children, 54(3), 32-37.

Jantz, R. K., Seefeldt, C., Galper, A., & Serock, K. (1976). Children's attitudes toward the elderly. Final Report to the American Association of Retired Teachers and National Retired Teachers Association. College Park, MD: University of Maryland--Center on Aging and Department of Early Childhood / Elementary Education.

Jantz, R. K., Seefeldt, C., Galper, A., & Serock, K. (1977). Children's attitudes toward the elderly. Social Education, 41(6), 518-523.

Kupetz, B. (1994). Ageism: A prejudice touching both young and old. Day Care and Early Education, 21(3), 34-37.

McGuire, S. L. (1988). Promoting positive attitudes toward aging among young children through literature: A reading list (preschool-third grade). (ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED 292 088)

McGuire, S. L. (1992). Non-ageist picture books for young readers. An annotated bibliography for preschool to third grade. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED 347 515)

McGuire, S. L. (1993). Promoting positive attitudes toward aging: Literature for young children. Childhood Education, 69, 204-210.

McGuire, S. L. (1994). Teaching young children about aging. Journal of Health Education, 25(2), 103-105.

McGuire, S. L. (2000). Growing up and growing older: Books for young readers. An annotated bibliography of nonageist early children's literature. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service ED 445 344)

National Academy for Teaching and Learning About Aging & National Retired Teachers Association. (1998). Teaching about aging: Enriching lives across the life span. Washington, DC: American Association of Retired Persons.

Pratt, F. (undated). Why teach about aging? Southington, CT: Center for Understanding Aging. AgeShare Publication.

Pratt, F. (1992). Why teach about aging? In D. P. Couper & D. W. Gregg (Eds.), Schools in an aging society. Social studies classroom activities for secondary schools (pp. 101-102). Hartford, CT: Connecticut Departments of Education and Aging.

Seefeldt, C. (1987). The effects of preschoolers' visits to a nursing home. The Gerontologist, 27(2), 228-232.

Tompkins, G. E. (2001). Literacy for the 21st century: A balanced approach. Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Warshofsky, F. (2002). The Methuselah factor. In H. Cox (Ed.), Annual editions. Aging 02/03 (14th ed., pp. 22-26). Guilford, CT: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin. [Reprinted from Modern Maturity, November/December 1999, pp. 28-32, 84.1

Sandra L. McGuire is Associate Professor and Chair, Master of Science in Nursing Program, College of Nursing, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
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Title Annotation:educating children about aging
Author:McGuire, Sandra L.
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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