We read blogs and forums about disliking sexism and racism in literature, but I haven’t read too much about ageism there. Did I miss it? Let me know.
Anyway, I stumbled on an interesting study of picture books (Ansello, 1977) and how they included and depicted old people. Here’s a quick summary of that study, which included 549 books.
Characters were classified “older” if they were described physically, verbally or occupationally as older. They had to have at least two of these mentions to be tabulated in the study. What they was that “older characters are only present in 16.03% of those 549 picture book. When “older ” characters were included they were most likely White (66.1%). Blacks were represented at 3.4%, Hispanics 1.7%, Native American’s 0.8%.
The thing that caught my eye in the 1977 data was that 75.5% of “older” characters were described by only three adjectives: old, little and ancient.
Well, I thought, by now that’s all different, so I searched Mr. Internet and found another study (Hurst 1981). This study included books made up of Caldecott Medal winners. “Older” characters in this sample of picture books were only shown interacting with children 3% of the sample and 48% of the “older” characters were described as old. Still? Well, one book used nice and in two others wise. The rest of the adjectives were funny, small, little, grumpy, lonely, poor and weak.
It seems “old” was used so frequently that in another study by Dodson and Hause, they concluded that “no other generation is so completely described by the use of a single word” (qtd. from McGuire, 1993).
Hmm. So I kept looking. There had to be a study that showed an enlightened change somewhere.
And I found one by Dellmann-Jenkins and Yang (1997). This study compared a
total of 95 award winning books (1972–1983 and 1984–1995) for the presence of older people in
main or secondary roles. They used 11 books and found that “older” characters appeared in 12%; however, the descriptions were now words like “clean, healthy, happy, good, caring and interactive with others.” Also the illustrations had a much more positive depiction of these characters.
Now I’m a bit happier, but I keep digging. I’ve found another study that was done even more recently. I’ll read it carefully and let you know what that one says next week.
Do you enjoy going to book events? Have you ever paid attention to how the elderly are depicted in young people’s literature?
Quote of the Week: “Aging is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person that you always should have been.” David Bowie