Children’s literature doesn’t always treat the elderly well. Fairytales often depict the elderly as wicked or weak, from the evil witch in Hansel and Gretel to Red Riding Hood’s helpless, bedridden grandmother. Yet, it is literature that has enormous potential to break down barriers between the old and the young, for the considerable benefit of both.
Earlier this year I attended the funeral of a friend’s grandmother. My friend spoke about one of the happy memories of her grandmother was when she sat in the nursing home, reading snippets from the newspaper or books, while her grandmother interjected with memories
from her own, extraordinary life.
It is an example of a connection between the generations that books can cultivate, but can otherwise be hard to develop, as social and financial pressures and technological innovations make the chasm between the generations seem wider than ever.
It is rare now for grandparents live with their children and grandchildren, while exorbitant house prices in Australia’s cities push the young out of certain locations and marketers are at pains to differentiate between Generation X, Generation Y and millennials, increasing the distance between youth and the aged. Technology has also served to create a language in which the old are often unable to communicate with the young.
While work needs to be done at a macro level to bring the generations together, in the meantime literature can help build bonds between the generations and nurture relationships otherwise too easy to neglect.
In my own life, reading helped me to form a strong and memorable bond with my grandmother. While it could have been difficult to find much in common between an Octogenarian and a teenager, we never tired of sharing, discussing and debating books. Reading provided us with a basis for communication and a sense of like-mindedness.
It is not just the very old and young that can benefit from reading together; books can help parents and their children build relationships of comfort and trust. Reading time before bed is many parents’ favourite part of the day and I have to agree that little can beat snuggling up against a warm small, sleepy body, with a book. This early parent-child bonding is not only emotionally beneficial for children, but also intellectually.
A Sutton Trust study in the UK revealed a child’s attachment to its parents had a long term impact on their ability to speak, think and learn, while Australian children’s author Mem Fox went so far as to describe the act of reading to children as a “lifeline” to a child’s happiness, literacy and future.
I am fortunate that I have always shared a love of reading with my mother, but now I also share this passion with my sisters-in-law and father-in-law. We all swap books, tell each other about the latest novel we have enjoyed and occasionally attend literary events together. I can also see my niece starting out on this journey, and I look forward to sharing a love of reading with her.
Books also bring my mother-in-law and my children together in an unexpected way. After living in Arnhem Land for more than a decade, my mother-in-law has a deep affection for native animals and plants, and through the books she chooses to read to my children, she shares this knowledge and love of Australia with them. Through books, my mother-in-law is fostering knowledge, understanding and shared interests with her grandchildren. Similarly, my mother has a huge bookshelf that she loves to scour with her many grandchildren.
As academic and writer Gilbert Highett said, the generations have much to teach each other, and it is important they have the opportunity to share this knowledge and experience.
“Wherever there are beginners and experts, old and young, there is some kind of learning going on, some kind of teaching. We are all pupils and we are all teachers.”
It is not just the act of reading and sharing books, but the stories within the books can break down barriers between the generations. The diverse ages of characters in books can provide the young with insight into the lives of the elderly, and remind the elderly about the perspectives of the young.
Some books which feature older characters include Lovesongby Alex Miller, with its elderly narrator, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch is about an elderly man who retires to the seaside, where his complicated former life, his vanities and his eccentricities follow him, and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, which exposes the injustices and prejudices faced by a former academic, as well as his own complex inner life.
In a society that tends to obsess over youth and ignore the elderly, these books provide insight into the rich lives that the elderly have lived, and continue to live.
They also introduce old age as an accessible part of life, not an unknown country, to be feared and avoided. Increasingly, a realistic, rather than a stereotypical representation of elderly people is being presented in both adult and children’s literature, ensuring children do not grow up believing the elderly are all wicked witches or doddering fools, as fairytales might suggest. After all, nobody wants to find themselves in the position that Simone de Beauvoir, one of my grandmother’s favourite writers, documented in her study “The Coming of Age.”
“Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.”
Equally, books remind us of what it was like at the other end of life, as a child. Somehow, it is impossible not to read Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl books with childish eyes, such is the playfulness of the language and themes. The Corduroy Bear reminds me of the fear it used to instill in me of being left in a department store overnight, with even the pictures vividly reminding me of childhood. Books can provide a valuable reminder of what it is to be a child, with all of its different fears, expectations and perspectives on life.
Meanwhile, books like Little Bird of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas provide authentic insights into the confusing and complex lives of young people navigating an adult world.
Australia has a long way to go towards creating a more generationally cohesive society. Perhaps, in the meantime, we should turn to books to foster the joy and wisdom that comes when the generations come together.
In Dr Seuss’s words: “You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.”