What Aging Looks Like: A Picture Book List, with Dogs!

What does it feel like to be old?

It’s so important for children to see positive images of aging. There are many wonderful books about children and their relationship with grandparents or an elderly friend.

In my book, The Old Woman, I write about an old woman who lives alone with her faithful companion, her old dog. Depicting an old woman on her own, gives a child a different view of what aging looks like. Life is not about new adventures anymore but the old woman is not lonely or sad. She relishes the simple pleasures of each new day and revels in the memories and thoughts that float through her mind. Nahid Kazemi’s beautiful illustrations merge with my words to bring the old woman and her dog to life, creating the unique visual landscape of the story.

In the following picture books authors and illustrators explore the themes of aging, intergenerational friendships, loss, and dogs in a myriad of approaches and tones from the sombre to the hilarious.

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Oy, Feh, So?  by Cary Fagan, illustrations by Gary Clement

– am I really related to them?

It’s not always clear to children why adults run out of energy and want to sit on the sofa rather than run around the park. It’s even more confounding when they lack imagination and say the same things over and over again. In this case, Aunt Essy, Aunt Chanah and Uncle Sam come over every Sunday and their repeated sighs and groans of “oy, feh, so” are the stuff of family legend. Can the kids make them say something else? The Sunday afternoon challenge makes for very funny reading, culminating in a warm-hearted resolution. The illustrations heighten the antics and underscore the humour. As the relatives roll up the driveway in their Lincoln, you’re laughing even before the story starts.

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Harry and Walter, by Kathy Stinson, illustrations by Qin Leng

- my neighbour is my friend and who cares how old he is?

Stories about intergenerational friendships are wonderful examples of how children can so naturally feel a connection to an older person, whether that person is a relative or a friend. Harry has always lived next door to Walter and they are best buddies. As far as Harry is concerned, it makes no difference that Walter is a nonagenarian, actually, he doesn’t even notice. They like to ride their tractors together, their games of croquet are a hoot, and they love eating Walter’s tomatoes fresh off the vine. When Harry’s family decides to move they both keenly feel the separation. Soon Walter has to move too though and he ends up in a building just down the road from Harry’s new house. The lively line of the figures has the characters bouncing across the page, bringing just the right touch to this light-hearted story. 

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Birdsong, by Julie Flett

– we both love lots of the same things, like making art

Another example of an intergenerational friendship, in this story, Katherina, a young Cree girl, and her mother move to the countryside and the only close neighbour is an elderly woman named Agnes. It isn’t long before a friendship develops between the young girl and the old woman and they bond over their shared interest in making art. Agnes is a potter and Katherina loves to draw. Set against the changing seasons, the symbolism of the cycle of life is visually present on each double page spread as textured fields of grass turn from green to brown to white and birds fly across shifting skies. As Agnes ages and slows down, Katherina grows and matures. After a hard winter, spring arrives for a second time, and Agnes is confined to her bed. In a final gesture for her friend, Katherina covers Agnes’ bedroom walls with drawings of flowers, creating a bridge to the natural world. A beautiful story of friendship, growth and the transformative power of art.

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Grandmother’s Visit, by Betty Quan, illustrations by Carmen Mok

-I miss you so much, how do I say goodbye?

In this quiet story we feel the close relationship between the grandmother and the child through the daily rituals they enact together like walking to school, walking home from school and cooking dinner.

Grandmother is endlessly interesting—she tells stories from when she was a child in China, she knows the secret to making perfect rice, and she hides pickled plums in her pockets for special treats. When Grandmother suddenly passes away, the sadness is consuming but learning that there is a tradition in Chinese culture of letting the dead person say a final goodbye, brings closure. The simple, uncluttered illustrations and muted palette gently underscore the emotional tone of the story.

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The Funeral, by Matt James

-funerals are weird and I don’t know how I feel

Despite the news of Uncle Frank’s death, Norma is pretty happy because she will miss a day of school for the funeral and her favourite cousin Ray will be there to play with. But her feelings aren’t as simple as that and at the funeral Norma and Ray wonder about many things—is Uncle Frank still a person, why does the service go on for so long, and why do they talk more about God and souls than about Uncle Frank? The quirky, sideways view of Norma trying to find the right emotional tenor at her first funeral is exceptionally insightful and her voice feels original and authentic. The mixed media, expressionistic illustrations are full of lush colours and energetic brushstrokes that deepen Norma’s perspective even further. This is a story about death that is bursting with life.

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Ocean Meets Sky, by Terry Fan and Eric Fan

-I think about you and wonder where you are

It’s a good day for sailing, his Grandfather would have said. And, since it would have been his Grandfather’s 90th birthday, Kim decides to honour him by going on a trip they had planned together to reach the place where ocean meets sky. The journey to connect with his Grandfather is one filled with surreal images of fabulous ocean creatures and skies full of fantastical flying machines. Guided by a giant catfish, Kim floats along in this mysterious grandeur until he reaches the moon, which just so happens to have a face that looks like his Grandfather. In the end, Kim’s adventure is a deep dive into the emotional journey of loss in which wonder and imagination bring solace and closure. With a nod to Sendak, this beautifully illustrated story has deep resonance.

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Book Cover Kamik an Inuit Puppy Story

Kamik: an Inuit Puppy Story, by Donald Uluadluak, illustrations by Qin Leng

-I love my puppy but I have so much to learn!

The first in the Kamik stories, this picture book has more to it than meets the eye. Based on the memories of elder Donald Uluadluak, the story shows how important the familial relationship is between grandfather and grandson, and how vital elder knowledge is to learning traditional skills. Jake, like his puppy, is young and impatient. When he complains about his training woes, his Ataatasiaq regales him with stories of how he and his grandmother trained their dogs, the dangers they faced when they were out on the land with their dog teams in a blizzard and the times when the well trained dogs saved their lives. Only after listening to his grandfather’s stories does Jake come to understand the work that lies ahead, as well as appreciating the challenging lives his grandparents lived. Kamik and Jake leap off the page and readers will be eager to follow their progress in Kamik’s First Sled, Kamik Joins the Pack and Kamik Takes the Lead.

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Stanley’s Party, by Linda Bailey, illustrations by Bill Slavin

-a dog on his own!

Don’t we all wonder what our dogs do when we leave home? In the Stanley series, we find out. In the first story we meet the irrepressible Stanley. When his people go out for the evening Stanley is tempted to try out some off limit activities like lounging on the sofa, raiding the fridge and dancing around the living room to music. If the humans get to do it, why can’t he? It’s all too much fun and for a while Stanley gets away with it but when he decides to have a party, things really get out of hand. Stanley has us laughing in each story as he goes from one trouble-making event to another, and the whole cast of neighbourhood dogs, including gassy Jack, add to the hilarity. The warm, exuberant illustrations capture Stanley and friends in all their doggy antics.

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The Old Woman, by Joanne Schwartz, illustrations by Nahid Kazemi

An old woman shares her home with a scruffy old dog, her best friend and constant companion.

One fall day, they go for a walk and the woman throws sticks for the dog. She loves hearing the autumn leaves under her feet and the wind in the trees. She looks up at a crow in the sky and imagines what it might feel like to fly. As the wind comes up and the light begins to fade, she remembers playing outside as a child, never wanting to go in. Suddenly she notices a stunning harvest moon against the darkening sky. The next morning, as she sits outside to watch the sun rise, she looks forward to spending a new day with her friend.

Gentle illustrations accompany this portrayal of an elderly person who lives peaceably with her dog, appreciating what each moment brings.

October 22, 2020
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