In D.L. Garfinkle's Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl, narrator Michael Pomerantz befriends a senior citizen, Duke, at a local nursing home. Cyd Charisse, the main character in Rachel Cohn's Gingerbread and its sequel, Shrimp, visits an elderly lady at a nursing home. The winner of this year's Newbery Award, Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins, features Debbie, who helps out and becomes friends with a neighbor who is a senior citizen. Ashley, the main character of Laurie Halse Anderson's Prom, helps look after her next door neighbor's grandmother. When Zoe looks for A Room on Lorelei Street (by Mary Pearson), her landlady is a senior citizen. Valerie Hobbs's Defiance has an eleven year old who becomes friends with a neighbor in her 90s. In Deb Caletti's Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, Ruby is forced to join her mother's book group – which is made up of senior citizens. Gail Gauthier's Saving the Planet and Stuff features Michael, who is spending the summer with friends (and contemporaries) of his grandparents.
Suzi Steffen, in a December 5, 2005 post on her blog Words, words, words, wondered, "what is UP with the whole nursing home trope? Seems to be a common thing now. Do YA writers think, 'oh, my character isn't very deep; perhaps as a teen, s/he needs to connect with an older person as her/his parent's aren't providing enough guidance? Not saying that I wouldn't do it; just wondering if that's why all of the nursing home characters keep appearing."
While the older women in Prom and Criss Cross are not in nursing homes, they – like the blind neighbor in Defiance – are crossing the line from self-reliance to dependence on others. Mrs. Bruning in Criss Cross requires emergency medical aid; the neighbor in Prom displays increasingly erratic behavior.
As Suzi said, older adults in teen books give guidance to teens. Both Michael in Storky and Cyd in Gingerbread/Shrimp benefit significantly from the insight, compassion, empathy and understanding given by the adults they encounter. Real relationships and friendships are made.
Another reason for teen/senior interaction may be that both are facing challenges to independence. Teens, caught between childhood and adulthood, dream of independence and autonomy. Ashley (Prom) and Zoe (A Room On Lorelei Street) want to move out of their parent's homes; Ruby (Honey, Baby, Sweetheart) seeks freedom thru a boy. On the other end of the spectrum, the seniors in these books are losing their independence. One of the members of the book group in Honey, Baby, Sweetheart wants to reunite with a long-lost love, and has to be practically kidnapped to make that happen because the woman's children want to prevent the reunion. Teens and seniors become allies in wanting independence and not being babied.
An additional factor in each of these books is that the teen and older person are not related. The senior may be a neighbor, a friend of the family, someone met at a nursing home – but never a grandparent or other relation. Chris Barton, whose first book, The Day-Glo Brothers, is due in 2009, notes that "grandparents and great-grandparents are indeed living longer, but since World War II Americans are more mobile than they used to be and more likely to spend their adulthood (and thus their kids' childhood) some distance from where previous generations live(d)."
While this generation of teens is more likely to have all grandparents living, it's also more likely that these grandparents don't live near their grandchildren. Parents and grandparents relocate because of career, family, personal and economic reason, retirement. Whatever the reason, the generation who is most likely to have living grandparents is least likely to be living near them.
Grandparents, even if physically close, are not necessarily wise, loving, and other "grandparent" stereotypes. In both A Room on Lorelei Street and Storky, the grandmothers are critical and non-supportive. Teens demand honesty, and many are fully aware that just as parents can let you down, so too can grandparents.
Parents do their best for their children, but with normal teen/parent rebellion and conflict, neither parents nor teens are always able to really listen to each other. But someone who isn't related, who comes to the teen fresh, without preconceptions, expectations, or history, can offer guidance that a teen will listen to, and will also listen – as with Cyd in Gingerbread – without judging. This two-way communication serves both teen and older adult.
D.L. Garfinkle explains that "I wish I could tell you why I created Duke, the old man in the nursing home in Storky. He just appeared. It really wasn't a conscious decision on my part." As Storky was revised, "my agent suggested using him to create a 'throughline' character for Mike to learn from to show Mike's growth."
But why not make Duke a grandparent? "When a character is not related, there is more chance for the protagonist to have one-on-one time with the character to pour his heart out to him about family problems and other problems."
As Garfinkle points out, a person who is not related to the main character is impartial. This "blank slate" character can then help the teen become his or her "true self." In A Room On Lorelei Street, Zoe's own grandmother is too concerned with the welfare of her own daughter (Zoe's troubled mother), so cannot be there for Zoe in the same way as Opal, Zoe's landlady. Opal looks at Zoe and sees a good kid with heart and potential, while others see a teenage girl who has made wrong choices, including abandoning her mother.
Mary Pearson, who has a work in progress set in a nursing home, notes that sharing wisdom is a two-way street for teenagers and seniors. "Yes, some wisdom comes from the older folks, but some comes from the teens too in regard to how the older folks are treated." She agrees that older folks and teens are "on the two ends of not being able to make decisions about their own lives." Pearson also points out that, from a writer's perspective, if the characters are unrelated and are not "emotionally invested" with each other, new relationships may develop. "Developing relationships is the fun part of writing."
Whatever the reasons, commonalities, shared wisdom, blank slate, senior citizens are vibrant, memorable characters in today's teen literature.
Note: this article was inspired by my December 5, 2005 posting "Teens & Nursing Homes" at A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy. The quotes came from comments made to that posting by Chris Barton, D.L. Garfinkle, Mary Pearson and Suzi Steffen. The author is grateful that all four permitted themselves to be quoted for this article.
Originally appeared in the March 2006 issue of The Edge of the Forest.
© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy