Older Adult’s Problem: All of the baggage that comes with cultural assimilation – wanting to, wishing it wasn’t forced on us, etc. Also learning a new language.
Youth Savior Solution: Finding a dictionary.
The Moral: This should be a sub-genre of books. An older adult missed out on learning a language, and only their grandchildren are smart enough to go grab a book from a library so they can learn. (NO.)
I have to admit this smarts, because speaking a different language than your grandparent and not being able to tell them how much you love them hurts. From personal experience, it’s not so easy as sitting down with a vocabulary worksheet and pointing to a picture of a chicken and BAM, grandma knows English and you can tell her how much she means to you before she dies. No. You just say goodbye with hand gestures and gifts of clementines and hope she gets it, because unless you’re a wealthy kid with support from other adults, kids can’t just learn to communicate with the people they love just because they want to – no matter how much we wished we could. It’s hard to hold on to your language in a sea of whiteness, never mind learn a new one.
In Three Cheers for Catherine The Great, a grand-child shows her Russian-Speaking grandmother that learning English is possible. Which I have to assume her grandmother already knew? I mean…she’s raised two generations of humans and taught them Russian. So. Okay. This youth savior gives her grandmother the gift of starting to learn English. Okay.
In Stolen Words, a grandfather deals with the trauma of successfully being targeted and abused by colonists forcefully assimilating him, forcing him to lose the language of his nation and his family. His granddaughter takes a quick jaunt to the school library and happens to find a book in Cree. This is a gift for him, so he can learn. I liked this book initially – because it pulled at my heartstrings, at the pain of losing the Cantonese I spoke as a baby. It felt valid. If it was just a story about assimilation and cultural loss, it’d be so great.
But the ageism – that’s where the problem comes in.
Which, come on, do you know how hard it is to find a book in Cree? Do you know how hard our government has fought (and I mean fought, violently) to eliminate Indigenous languages? Thanks to the hard work of lots of dedicated Indigenous authors, it’s getting easier, but Cree dictionaries aren’t just like, hanging out in most school libraries. And if they were – Grampa would have picked one up a long time ago, he’s not a fool. Dr. Debbie Reese goes into this better than I can over in American Indians In Children’s Literature. But from a whitewashing perspective, this book has problems.
Beyond that – there are many, many more books like this, where a grandparent has an issue with language, a hole in their heart about having a piece of their culture taken away, or denied to them, and a youth savior pops in with a dictionary and solves everything. Which kind of belittles what a big deal this is, how hard it is to overcome, and how older adults don’t fail to achieve their dreams because they are old and incompetent, but because there were systemic barriers in the way that grow even larger as we age.