Aging Well

aging wellDo we get wiser a we age? I hope so. From what I’ve seen, many people do  – but certainly nots everyone. The cranky old man and the bitter old woman – we’ve all met them, right?  Surely we can do something to prevent that from happening to us.

My favorite book on the subject is called Aging Well, by George Vaillant, with the long subtitle of Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development.  Perhaps you’ve heard of this Harvard study, which began in 1938 and followed a set of more than 200 Harvard graduates with detailed questionnaires, interviews, and physical exams regularly throughout their lives.

When this book was written in 2002, the Harvard study men had just passed age 80, and their answers give interesting insights into how to age well – with a zest for life – and what went wrong for those who aged poorly. Because that study included only privileged men, Dr. Vaillant, a psychiatrist and Harvard professor, also included responses from inner-city Boston blue-collar men as well as older women interviewed for a similar Stanford study. He looked for clues to a healthy, meaningful, satisfying old age.

So why did some of these people live long lives, relatively happy and healthy, and why did others end up sad or sick? Was it genetics? Childhood poverty? Personality type? Not so much.  Successful emotional and physical aging, Vaillant found, does not depend on things we can’t control but rather on things we can: not smoking and drinking, figuring out mature ways to cope, staying fit, and sustaining a loving relationship.

How to grow old with grace? Here’s how Vaillant sums up his findings:   Care about others and be open to new ideas.  Gracefully accept help when you need it.  Maintain hope in life and cherish initiative. Retain a sense of humor and a capacity for play.  Take sustenance from the past but continue to learn from the next generation.  Maintain contact and intimacy with old friends.

The book contains a lot more – great examples and surprising insights. Very thought-provoking!

Yokohama Yankee

Yokohama Yankee: My Family's Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan, by Leslie Helm

Yokohama Yankee is unlike any memoir or family story I’ve evYokohama Yankee voerery read: the elegant, skillful melding of a poignant story of the adoption of two Japanese children with the swashbuckling tales of a family that began in the 1870s when a German man married his Japanese housekeeper. Born and raised in the foreign enclave of Yokohama, Leslie Helm delves deep beneath the surface of Japan, weaving together that country’s ugly and beautiful aspects and its love-hate relations with “gaijin.” He analyzes himself and his family with an unflinching eye, producing a powerful, honest and self-reflective story that shows bitterness, family betrayal, a longing for belonging, and subtle tenderness. To say nothing of a mad samurai who committed murder and seppuku in the house of Helm’s great-grandfather!

The illustrations are magnificent and bring the history to life: not only family photographs but postcards and maps of old Yokohama, handwritten notes, wrenching wartime landscapes, and whimsical chapter headings inspired by postal stamps.

I highly recommend this book, which that will draw you in and take you on a journey to the long-ago and far-away – and bring you safely back to present-day America. Find out more at Leslie Helm's author website.

The Friendship Doll

Friendship Dollby Kirby Larson

This is a delicious book that made me smile many times. Miss Kanagawa, a three-foot-tall doll hand-made in Japan, came to the United States in 1927, along with 57 other dolls, as an ambassador of friendship. That much is a true story. What American children might she have met, and how might she have affected their lives? That is where Kirby Larson’s vivid imagination kicks in.

A rich, spoiled girl in New York City in 1928. A daughter of an unemployed mechanic in Chicago in the early days of the Depression.  A lively reader from a fatherless family in “the holler” in backwoods Kentucky in 1937.  An Okie girl whose family lost their farm in the Dust Bowl and had to look for work on the West Coast. A modern-day boy in Seattle.

At first I thought the messages about friendship, as given by this doll, might be clichéd, but Newbery Honor Winning author Kirby Larson doesn’t do clichés. Each of these children speaks with a clear, distinctive voice, using fresh metaphors and images true to their time and place. Even Miss Kanagawa has attitude. And all of these compelling mini-stories have surprise endings!

I highly recommend this book, especially for girls who think they have outgrown their love for dolls.

Kirby Larson's website is

The Drowning World

by Brenda Peterson. A gripping tale of life in an imagined undersea world.  

Whoa! This book is a winner, sure to catch on and captivate and ensnare readers of all ages, especially young people. Brenda Peterson has created a richly imagined underwater world called “Aquantis,” complete with mer-people who can shift between one tail and two legs, mind-talking communication with dolphins and sea turtles, a Hogwarts-like training school, and even a dark underside of exploited workers in the sea gardens.

Part of the story is set in the year 2030, and the author gives us a vivid portrayal of what global warming might do to the low-lying lands of south Florida, swept by frequent hurricanes, covered with mud, and its residents, doomed to a life offshore on Eco-Arks.

But what kept me turning pages were the adventures of the main characters: sixteen-year-old Marina, assigned to explore the “SkyeWorld” as a spy-ambassador, and Lukas, a sexy young human drawn into the underwater world while trying to save turtles from an oil spill. Can’t wait for the sequel!

More information is available at Brenda Peterson's website and at

Kubla Khan

Kubla Khan picture book coverKubla Khan: The Emperor of Everything, by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Robert Byrd.

I found this delightful picture book in the museum shop at the Met, outside the World of Khubilai Khan exhibit. It’s brand new, published in 2010.  The story is well-researched and beautifully told, with lively language and rich detail. The illustrations are phenomenal!  The map of the Mongol Empire in the end pages is charming, and you can learn a lot about the Mongols and how they lived simply by perusing the pictures on each page. The book is labeled “ages 8 up” – and it is indeed far more sophisticated than your average picture book. Highly recommended!

On Robert Byrd’s website, he says “My canvas is a stage filled with characters like an opera.” Precisely!

I have found many of Kathleen Krull’s marvelous nonfiction books already on my shelves, including Lives of the Writers and Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez. She has a website and contributes to a blog called I.N.K.: Interesting Nonfiction for Kids.

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