The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award is now officially the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) announced this week.
The award, which honors authors and illustrators who have made a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature, was awarded to Wilder the first year it was created in 1954, after Wilder narrowly lost a chance at the Newberry Medal five different times. The award is one of the things that helped to make Wilder and the lovely, gripping Little House books she created into a national institution, the books that every child reads in elementary school.
But as the ALSC recognized on Monday, Wilder’s books aren’t just lovely and gripping. They aren’t just detailed descriptions of what it’s like to lay railway track or blow up a pig’s bladder like a balloon and throw it around. They’re also racist, riddled with depictions of American Indians as violent “savages” and with minstrel shows.
The tension between the increasingly apparent racism of Wilder’s work and its long-evident and very real pleasures have become fundamental to the way we deal with the author in the 21st century. It’s also fundamental to ALSC’s decision to rename the award.
“ALSC has had to grapple with the inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and its core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness through an award that bears Wilder’s name,” ALSC said in its announcement, adding that its decision to remove Wilder’s name from the award was not in any way censorship.
“We are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children,” the statement says. “We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.”
As a fan of the Little House books, I think that the ALSC made the right decision. I grew up on those books, and I wouldn’t trade away the memories of their incredible sensory detail and spirited, rebellious Laura for anything. But I have those memories because I read the Little House books in a very specific context — and the more we uncritically laud Wilder’s legacy and treat her books as incontrovertible classics, the harder it is to offer that context to everyone else.
For me, the Little House books were teaching tools. They’re not that for everyone.
Here are my memories of the Little House books: When I was about 7 years old, I ran sobbing to my mother. I had just read the section of Little House in the Big Woods in which Pa — Pa the paragon, Pa the parent who the reader is most asked to adore without question — beats Laura with his belt. I was a sheltered child, and this was the first time I had ever come across the idea of a trusted and beloved adult violently disciplining a child.
My mother sat me down and agreed with me that Pa had been very wrong in his actions, and then gave me a digestible, child-sized explanation of 19th-century child-raising norms. I raised a skeptical eyebrow and kept reading.
That interaction formed the basis for what became the pattern of my Little House reading: I would devour the books and glory in their descriptions of using carrot juice to dye freshly churned butter yellow and of fancy buttons that looked like blackberries, and then I would come across some moment that seemed unquestionably vile and evil to me, and run to my mother to demand explanation. And as I grew older and delved deeper into the series, those moments more and more came to be centered on bigotry.
Ma hates Indians, as do Laura’s neighbors, one of whom was given to declaring that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and so I learned that the pioneers had used a prejudice against Indians as an excuse to steal their land, and that this was racism.
Laura herself fetishizes the idea of Indians who do not have to wear the layers of clothes that she does and can instead be truly free, and I learned the basic idea of the Noble Savage trope.
Ma does not like the idea of Laura working in the fields because “Ma and her girls were Americans, above doing men’s work.”
“I feel like that’s simultaneously racist and sexist?” I said, and that’s how I started to understand intersectionality.
By the time I got to Little Town on the Prairie, in which Pa performs in a minstrel show and Laura raves about the hilarity of the “darkies,” I was old enough that I had grasped without help that minstrel shows were racist, and had developed a strategy for reading such passages: I would say, “Oh my god, Laura,” and then skim past to get to the good part about all the girls at Laura’s school playing cliquish power games with their calling cards.
For me, the Little House books were at their worst a teaching tool: They taught me about 19th-century bigotry and corporal punishment, and when their bigotry started to bother me I breezed past those sections. Because that’s how I read those books, I am able to love them as an adult.
But that reading was an option for me because I was a little white girl, and Wilder’s bigotry was not directed at me. It was never personal. I was also able to read the books that way because my mother is an English professor who was willing and able to provide the historical and social context I needed as a child reader. That’s not the default situation for most children who grow up on these books, and looking at their troubled racial legacy over the past 60 years proves it.
If we want to keep the Little House books in the American canon, it’s vital that we continue to examine and push against their bigotry
Little House on the Prairie was first published in 1935, but it wasn’t until 1952 that a concerned parent wrote to the publisher to take issue with a line in the book: “There were no people” on the prairie, the line went. “Only Indians lived there.”
“I must admit to you that no one here realized that those words read as they did,” Wilder’s publisher wrote back to the mother. “Reading them now it seems unbelievable to me that you are the only person who has picked them up and written to us about them in the 20 years since the book was published.”
“It was a stupid blunder of mine,” Wilder wrote to the publisher. “Of course Indians are people and I did not mean to imply they were not.”
The tendency to casually forget that people of color are human beings runs throughout the Little House books, and the omission of “Indians” from the category of “people” is just one of its more obvious manifestations. The line in question got edited with Wilder’s permission to become “there were no settlers” in later editions, but there were more problem-causing passages that would surface later.
In 1998, an 8-year-old Native girl came home in tears after hearing her third-grade teacher read out loud the infamous assertion that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Her mother, a scholar of history and American Indian studies, tried unsuccessfully to get the school to drop Wilder from the curriculum, but she faced staunch opposition from the teacher, who loved Wilder.
There’s plenty of reasons to love Wilder, whose simple, unfussy prose is some of the loveliest in the American canon — but surely there is no good reason to force a Native child to read about why she deserves to die, to say nothing of what a non-Native child might take from that statement at face value.
That’s why it’s vital that if we want to keep Wilder in the canon, and there is good reason to want to do that, we make it easier to put her work into a critical and historical context that pushes against the bigotry embedded in her work, and that we ease off on making her compulsory reading for children who might feel dehumanized by her books.
As Wilder biographer Caroline Fraser argued in the Washington Post, “No 8-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of Little House on the Prairie. But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell.”
There are resources available that can help parents and educators place the Little House books into context. There is a lesson plan on the official Little House on the Prairie website designed to give children historical perspective on Wilder’s accounts of her encounters with Indians.
Children’s librarians have suggested offering Little House fans the Birchbark series, by American Indian author Louise Erdrich, as either counter-programming or supplementary reading. (Birchbark takes place in about the same time period as Little House, but its characters are Ojibwe.)
And parents have begun discussing ways to put the books’ racism in context as they read them with their children: “We are reading a book where I cannot let the words on the page speak for themselves,” concluded James M. Noonan as he wrote about reading Little House on the Big Woods with his daughter.
But more broadly, to give readers the freedom to critique Wilder’s work and question some of her basic principles, we need to put less pressure on the books as the most beloved and untouchable classics of American children’s literature. And the ALSC’s decision to rename the Children’s Literature Legacy Award is a productive step in that direction.