What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder got to see some of the harvest from her series of nine Little House books, published between 1932 and 1971, but the books have been out long enough that additional, unexpected seeds have sprouted.
I first read the books when I was eight and reread them multiple times. The series was the first I bought for my children, because I needed Laura in my home library. So in June, when the American Library Association (ALA) renamed the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, thereby removing her name, I was upset. I called two Laura-loving friends, and we commiserated.
The award was created in 1954 by the ALA to honor an author who makes what it deems a “significant and lasting” contribution to children’s literature. The award has also been given to Eric Carle, Beverly Cleary, Tomie dePaola, Katherine Paterson, Maurice Sendak, and E.B. White, among others. In renaming the award, the ALA put out a press release explaining the decision. Here’s part of what it said:
Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.”
What sorts of “dated cultural attitudes”?
Well, there’s the refrain in Little House on the Prairie, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” or when Pa appears in blackface in Little Town on the Prairie. When I was eight, those incidents did bother me, but they did not hamper my enjoyment of the books. Should they have?
The first time objections were officially raised to Wilder and her publisher was in 1952. The writer, a mother, speaking for her child, brought up two sentences, which have since been reworded: “ … there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” Now it reads, “Only settlers lived there.”
Wilder’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom of Harper & Row, (who edited every author you loved as a child), apologized on Wilder’s behalf. In Caroline Fraser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, she says Wilder told Nordstrom those lines were a “stupid blunder.” But when Nordstrom asked Wilder to take out the minstrel scene, Fraser says Wilder refused, writing, “It seems no one should be offended at the term ‘darkies.’” Fraser points out many ways in which Wilder was ahead of her time, regarding people of color, but she also points out terms like this one, that certainly do not fall into the progressive category.
So how do I, as a book-reader and a book-buyer for children, address the issues the ALA raises?
I don’t want to propagate racist attitudes, but I’ve loved Laura for forty years. Searching for answers, I went online.
In few fields is the issue of unalloyed reverence more thorny than that of children’s fiction because the things you love at 8 become a part of you forever.”
Her words reminded me of a quote from children’s author Diana Wynne Jones, as recorded in Reflections on the Magic of Writing:
Most adults, in fact, if you question them, will admit that there was this marvelous book they read when they were eight, or ten, or maybe fifteen, that has lived in their minds ever since.”
When I was a young reader, I overlooked things that bothered me in Wilder’s books. I’m white, and I have that luxury. But how might I have reacted if I were reading the Little House books as an eight-year-old black or Native American girl? How might those stories live in my mind and become part of me forever in a wholly different, disturbing way?
Here’s the irony — I live in an area settled by Germans in 1846 on land that belonged to the Comanche. The Meusebach-Comanche Treaty is touted as a symbol of cooperation between the two groups. I know the German side of the story, but how might the particular band of people who lived in this area, the Penateka, or “Honey Eaters,” tell it differently?
In making the name change, the ALA clarified that it was not attempting to censor Wilder’s books.
This change should not be viewed as a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books. Updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship, as we are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children. We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that take place around them.”
So, yes, read Wilder’s Little House series, but also read Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House series about an Ojibwe girl named Omakayas, whose family was forced to leave their home by white settlers. Read about Cassie Logan, a black girl facing racism in Mississippi during the Great Depression in Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. And read the author who is the first recipient of the newly named Children’s Literature Legacy Award, Jacqueline Woodson.
That’s why next month’s Children’s Book Club selection is Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the National Book Award and the Coretta Scott King Award, and was a Newbery Honor Book. It’s a collection of poems that form a memoir about a girl who is strong, like Laura and and all the girl characters I loved at eight and ten and fifteen and still love.
Name a girl Jack, my father said,
and she can’t help but
grow up strong.
After a month of reading wildly on the subject of Wilder’s legacy, I think I want there to still be a Wilder award, but I want it to belong to only one author: Laura Ingalls Wilder. She did not live to see all the fruits in her garden, but I think the world is wide enough for her and Omakayas and Cassie and Jackie and all other girls whose legacies we are only now getting to see.
Next week, we’ll continue with the Problem of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the girl known as Half Pint.
Browse more children’s stories
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro