on laura ingalls wilder (and the ALA)

on laura ingalls wilder (and the ALA)

when asked about the most influential books i’ve read, there are two series in my top ten: one is the harry potter series and the other is the little house series. i’ve written a few times before about LH, most often when reminiscing about my aunt colettie, who snagged me remainder books from her time at the rochester school system library. i also remember reading them very young, when the librarians at the small gradeschool i went to wouldn’t let me out of the children’s section to explore chapter books.

for me there’s a romanticism to reading the LH books – from laura’s time in the big woods, gathering food from the woods and eating maple syrup candy that had been poured onto smooth cold snow, to the endless prairies of south dakota and the harsh winters with grains stored in walls. i know it was rough going, but 7-year-old me wanted to live in that world.

this past week, the association for library service to children (a division of the american library association) voted to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

first, a little background on the LIW award. the award was established in 1954 when it was giving to laura herself and it’s been given every 5 years through 1980, then til 2001 every 3 yrs, then 01-16, every 2, and now every year, to a childrens author or illustrator whose books have made a substantial and lasting contribution to kids’ lit. past winners include maurice sendak, beverly cleary, eb white, and dr. seuss. the authors who receive this award have a “substantial and lasting contribution” and “occupy an important place in literature for American children and that over the years children have read the books and the books continue to be requested and read by children.”

the ALSC decided to change the name of the wilder medal because of the LHoP books’ racist themes throughout. they claim that the books are inconsistent with their core values. i have a beef with that. the books are a product of their time, just like mark twain’s books. they also reflect the thoughts of people around her: ma hated american indians and pa didn’t.

this line from pa in particular is pretty ahead of its time:  They “would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were let alone.” Pa says. “On the other hand, they had been moved west so many times that naturally they hated white folks.”

there was this line in the books when it was first published:

There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no people. Only Indians lived there.

laura was just mortified when someone pointed out the line to her. she wrote her publisher post haste:

You are perfectly right about the fault in Little House on the Prairie and have my permission to make the correction as you suggest. It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not intend to imply they were not.

that line now says settlers. i think that in itself is reason to keep the wilder name on the medal. the thing is, her books fully embrace the theme of the medal. and given the above, i think laura the author embraces the ALSC’s core values, “which include inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”

and if the ALSC really wants to embrace their values, well, they’ll change the name of the carnegie medal as well. despite his philanthropic ways, there were some controversies in his life. and perhaps we should pore over randolph caldecott’s illustrations to make sure they also embrace those core values? and dr seuss, who also has an award named after him, supported the internment of japanese americans during WWII! (afterward, he changed his mind a bit with horton hears a who as an allegory for hiroshima.)

this all said, i can understand how someone reading the books outside of the white person lens sees these books as a glorification of racism and stereotyping of native americans. but as a set of historical, semi-autobiographical fiction that was explaining the time and perspective, i don’t know how we can’t see that laura’s books aren’t still relevant and educational.

i was reading reddit’s books forum and saw this comment:

As a proud Native American and member of the Blackfoot tribe, I am disheartened to hear that children will no longer have it explained to them what our roots are.

Growing up in public school we often learned of the struggles minorities faced in the history of this country, but my Native ancestors were ether under represented or left out all together.

These books were my first experience of what non-res people heard about my people. It raised questions that were sometimes hard, but gave all the class the ability to look at our history through the lens of today. A reminder not to repeat the mistakes of hatred from the past.

I think that this award for all its flaws sparked an important conversation. A conversation that is no more. One less source of truth about my nearly extinct people.

i think it’s important to hear those other voices. but did the ALSC just get complaints and decide to change the name based on those, or did they go out and find other perspectives from american indians, like the one above? and do the ALSC’s awards reflect the author or the author’s works? in EITHER case, if the ALSC is going to change the name of the wilder award, it needs to take a closer look at its other awards and how they relate to its core values.

i’m disappointed that the award has been renamed. while her award hasn’t been revoked and her works still widely published and read, stripping laura’s name from the long-time award does a disservice to historical viewpoints, a turn-of-the-century female author, and to the spirit of laura and other long-read authors.

One thought on “on laura ingalls wilder (and the ALA)

  1. “laura was just mortified when someone pointed out the line to her. she wrote her publisher post haste” this piece right here is what’s missing from articles that talk about that line in her books as justification for the name change. why on earth wouldn’t you include that in the reporting?

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