In a unanimous decision, the Association for Library Service to Children renamed a lifetime achievement award honoring Laura Ingalls Wilder for her contribution to children’s literature. As of June, it is now the generic “Children’s Literature Legacy Award.”
Wilder’s books, the ALSC said, are now deemed unacceptable, containing “expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with [our] core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”
In other words, the true, narrow and often fearful worldview of a young pioneer girl in 1870s America is not sufficiently P.C. by today’s standards. Among Wilder’s critics is none other than Junot Diaz, the once unassailable author and activist. Speaking at the American Booksellers Association gathering in January, Diaz condemned Wilder for writing the lines “There were no people. Only Indians lived there,” in her 1935 work “Little House on the Prairie.”
Librarians, publishers and booksellers, Diaz said, “need to stop talking about diversity and start decolonizing our shelves.”
liberalism that’s led to safe spaces on college campuses or the expulsion of contrarian guest speakers or the decrying of “ableist” language such as “crazy” (insensitive to the mentally ill, don’t you know?).
What’s more, the ALSC has condemned Wilder despite — or perhaps due to — the first deep biographical history of the author and her books. And it is a reckoning with our history at large.
Caroline Fraser’s “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” (out in paperback today) has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her historical biography not only strips bare the cozy lie of frontier life as depicted in the “Little House” books and TV show, but acknowledges the racism and colonialism of the era.
As it turns out, Pa Ingalls wasn’t so ahead of his time, nor as perfect as Wilder depicted. He settled his family on land belonging to the Osage Indians. He dragged his wife and four daughters from state to state, fleeing debts and drought. For a time, Laura feared she might be sold into servitude. The Ingalls’ only boy died at nine months old, his existence never mentioned in Wilder’s books. The family barely survived days-long blizzards and a biblical locust plague that blacked out the sky and laid waste from Saskatchewan to Texas.
Wilder’s adult life wasn’t much easier. She married at 18 to Almanzo Wilder, 10 years her senior. She loved her husband, but struggled with him through debts and years of homelessness, their toddler daughter Rose in tow. In 1889, Laura gave birth to a son; he died shy of one month old. Rose didn’t learn of her brother until she was an adult.
The “Little House” books were born of desperation: By the time Laura was in her sixties, her family had lost almost everything in the Great Depression. The success of her books exacerbated an already fraught mother-daughter relationship — Rose grew up to become a famous writer, and worked with her mother on the “Little House” series. As Fraser reveals, Rose herself was anti-Semitic, but there is no evidence that Wilder shared such prejudice.
In fact, when a reader complained in 1952 about the offensive line implying Indians were not people, Wilder was chastened. “You are perfectly right about the fault in ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” Wilder wrote to her editor. “It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course Indians are people and I did not intend to imply they were not.”
The line has read, “There were no settlers,” since 1953.
It is absurd and unfair to hold the child of 1870s frontier life to the standards of 2018. As Fraser so brilliantly elucidates, Wilder’s mythmaking was, in part, a means of coping with her past.
How much more interesting are these stark divides than whether a young white girl in developing America feared Indians, or, horribly, at one time thought them less than herself?
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s contribution extends to helping establish children’s literature as its own genre — an accomplishment shared with her controversial predecessor Mark Twain. The answer is not to ban books that make us uncomfortable or upset — it’s to teach children how to read and think critically.
As Fraser recently wrote in the Washington Post, “Whether we love Wilder or hate her, we should know her … every American — including the children who read her books — should learn the harsh history behind her work.”
That’s a much harder task than renaming an award.