Little House Books Embroiled in Controversy

The Association for Library Service to Children recently removed Laura Ingalls Wilder's name from a children's literature award because of racial insensitivity in her popular books.

As a children’s book writer and illustrator, I’m interested in looking at all types of children’s literature. Tara Rittler (our web and social media editor) and I grab the almost-daily influx of books that come in the mail to our office. It’s fun to see the latest books, and occasionally we compare them to the books we liked as children. Yesterday, we received a short chapter book intended for the 8- to 10-year-old crowd. Neither of us much cared for it, but it led us to talk about what we did enjoy reading in those early chapter book years when you first discover a literary world beyond picture books.

Favorite Books of Childhood

I was in elementary school when Harriet the Spy came out. I had ordered it off of the scholastic book order sheet. Back in the olden days, instead of book fairs, we checked off the books we wanted to purchase from an order form, and brought money to the school for the order. I loved the days when the books arrived and the teacher would hand me my stack, held together with a big rubber band. Harriet the Spy was life-changing for me. Like Harriet, I wanted to be a writer – or an artist – and I found a role model in Harriet. I had a spy notebook like Harriet’s and took copious notes in it until my teacher took it away – and never gave it back! (By the way, she was the only teacher I ever had that I really didn’t like. Maybe I wrote some bad things about her in my spy notebook.)

I also read a lot of horse stories such as Marguerite Henry’s Chincoteague books, The Black Stallion and Little Black, A Pony.

Tara and I talked about how we read the usual series books: The Boxcar Children and  Nancy Drew. And then I brought up Little House on the Prairie. My fourth-grade teacher used to read a chapter to us every day after lunch. It was my favorite time of the day, and I loved those books.

Little House Controversy

But, currently, the Little House books are embroiled in a small controversy. The Association for Library Service to Children removed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a children’s literature award because of racial insensitivity in the books. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, which has been awarded for over 60 years to authors and illustrators who make a lasting contribution to children’s literature, will now be called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

But Wilder was writing about her experience as a child during a specific time in history. In my fourth-grade mind, any racial insensitivity was lost. A case could be made that the books merely reflect a certain time in American history, and the racism cannot be read from a modern point of view.

A case also could be made that negative portrayals of blacks and Native Americans subconsciously support and reinforce negative stereotypes. A case could be made that the racism would not escape Native American children and black children. I also would assume that black people and Native people would have understood that they were being treated unfairly at the time. The ethnic cleansing of the American plains was a brutal period.

But, the books are fictionalized portrayals of one person’s life during a certain time in American history. Both viewpoints are valid. It’s a crazy kind of whiplash to re-read something you loved as a child and recognize that you hate the racism in it.

Constance Grady writes about her struggles with the book in an article published in Vox, “Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books are beautiful. They are also filled with racism.”

Grady supports the ALSC’s decision to strip Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from the award, while also asserting that

“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.”

On the other hand, Dedra McDonald Birzer writes an opposing point of view in her “Librarians without chests: A Response to the Denigration of Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

McDonald Birzer writes:

“Despite the ALSC’s contention that Wilder’s work is anti-Native and anti-black, Little House on the Prairie is far more nuanced than such dismissals indicate. The novel offers a continuum of settler responses to the Osage, on whose lands they have squatted. On one end of the spectrum are the Scotts, recent arrivals from Minnesota. They had witnessed the extremely violent U.S.–Dakota War of 1862, which gave rise to the saying repeated by Mr. and Mrs. Scott in the novel, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Wilder biographer Caroline Fraser, in her Pulitzer Prize–winning Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (2017), notes that by 1867 (the year Wilder was born), only 50 Dakota remained in Minnesota. Contrasted with the Scotts’ view is that of Pa, who respects the Osage and laments the miscommunication that guided him to settle his family on their land. The Ingalls arrive in “Indian Country,” southeastern Kansas, when the Osage are on an extended buffalo hunt, and do not realize that they have built their new cabin on a major trail to the Osage village site. Through the character of Laura, Wilder asks fundamental questions about the Ingalls’ arrival in Kansas and shows the absurdity of Ma’s reactions to Indians.”

Both writers make excellent points about reading fictional texts in historical context. Whichever side of the debate you come down on, stereotypes and racism in literature are something that adults can help children understand. The Little House books are a fictionalized account told from a young settler’s point of view. It’s useful for children to read that viewpoint, but to also read others. Literature can be one of the best ways to help us understand our human-ness, to understand the human side of history and to learn from it.

What do you think? Should Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name remain on the award, or was the ALSC’s decision a good one?

Categories: Editor’s Blog