New chapter surfaces in Laura Ingalls Wilder legacy

By : 
Reflections from my Notebook

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing has sparked some controversy as a result of a recent decision by the American Library Association to strip her name from a prestigious children’s literature award. The decision has particular interest here as the “Little House on the Prairie” author has ties to our area with historic sites in Spring Valley and Burr Oak, which are connected by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway that follows Highway 63 south of Rochester to 16 in Spring Valley to 52 near Preston to the Iowa border.

The decision was made by the board of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the library association. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award is now called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

The “Little House” series of books based on Wilder’s childhood in a settler family have been popular since they were first published in the 1930s and 1940s. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a hit television show based on the books created new fans of the author.

Local communities developed sites to showcase the history of the families as the Ingalls family spent a short time in Burr Oak and the Wilder family lived in Spring Valley from about 1873 to 1898. Laura and Almanzo Wilder stayed with Almanzo’s parents in Spring Valley from 1890 to 1891 while he was recuperating from an illness.

The decision to change the name of the award wasn’t made lightly, according to a joint statement from the presidents of the library association and its children’s division. While her books “have been and will continue to be deeply meaningful to many readers,” noted the statement, “the 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.”

Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences as a settler in the 1800s, but they also “reflect dated cultural attitudes toward indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration and understanding of diverse communities,” according to the statement.

For example, dialogue in the 1935 “Little House on the Prairie” book includes “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” and American Indians are “wild animals” undeserving of the land they lived on.

Although the announcement by the library association created some outrage, it is important to note the change is about the name of an award only, not about maligning her books.

“This change should not be viewed as a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books,” the association leaders said in their statement. “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 can take place around them.”

Wilder received the first award given by the ALSC in 1954, three years before her death, and that honor won’t change. Since then, 22 other authors and illustrators have been recognized for their books that created a lasting contribution to children’s literature.

The decision sparked condemnations from people who construed the action as subjecting historical fiction to modern sensibilities. After all, Wilder was letting her characters talk for themselves, and they had prejudices that weren’t unusual during that time on the frontier. She wasn’t espousing racism, although her writing did infer, as was the predominant opinion then, the taking of American Indian land was noble as settlers made their westward expansion.

As the library association notes, the books, and Wilder herself, were a product of the time and reflect a mainstream perspective of white settlers on the frontier.

However, the name change also highlight that the books have a different audience than descendants of frontier settlers as 21st century children are more diverse in a culture that is more aware of the nuances of our country’s history.

The decision to change the name of the award is really a non-issue, as an organization has to take into consideration its own values for its own award. Naming awards after people is always tricky because perceptions change over the years.

However, if the library association had recommended banning the book, the outrage would be justified.

Her books show many admirable traits, including strong families with individuals who use their own resourcefulness and perseverance to survive life on the prairie frontier. The stories show the values of self-sustainability, simple living and family togetherness while providing a historical snapshot of life.

That historical snapshot also shows some prejudices and injustices that were prevalent in American life at the time. Those faults may have been ignored or glossed over at that time, but they can’t be dismissed today.

As with any book, teachers and parents need to provide some context and guidance about the content instead of merely handing young readers books and telling them to go read. Young readers need the benefit of a critical eye even if it makes us uncomfortable.

The easy way out is cleansing society of books that have thoughts offensive to modern sensibilities. Our children then wouldn’t be exposed bigotry and biases.

However, young people need to know that society’s views have evolved — that ideas change over time as more information is processed.

If the only literature young people were able to read conformed to 21st century values, they would never know that society is ever changing and what may seem like common wisdom in the 1880s isn’t acceptable today. They also wouldn’t realize that honorable people do have flaws, often a product of the era in which they lived.

By understanding literature and history fully, with all the flaws exposed, young people may come to the realization that what appears to be common wisdom today may not be so wise, thus the need to examine their own beliefs to see if they are truly authentic.