Since 1954, the American Library Association has awarded a medal for lifetime achievement in children’s literature in the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The original impetus behind the honor was dismay. Librarians were “chagrined,” wrote historian Leonard Marcus, that none of Wilder’s eight critically acclaimed Little House books had been recognized by the ALA’s highest children’s accolade, the Newbery.
Now, however, librarians are chagrined again. In February, the ALA announced that it was reconsidering the name of the Wilder Award. Alluding to the depiction of American Indians and African Americans in Wilder’s work, the ALA declared that her legacy put the group in the uncomfortable position of serving children while being unable to model values of “inclusiveness, integrity and respect.” Wilder’s books, it went on, “reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced.”
True enough. But the ALA’s statement nonetheless evokes the anodyne view of literature it has sought to correct through its annual Top Ten Most Challenged Books list. Changing the name of the Wilder Award is not an act of censorship, but no book, including the Bible, has ever been “universally embraced.” Mark Twain — whose “Huckleberry Finn” often appears on the list — himself mocked the idea that children’s books should never cause outrage. “The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean,” he once sighed sarcastically.
Whatever the ALA decides, as a Wilder biographer, I would argue that her work and its reception are more complicated than we may once have believed, shedding light on the myths that white Americans have woven about the past.
Over the past 20 years, Wilder’s most famous novel, “Little House on the Prairie” (1935), has inspired almost as much disapproval as devotion. The novel has racist elements, and its portrayal of Indians has consequences when read uncritically and approvingly in schools. In 1998, an 8-year-old girl on the Upper Sioux Reservation of southwestern Minnesota — only miles from the storied town of Walnut Grove, immortalized in the 1970s-era “Little House” TV show — came home in tears after listening to her third-grade teacher reading the novel and a character’s repetition of the infamous slur, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Indians appear alternately as thieves or screaming warmongers, and the overall portrait is not tempered by Laura’s childish fascination or her father’s remark about a peaceable Indian, whom he describes as “no common trash.”
The Minnesota girl’s mother, Waziyatawin Angela Cavender Wilson, a member of the Wahpetunwan Dakota and a scholar of history and American Indian studies, complained to the school, only to discover that her daughter’s teacher was “a fervent Wilder fan.” Wilson devoted months to an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to have Wilder’s books dropped from the curriculum, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to threaten the school board with a lawsuit over censorship.
In recent years, Wilson’s disgust has been echoed by other academics and joined by demands for greater diversity in children’s publishing, extending to editors, booksellers and librarians. Decrying Wilder’s widespread popularity, the scholar Debbie Reese, a member of Nambé Pueblo in New Mexico and founder of the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, has pleaded for everyone to “read more history.” (That’s a clear necessity. A few months ago New Mexico’s education secretary warmly praised the explicitly racial doctrine of “manifest destiny,” only to be upbraided by the All Pueblo Council of Governors.)
Reese greeted the librarians’ reappraisal of the Wilder Award with elation, calling it “a momentous day.” At a recent American Booksellers Association meeting, the novelist Junot Díaz sharply criticized the book world, saying that as an immigrant child he despaired over books like “Little House on the Prairie.” He admonished publishers to resist “white supremacy’s cruelest enchantment: that whiteness is at the heart of absolutely everything.” To address that very concern, the novelist Louise Erdrich has written her Birchbark series for young adults, telling the Indian side of the story.
Complicating the issue, other writers and immigrants, including those of color, prize the Little House books for their cozy family values. In her 2014 novel, “Pioneer Girl,” Bich Minh Nguyen, who was born in Saigon and immigrated to the Midwest with her family in 1975, explores Little House fandom as a means of negotiating assimilation. As for Walnut Grove, some 70 Hmong families — natives of Laos — are now living in and around the town, drawn by one Hmong girl’s devotion to the television show. There is a mural there, painted on the side of a brick building, featuring a smiling Laura alongside a Hmong woman in traditional dress. Their integration into the community has been called “the little marvel on the prairie.”
Whether we love Wilder or hate her, we should know her. For decades, her legacy has been awash in sentimentality, but every American — including the children who read her books — should learn the harsh history behind her work. Vividly, unforgettably, it still tells truths about white settlement, homesteading and the violent appropriation of Indian land and culture.
Each generation revises the literary canon. While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no 8-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of “Little House on the Prairie.” But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell. If the books are to be read and taught today — and it’s hard to escape them given their popularity—then teachers, librarians and parents are going to have to proceed armed with facts and sensitivity.
There’s nothing wrong with changing the name of an award. Chagrin, however, can be short-lived, and gatekeepers like the ALA should encourage children to read all our provocative classics — critically. I’d like to think that what would matter to Wilder in this debate would be not the institutionalized glory of an award bearing her name but the needs of children. “I cannot bear to disappoint a child,” she once said.
Caroline Fraser is author of “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder” and editor of the Library of America edition of the Little House series.