Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Reckoning with Laura Ingalls Wilder

I follow The Conscious Kid on Instagram. This account gives lots of great book recommendations and commentary on social justice, especially as it relates to children. I saw this morning that they had posted an announcement from the Association for Library Service to Children. This group gives out the "Laura Ingalls Wilder Award" annually to authors whose work has made a lasting impact on the world of children's literature.

Only now they've changed the name of the award.

It will be called the Children's Literature Legacy Award. The Association wrote in a statement, "This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder's legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC's core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness."

I wrote a while back about reading Little House in the Big Woods to Zuzuhttps://bythebrooke.blogspot.com/2016/02/a-few-remarks-on-little-house-in-big.html, having forgotten all the talk about guns. I've actually referenced the Little House books a few times, always in my whitewashed (see what I did there?) remembrance of them.

As The Conscious Kid included in their post, Ma Ingalls makes the statement in on ebook, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." Pa also does a blackface minstrel show. Moreover, the whole premise of the family's move west is built on themes of white American supremacy and manifest destiny.

If I'm being honest, my initial, impulsive, gut reaction was "NO way!" And then I sat with that feeling and realized how sticky it was. The truth is, if I were raising a black child or a Native American child, I don't know that I would want them to read those books. And that kind of makes me feel sick to my stomach.

I was a huge fan of the Little House books. I loved the idea of being a pioneer and that one story where there's a snow storm and a bear and they have to go outside to pee... it was thrilling! But in reading these books on my own, I never interrogated or questioned the racist content of her books other than to think to myself that "That was a long time ago. People aren't like that anymore." But some people are like that. And even if I believed that the way Native Americans were depicted in the book was wrong (and I distinctly recall reading these books in second grade, so I was not really looking at anything through a sophisticated lens), I undoubtedly absorbed some of that message--particularly the part about it being our destiny to explore and settle the wild west. I did not question that at all. It corresponded with all the "You can be anything you want to be!" messages that we got at school.

It's uncomfortable to admit that I love (loved?) something that is undeniably racist. It's uncomfortable when childhood nostalgia corresponds with racist content (hello, Shirley Temple movies set in the South).

On the one hand, I don't advocate for completely erasing such books. I think we need to reckon with our shameful history rather than avoid it entirely. I may read the books again with my kids some day with the intention of having some of those difficult conversations. I think there are ways to read these books that can be valuable and can appreciate their worth in other areas. But we can't pretend there's not really messed up stuff in them.

In spite of my initial reaction to this award name change, upon further reflection, I completely support it. I do believe libraries and institutions should be moving in inclusive and welcoming directions. Arguing to keep that name as the name of the award is not unlike the arguments to keep the name of Confederate generals as names of elementary schools. Sure--it might be historically accurate, but if it's also currently harmful, then it needs to go.

I think what made me feel sad wasn't the name change itself, but having to reckon with the fact that books that I loved and still feel all kinds of nostalgic about are part of a narrative of white supremacy. And probably that's why a lot of us (white people) suck at doing the work of being social justice advocates and anti-racism allies--because we have to constantly confront the uncomfortable truth that the things we LIKE, the things that make us think of happy childhood memories, the things that connected us to our grandparents, are sometimes the very same things that are harmful and hurtful to people of color or other marginalized people. And that feels pretty gross. So we may find it's easier to say "No! Shut up! It's FINE." When it really isn't fine.

And it's not about blaming Laura Ingalls Wilder for absorbing and reflecting the popular discourse of her time. She is a product of her time and place. But that doesn't mean we should still idolize her two hundred years later. When we know better (and we in 2018 know better), then we should do better.

(This article is a great take on it.)

P.S. If you like the era of Little House but would like something less racist, another IG commenter recommended Louise Erdrich's Birchbark series. I haven't read these, but I am familiar with Erdrich's adult novels, which depict tensions between Native Americans and whites in pretty heartbreaking stories (she is a Native American writer). I'll be checking out the Birchbark series for Zuzu.


  1. A FB friend (a former blogger -- who lives in the same city as you, come to think of it...) flagged this story today & there was an interesting (thankfully calm & respectful) conversation there about it. I too read & loved the books when I was growing up. Part of me is sad they are erasing her name from the award -- and yet I recognize the uncomfortable truths you write about here. The books are definitely flawed by modern standards -- & yet I think they still have merit. I think we can acknowledge the books are flawed, that they are a product of a different time and that some of their premises are no longer acceptable -- and yet still continue to read & enjoy them for the wonderful writing and characters and stories.

  2. I had the SAME reaction. This is a wonderful post.

  3. I'm not sure comparing Laura Ingalls Wilder to Confederate generals is fair. Confederate generals actively fought for and promoted slavery. Wilder wrote stories about a time in which many people were racist, including the "Ma" character. At the same time, the "Pa" and "Laura" character clearly admire the Indians and even have a discussion about why they're being forced to leave their land. And certainly the westward movement of white Americans could only happen because Native Americans were being treated with a complete lack of justice. This is the history of America. I don't know whether the award should be named after her or not, but the books strike me as an excellent and age appropriate way to start talking to our children about American history, both the good and the bad, and what that means for us today. Wilder gives us that opportunity in a way that is totally different than a Confederate general.

    1. You may be right that this comparison doesn't quite work... but I do think that the giving a school or an award the name of a person does have strong implications, so that was what I was implying. I'm no longer convinced that Laura Ingalls Wilder books are the best way to talk to our kids about American history, which is what makes me sad because I loved them so much. I still see merit in them, of course, but I also see that they require a lot of context and highlighting other voices as well. It's not the same as slavery--you're right about that--but I could still see certain scenes in the books being hurtful to Native American or African American children.

  4. I went on this exact journey last night, after seeing that same post. I loved those stories, my mom made me a LIW doll, I've taken my kids to some of her home tourist sites, like you, my family is from the KS / MO region that so many of the books take place in. I was ... taken aback, I guess, to look back and have to be honest with myself about the privileged perspective I had as I read those books (in third grade!).

    I also agree that tossing them isn't the solution - I'm thinking of ways I can use the books to teach my littlest about the way things used to be, and how we have to be better now. For ourselves as well as for all the people our privilege has hurt. I made a note to check out Louise Erdrich's books as well.

    I'm left wondering what other remnants of my childhood will I need to examine more closely?

    1. Yes! I think about this, too. My favorite novel has been Jane Eyre for a long time... but this time I was reading it through the lens of imperialism and thinking so much about race and the West Indies and Bertha Mason... That kind of reexamination can be uncomfortable, but I do think it's important.