The Laura Ingalls Wilder Controversy

The you-know-what hit the fan the other day when word got out that the The Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, had changed the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award because of some of the content of the Little House books. Opinions have been, well, very opinionated but author Judy Alter has put into words what I feel on the subject. Judy has graciously given me permission to reprint her post and you can also find it on her blog, Judy’s Stew

Monday, June 25, 2018

Did you read Little House on the Prairie?

Big flap today in an online listserv to which I belong but which I won’t name. It seems that the American Library Association has voted to rename what was previously the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, because the Little House books contain racial stereotypes and slurs. Well, I never thought about it before, but yes they do: most Indians are bad (and they’re never Natives) and blacks are highly suspect. No, there’s no suggestion of censoring the books—except that changing the name of the award is in itself a form of censorship.

Folks wrote in to passionately attack of defend that decision. So I can’t resist chipping in with my two cents. First of all, the new name is institutionally dull, while naming the award for a beloved children’s writer gives it a certain vibrancy.

Beyond that, I have watched with dismay as favorite books were removed from some school library shelves—most of the Twain canon, To Kill a Mockingbird, and others. I was once told that one of my young-adult books would be removed if the superintendent of a certain school district knew it contained the ethnic slur, “kike.” Which brings to mind what a historian and beloved friend of mine, C. L. Sonnichsen, always claimed a book had to be—appropriate to time and place. Writing in the late nineteenth century, I would never have used the term kike in a contemporary book, but mine was a historical novel. The term was common, if deplorable, in early nineteenth-century East Texas when many Jewish immigrants landed at Galveston and made their way north into East Texas. To disallow it is to change history—and we can’t do that.

There’s that old saying, “He who doesn’t know history is doomed to repeat its mistakes.” By sanitizing literature, we rob out children of the rich history that books provide. The canon of literature has created the culture we enjoy today—you cannot understand slavery or the American South today without reading Twain. You really cannot understand the western settlement experience without reading Wilder—yes, settlers were invading lands held by the Native Americans, but they didn’t know better. The concept of manifest destiny was alive and well, and they thought they were fulfilling the promise of the new land. Can we not let children read that and help them through the difficult passages?

One story circulated today was of a eight-year-old Native American girl who read Wilder and burst into tears because of the attitude toward her people. Instead of damning the books, could we not explain to that child that was the attitude of the day and we have made much progress to overcome it, but we still have miles to go? Put it in context. Ah, there’s the key—context.

And in this rush to sanitize Wilder, critics overlook the positive values of the Little House books—the emphasis on fortitude, self-reliance, persistence, all those values American are supposed to cherish.

I am afraid in our zeal for political correctness we will sanitize all of western civilization’s literature and rob it of it richness and glory. No, I wouldn’t use such terminology in a book set in today;s world, but neither will I condemn the writers who came before me and on whose contributions to tradition I build my works.

A little common sense, please.