When the Association for Library Service to Children, which gives out the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Award” every year, announced that the author’s name would from now on be removed from the prestigious book prize, it touched a nerve.
“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,” said the organization, which gives the award to authors whose work has made a lasting impact on the world of children’s literature.
The honor will now be known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, written in the 1930s, definitely made an impact on generations of readers. The books were cherished in many American homes when they were first published, and later given as gifts from mother to daughter, and then grandmother to granddaughter.
The Little House series was based on Wilder’s life and told the story of her farmer parents and siblings, the Ingalls, as they moved around the Great Plains in the late 19th century. The young settler family was poor and often on the move: from Wisconsin to Missouri to Kansas.
Laura Ingalls became a teacher at age 16 in one-room schoolhouses, marrying Almanzo Wilder, whose settler family suffered hardship in South Dakota. They had one daughter, Rose (who later became a professional writer). Laura Ingalls Wilder herself became a newspaper columnist in 1911; the family would be wiped out financially by the Great Depression.
The Little House books achieved even greater fame when they were made into a popular TV series, starring Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon, running for nine years in the 1970s and 1980s.
The reason the award’s name was changed was that in her 1930s novels, Wilder was said to have referred to Native Americans and African Americans in terms considered offensive or insensitive.
The main character in the book says about the family’s move to Kansas: “…there were no people there. Only Indians lived there.” This is the passage that many critics find most offensive.
However, during her lifetime, Wilder agreed to people’s objections to that sentence and it was changed in later editions to “…there were no settlers there.” She said in a letter in 1952: “It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course, Indians are people and I did not intend to imply they were not.”
The books have been considered hallmarks of American literature for children for decades. Time magazine ranked the series as 22 out of 100 of the “100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time.” Five of the books have been Honor Books for the Newberry Medal.
Wilder died on February 10, 1957. In her last decade, she was receiving hundreds of letters every month from children, which she answered.
Some of the best slang from the 1930s era.
“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,” the ALSC said.
However, defenders of Wilder have decried the name change as censorship and unfair. One wrote: “Rather than being anti-Native and anti-Black, Wilder’s works lead readers of all ages to ponder important truths about American history…Moreover, it sullies Wilder’s literary reputation and creates a slippery slope for excising all literature that doesn’t adhere to a strict definition of ‘inclusivity,’ whether or not that inclusivity accurately reflects American history.”
A USA Today columnist wrote: “Yes, there are sentiments in the Wilder books that are concerning. Laura’s adored father wears blackface, and a couple, the Scotts, in ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ seems to hate Native Americans, with the husband saying at one point, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’ … But delve into the books themselves and there’s nuance. Wilder writes, after the ‘dead Indian’ quote, that ‘Pa said he didn’t know about that. He figured that Indians would be as peaceable as anybody else if they were left alone.’ ”
Wilder also attributes the lives of herself, her sisters, and her parents being saved by the intervention of an African-American doctor in one of the books.
One celebrity who spoke out was William Shatner, who said on Twitter: “Did you hear about the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award being renamed over negative lines on the indigenous peoples of America? Laura changed the lines in the 50s. I find it disturbing that some take modern opinion & obliterate the past. Isn’t progress @ learning from our mistakes?”
Shatner was then widely attacked on Twitter for expressing his views, and told by some in academia he should “stay in his lane” and his opinions did not matter.
The Washington Post wrote that the ALSC decision “makes Wilder the latest target of efforts to purge from the cultural landscape symbols that honor historical figures who owned slaves, espoused racist views, or engaged in racist practices.”