I consider myself a prairie girl at heart. I was born in South Dakota, spent my childhood on a farm in Nebraska, finished high school in Iowa, and returned to South Dakota for college. The wide open prairie was the constant of my formative years, and during those years Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books seemed to be staples in every classroom, library, and home. Like many of my friends growing up in the mid-west, I loved reading about Half-Pint (Wilder’s childhood nickname) and her family as they persevered through all that pioneer life could throw at them. I remember attempting to build a cabin out of decaying logs in the grove next to our farmhouse (if Half-Pint’s Pa could do it, my sisters and I surely could!). I also remember trying to convince my dad to help me get my hands on a pig bladder to see if we could really blow it up like a balloon and use it as a ball like the kids in Little House in the Big Woods.
I have not re-read any of the Little House books as an adult. They are books that are magical in my memories, and I have been satisfied to leave those memories as they are. Recently, I posted the cover of Little House in the Big Woods as part of a “Seven Favorite Books” game on Facebook and I enjoyed the heartfelt memories friends shared about the book through comments and messages. In light of my recent experience connecting over memories of Little House on social media, as well as my own very personal connection with Wilder’s books, I am not surprised that the decision of the Association for Library Service to Children to rename a children’s literature award formerly named after Laura Ingalls Wilder has been met with intense and emotional responses.
Here’s what happened: On June 23rd, 2018, the board of the Association for Library Service to Children (a division of the American Library Association) voted unanimously to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The announcement of the removal of Wilder’s name from the award has prompted a considerable amount of misunderstanding and misinformation. If you are concerned that this decision signals the first step in librarians engaging in censorship or erasing history, I encourage you to read the background document from the task force charged with making a recommendation regarding the narrow scope of this decision. The ALSC assigned a task force to make a recommendation regarding the appropriateness of continuing to use Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name in association with an award that is meant to recognize authors who, according to the updated language on the ALA Children’s Literature Legacy Award home page, “have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature through books that demonstrate integrity and respect for all children’s lives and experiences.” The background document released by the task force demonstrates to me the time and thoughtfulness that went into the recommendation to rename the award. Whether you agree with their recommendation or not, I hope that you will agree that they took care in coming to that recommendation. I like the choice of a clearly descriptive name for this award.
I’m hopeful that when people move past their initial responses to the decision to rename this award we will hang on to our passion long enough to engage in deep talk about some very important issues for readers, educators, and librarians alike.
We can talk about the value of revisiting books from our childhoods — especially well loved historical fiction and biographies — and share recommendations for further reading to gain perspective from different viewpoints. I’ve been inspired by recommendations these last few days to add Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser and In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshal to my reading list as a start.
We can talk about problematic language and attitudes in literature we love and about how we help put that in context for our students today to encourage conversation and critical thinking. I think many of my friends already do that, and are concerned that taking Wilder’s name off this award is an attempt to rewrite history or, at the very least, to shy away from the reality of history. I see the issue from a different perspective — updating the name of an award does not prevent either the reading of an author’s work or undermine our ability to engage with that work in meaningful ways.
We can talk about representation in children’s literature and about selection policies that ensure all students find themselves positively reflected in our collections. One of the reasons I loved the Little House books as a child was that I saw myself in them. All young readers deserve that connection. To be clear, I do not advocate removing books for content, I am instead suggesting we have continued conversations as a reading community about building the best collections we can that include characters and stories that have the potential to connect with each of us in a way that makes us all better and that increases our understanding of our society, our history, and our connectedness.
These are obviously just a very few of the inroads to conversation and understanding that this decision brings about, but I think they are a good place to start.
As always, here are a few resources for you to investigate:
“It is from understanding that power comes…”
–Black Elk, Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux
Quote from Black Elk Speaks by Black Elk, John G. Neihardt, Raymond J. DeMallie, p. 166.