Tuesday, June 26, 2018

We Don't Hate Laura Ingalls Wilder But I'm Glad We Dropped Her Name

On Saturday, the Association of Library Services for Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, voted unanimously to rename their lifetime achievement award. It will now be called the Children's Literature Legacy Award instead of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.

Laura Ingalls Wilder included racist passages in her books. You can argue all you like about whether this makes her a racist--though, if you read all her other writings, and the biographies written about her, it seems that she was--but you can't argue that having Ma say, repeatedly, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian," is not racist. And before you get up telling me that Laura was only writing down what her Ma actually said, hogwash. Laura decided what words to write and what stories to include. Her books were loosely autobiographical but not entirely.

The nine books were published from 1932 to 1953. They were at their peak of popularity during my childhood in the 1970s, around the time of the even-more-loosely-autobiographical, hugely schmaltzy TV show. I adored the books. I adored the series. I dressed as Laura Ingalls Wilder for Halloween.

The first time I read Gone With the Wind, when I was 18, I was captivated. (Yes, this post feels digressive. Stick with me). The sweeping story, the vivid characters, the fantastic historical backdrop--amazing. A few years later, when I was still in college, I picked it up to read it again. And I was horrified. I had learned to be a writer, had learned to examine carefully the choices writers made.

The same thing happened with the Little House on the Prairie books. When I read them to my children, I found myself editing many of the passages. I found myself unable to say, "the only good Indian is a dead Indian." I thought of my college friend Jen, a Sioux (she's now principal of a reservation school). I couldn't really edit the passages where Pa dresses as a "darky" and performs in a minstrel show. I told my children why it wasn't considered okay to do that now, but I couldn't really explain to them why it was considered okay then.

I remember loving the Little House books, but the farther away I get from my childhood, the less I admire them. I'm grateful that ALSC changed the name of their award. I don't think that the highest possible honor in children's literature--the only thing that trumps the Newbery, the Prinz, the Caldecott--should be named after a woman whose words are offensive. There's a big internet kerfluffle from people who have only read the headlines. No one is banning the Little House books. No one is rewriting them.

If you're really upset about the name change, do this first: read the books again. All of them. Then get back to me.

We've renamed an award so that it reflects our current awareness of who our kid-lit audience actually is. Halleluia.