Having read the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder three times and having read the decision and accompanying documents by the American Library Association’s division, Association for Library Services to Children, to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, I have come to several preliminary conclusions.
- The ALA and ALSC embrace the fallacy held by inexperienced readers that the voice of the narrator and characters in a book are the voice of the writer. There is nothing in the Little House series that indicates that the views of some of the characters or the narrator on race are the views of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The ALA’s press release states that Wilder’s “works reflect dated cultural attitudes towards indigenous people and people of color…,” when in actuality the works do not reflect that. Only some characters in the book reflect that. The failure to discern the difference between the attitudes of characters and/or a narrator and the attitudes of a writer reveals the simplistic approach the ALA takes toward reading and reading comprehension.
- The ALA fails to acknowledge the range of views concerning race in the series. While Caroline Ingalls and others say negative things about Native Americans, Charles Ingalls continually combats stereotypes and disagrees with Caroline’s assessment of Native Americans.
- The ALA ignores the very positive assessment of Jerry who is half French and half Native American.
- The ALA ignores the affection of the entire Ingalls family for Dr. Tan, an African-American doctor who treats the family when they become ill.
- The ALA fails to acknowledge Wilder’s own editing of a phrase in the book after it was brought to her attention that it was derogatory toward Native Americans.
- While the committee alleges it surveyed stakeholders about the change in name, they did not survey children, adolescents, the general reading public, booksellers and a whole host of other people who have a stake in reading and in the Little House on the Prairie series.
- The ALA states that “Changing the name of the award should not be viewed as an attempt to censor, limit, or deter access to Wilder’s books and materials, but rather as an effort to align the award’s title with ALSC’s core values. This change should not be viewed as a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books.” While it is true that this is not censorship, when the ALA makes a negative determination about the values of Wilder’s works, based upon either not reading Wilder’s works or reading them in a fallacious manner, that determination will have negative reverberations throughout the book world. The ALA holds a leadership position in the book world. Librarians, readers, booksellers and others look up to the ALA. While this is not censorship, it is the first step in that direction. If Wilders’ books are as bad as the ALA wrongly says they are, why would librarians want to have them in their libraries?
- The ALA states that the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder have caused pain for some people but never backs up the statement with any facts, surveys or anecdotal evidence. Having examined Robert Doyle’s annual lists of banned and challenged books from 2004 to the present, I DISCOVERED THAT LAURA INGALLS WILDER’S BOOKS ARE NOT LISTED ONCE. It appears then that it is the ALA that has a problem with her works not the general public. By changing the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the ALA has not engaged in an effort to ban Wilder’s works, but they have in effect challenged her works. In fact the reasons the ALA gives for changing the name of the award are very similar to reasons people give for challenging books like To Kill a Mockingbird. For that reason alone, her works should be placed on Robert Doyle’s list for 2018.
- While the ALA has given the media to believe that a long time was taken to make this decision, in reality it took less than six months to make the decision–too short a time to do the research, survey librarians and the public and hold enough meetings to adequately address the issue.
- The ALA recommends two articles for further reading: Little Squatter On The Osage Diminished Reserve: Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Kansas Indians by Frances W. Kaye and Indigenizing children’s literature by Debbie Reese. Both articles are useful in bringing up issues about Native-Americans and children’s literature that need to be discussed. However, both articles are seriously flawed. First, both articles only deal with one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, not all of them. In her article and on her blog, Reese claims to want all writers to portray Indigenous people in an accurate way. That seems to equate, however, with never portraying Native-Americans in a negative way. So you cannot write about Indians scalping people, even though they sometimes did. Reese has made a career out of shaming writers into censoring their works, even when no censoring is called for. While Reese calls for honest portrayals of Native-Americans, in reality she wants dishonest portrayals. Reese stereotypes Natives by making them flawless or nearly so. Her stereotypes are as harmful to Native-Americans as those of the people she criticizes. She dehumanizes Native-Americans by making them flawless. There is no room for nuances in Reese’s writings. Reese and Ray go beyond the ALA and call for censorship. Their writings are a threat to free speech.
- Finally, the ALA has become politicized. While I am probably in agreement with many of their positions, I believe by choosing to align itself with the left, the ALA is alienating people. Furthermore, by aligning itself with one side of the political spectrum, the ALA is violating its major values–inclusiveness and diversity.
There is so much more to be said about the decision by the ALA. There is so much more to be said in response to the shabby academic work of Reese and Kay. Many of the responses to the ALA have not been adequate. Unfortunately, those who should be saying it are not. I am a working person with little time to write. Nevertheless, I hope to write a longer, more detailed critique in the future.
Update July 19, 2019. I have not had time to write a longer piece. Instead, I highly recommend reading the following two pieces by Laura Ingalls Wilder biographer, Pamela Smith Hill, on the issue:
I also recommend Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Biography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. This work by Laura Ingalls Wilder was unpublished until 2014. The notes provided by Hill are incredibly detailed. Many of them refute the charges by the ALA. The accompanying articles are valuable contributions to the biographies of Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. They also provide valuable insight into the way autobiographical material is created, edited, torn apart, reused, thrown away, repackaged and published. A must read for anyone who loves Wilder’s works or who is interested in the writing process.