Laura Ingalls Wilder was the talk of the town last week in a way that she hasn’t been in years. When the American Library Association (ALA) announced that the children’s literature award that honored her would be renamed, public response was swift and passionate.
Many saw it as an attempt to rewrite history or smear the author’s legacy.
Elaine K. Murray of Minneapolis wrote, “So now that we’ve gotten rid of Laura Ingalls Wilder, let’s eliminate Shakespeare … because he was prejudiced against Jews.
“Let’s also dump Dickens because he didn’t agree with feminism. No writer from the 1800s or earlier conforms to 21st century notions of political correctness.”
Jane F. Cox, professor emerita at Iowa State University, also was unhappy. “No single book can give an entire historical perspective from every side and additionally please all people 83 years later,” she wrote. “But Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of what she experienced and she wrote about it well enough so that generations of children and adults have found qualities to love and admire about her.”
Children’s librarian Mary Dubbs said we can still read and love the books but the ALA was right to change the award. “The kids I see at the library are my primary concern,” she wrote. “Does keeping my memory of Wilder’s books pristine outweigh the real hurt to Native kids and kids of color that see her held up as the pinnacle of authorship?”
Sarah Park Dahlen, assistant professor of Library and Information Science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, agrees.
“Please … don’t let your nostalgia keep you from knowing and doing what’s right by our young people,” she wrote.
She urged people to read Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series and to check out scholar Debbie Reese’s blog on how Indians are portrayed in children’s books.
But Suzanne B. Libson of Minneapolis worries that as a society, “we are continuingly dumbing everything down. Our history … should be acknowledged and discussed … but not eradicated,” she wrote.
Mike Auspos of Ramsey has never read the Wilder books, but he is concerned that we are trying to change history “to better fit our present moral standards.” He points out that some of Abraham Lincoln’s views would not hold up today. “History is History!” he said.
Kim Randall, a member of Oklahoma’s Delaware Tribe, is conflicted. “Our history is complex and fraught with bad behavior,” she wrote. “We can’t lose sight of great contributions to our culture because our point of view changes. I don’t necessarily have an objection to changing the name of the award. But I do have a problem with that leading to a loss of our history.”
But renaming the award is not sanitizing history, said poet Sun Yung Shin. “Some people have woken up to the racism in the books that others always saw, and decided that champions of children’s literature deserve a better role model.”
So who gets the last word? Perhaps Caroline Fraser, author of the Wilder biography “Prairie Fires,” which won both the National Book Critics Circle biography award and the Pulitzer Prize.
“Each generation revises the literary canon,” Fraser wrote in the Washington Post. “While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no 8-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of ‘Little House on the Prairie.’
“But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell.”
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks