On Saturday, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, decided to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
Much like the negative reaction following Minneapolis’ decision to rename Lake Calhoun to Bde Maka Ska, Saturday’s decision has been met with public outcry, mainly from certain segments of white readers.
People who oppose renaming the award tend to trot out one of three arguments: The books were written in the past, and that’s the way it was. How will kids learn about evil? And, censorship.
How will children learn about the sins of the past if not through the reading of racially charged books? Perhaps by reading actual history books instead of a fictionalized, whitewashed version of life on the prairie. One nonfiction book I highly recommend is “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” by Jared Diamond, which unflinchingly documents the history and effects of global colonization in carefully researched detail. For nonreaders, I would suggest watching the History Channel.
Now, I don’t mean to be glib about the people who oppose the name change or their beliefs, but it seems to me that they, too, are discounting how it might feel to be a student of color and/or an Indigenous student made to read these books at school — books that contain lines like:
• The only good Indian is a dead Indian.
• There were no people [settlers]. Only Indians live there.
To further stress the detrimental effect these racially damaging words could have on Indigenous students and students of color (who already tend to be bullied in higher numbers than their white peers), we can tweak both sentences:
• The only good fat white man is a dead fat white man.
• There were no people [settlers]. Only old white women live there.
I am neither a fat white man nor an old white woman, yet writing these sentences raised both my hackles and my blood pressure. Do you see where I’m going with this? Words hurt. Words matter. The books we share with our children matter.
How will children learn about racism, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia if not through the reading of racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic books?
They could learn about these subjects through their parents. They could switch on the news and learn about current affairs where examples of racism, misogyny, xenophobia and homophobia abound: travel bans, forcible separation of immigrant families, the rescinding of protections for transgender students, to name a few.
Kids don’t need to read a book written more than 80 years ago to learn about these issues. Indigenous students and students of color should not have to suffer the indignities of reading second-rate, racially charged novels so that their peers can experience “teachable moments” in the classroom.
Last, but not least, opponents say that changing the award’s name is tantamount to censorship. I disagree. If this were an attempt to ban Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books at schools, in libraries or in homes, then, yes, that would be censorship. This is not censorship.
There will be no book burnings. Individuals will continue to have avenues through which to buy these books. Libraries will continue to stock these books for patrons. Schools most likely will continue to assign these books to students despite their questionable literary and/or historical value.
We have the ALA and its ALSC division that changed the name of a children’s award that Laura Ingalls Wilder neither created nor financed. Why? After a unanimous vote, the association released a statement: “Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color.”
I do not believe opponents of the ALA’s and the ALSC’s decision fear censorship as much as they fear change. The times they are a-changin’, whether people want them to or not. People from marginalized communities are asking for recognition, representation and respect. They want their opinions to matter. They want to matter. Can’t we create more space at the table for them?
Jessica Mork, of Edina, is a writer.