Understanding Laura Ingalls Wilder through historical context

There’s a standard for that, and students are mastering it.

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Students get it. They are learning to appreciate the historical and cultural contexts of literature. Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

There are two reading standards contained in the Missouri Learning Standards that address the historical and cultural contexts of the literature that students in grades 6-12 read during their education. One standard, coded RL3C, specifically requires students to be able to explain how a story’s plot and conflict reflect historical and/or cultural contexts. The other standard, coded RI3C, requires students to explain, more generally, how a nonfiction text reflects historical and/or cultural contexts.

Both standards reveal educators’ and legislators’ expectations that student readers recognize the era or timeframe in which a narrative or article is written. It could also be said that students are expected to take into account the prevailing attitudes of that era when evaluating, discussing, and even merely appreciating the work.

At an English education conference last week, I noticed how applicable these two standards are to the discussion regarding the removal in June of Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s name from a prestigious annual authors’ award given by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), an arm of the American Library Association.

According to an ALA press release, “This award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature.” Formerly called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, the prize is now named the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

In effect, the removal of Wilder’s name from the ALSC’s award ignores two things: 1) the values these standards support and 2) the work of teachers (in Missouri, at least) who are actively teaching their students to:

  • recognize and explain the historical contexts of the literature that they read.
  • consider how texts reflect the history of the era in which they were written.
  • appreciate a historical author’s work, including its prejudices and biases, without feeling it necessary to denigrate the author.
    • For example, students are prepared to read Little House on the Prairie and understand that Laura’s descriptions of the Osage Indians reflect her biases and prejudices.  Students can also do this with Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird or any other text they may read.

Let’s give students some credit, ALSC. Thanks to these two standards, students get it. They understand how a piece of literature can be biased, show prejudice, and perpetuate stereotypes, but at the same time, be considered an important record of a specific time in history.


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A Source for Native American Lit

Visit the American Indians in Children’s Lit blog

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Photo: Pixabay

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post called “Punishing Laura Ingalls Wilder.” This post was about the recent decision by the Association for Library Service to Children to change the name of its Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The name change was made because “Laura Ingalls Wilder has long held a complex legacy, as her books reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced.”

Read my post for a more complete explanation of the decision and my take on preserving historical literature, but here’s the gist: I feel removing Wilder’s name from the award punishes Wilder for writing about the time period in which she lived. I also feel the decision is a way to indirectly control the work of authors.

In the post, I mentioned a blog called American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL). This website was established in 2006 by Debbie Reese, a former teacher, university professor, and Nambe Pueblo Indian woman. The site “provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture and society.”

While I disagree with the ASLC’s decision to remove Wilder’s name from their award, I appreciate the conversation that has been sparked by the decision. As a result, I hope to broaden my own knowledge of accurate, unbiased Native American literature. The site’s “Best Books” tab contains an inventory of selections of books by year, from 2010 to 2017. Some of the lists are divided by elementary, middle, and high school.

The middle school book that made the list for 2017 is a story by Oklahoma Choctaw Tim Tingle called “Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains.” It is found in an anthology called Flying Lessons & Other Stories. I have ordered a copy for my classroom library and will share about it in an upcoming post.flying lessons

The AICL site also contains full-length articles to help you learn more about Native American literature. For example, you’ll find “Erasing Native American Stereotypes,” and “Getting the Indian Out of the Cupboard: Using Information Literacy to Promote Critical Thinking.” I did notice that a few links did not connect to the articles; however, there are so many titles in the sidebar, you’ll no doubt locate several to read.

Furthermore, the articles dig deep by providing analysis of specific titles. Read “An Open Letter to Jan Brett,” as an example. Here’s another: “A Teacher Reconsiders Virginia Grossman’s Ten Little Rabbits.” This review takes issue with the book’s language, stereotypes, illustrations, and other elements that provide misinformation about Native American tribes.

In fact, many items on the AICL site take many issues with many authors, especially non-Native authors. At times, it seems— based on the tone of the reviews and articles— that non-Native authors should just avoid writing anything regarding Native Americans because they’ll never get it right.

In any case, you owe it to yourself and your students to surf around on the AICL website. It’s one of those sites that I can get lost in quickly.

I think I probably speak for many teachers when I say that my knowledge of literature written by Native Americans is negligible. The AICL site goes a long way in helping me to learn more.


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