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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Punishing Laura Ingalls Wilder

Write inclusively… or else.

 

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Photo by Carl Newton on Unsplash

Little House on the Prairie, Ch. 11—Indians in the House

By Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Laura was frightened. Jack had never growled at her before. Then she looked over her shoulder, where Jack was looking, and she saw two naked, wild men coming, one behind the other, on the Indian trail.

‘Mary! Look!’ she cried. Mary looked and saw them, too.

They were tall, thin, fierce-looking men. Their skin was brownish-red. Their heads seemed to go up to a peak, and the peak was a tuft of hair that stood straight up and ended in feathers. Their eyes were black and still and glittering, like snake’s eyes.”

Note: I’m including this essay on this blog because, as a language arts teacher, I think it’s imperative to be up-to-date on current news in literature. In addition, providing reading materials for students that can be read for their historical accounts is also important. I think the ALSC decision discussed in this post may ultimately be harmful to students.

I remember reading this excerpt as a young girl when prairie mania reigned in one small slice of American pop culture. The craze for all things “prairie” owed its popularity to a series of nine volumes collectively called the Little House books. Written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the series’ popularity was aided by the launch of a TV drama, Little House on the Prairie, starring Michael Landon. I owned the entire Little House set and a pricey collectible wall calendar. I even visited Mansfield, Mo. with my family to tour Wilder’s final home where she wrote her books.

Spellbound through that breathless chapter where the Indians later entered the Ingalls cabin for tobacco and cornbread prepared by the girls’ mother, I considered how vulnerable the Ingalls were as they settled into the frontier of the Osage Indians who lived nearby. Based on my own background and Wilder’s perspective as told through the eyes of Laura, I never considered the vulnerability of the Osage and their culture. I just wanted to keep reading and turning the pages, so I could finish the book and dash off to the bookstore to buy the next.

The sage was enthralling and heart-breaking: white settlers making a home on the American frontier, occasional clashes with the Native Americans, Laura’s coming-of-age, tenuous friendships with the Olson family, Mary’s blindness.

Diverse? Not at all. Inclusive? Nope. It was 1975. As such, Wilder’s Little House series was considered a darn good story and was deemed worthy of recognition.

Until last week.

That’s when the American Library Association (ALA) and its branch, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), decided to change the name of its prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Inaugurated in 1954 and awarded to Wilder herself for her book series, “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,” according to this ALA newsletter.

Sounds reasonable. Few would disagree that Wilder’s books indeed made “a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature” over the years, albeit not universally among readers.

Here’s how ALSC President Nina Lindsay explained the name change in a letter to her board of directors: “Laura Ingalls Wilder has long held a complex legacy, as her books reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced…”

She continued, “Today, this award elevates a legacy that is not consistent with values of diversity and inclusion—something we did not fully understand as a profession when we created the award. While many of Wilder’s books received Newbery honors, (and one may easily find other books within our award canon that don’t live up completely to our current values), we recognize that the name of an award itself holds significant power… The ALSC Executive Committee noted that the name of the award is a currently potentially significant barrier to achieving our goals, and is within our power to change.”

It’s a change many authors, publishers, librarians, and teachers advocate. Debbie Reese, founder of the comprehensive website American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) and a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman, believes the images contained in Wilder’s books of “Native people, cultures, and history work to misinform young readers.” One example of misinformation is the dehumanization that appears in Chapter 11. Here’s one instance:  Wilder writes the Osage Indians’ eyes were “glittering like snake’s eyes.”

To counter these messages that misinform young children, the AICL website recommends works “by Native authors who write books that provide children with accurate information about American Indians.”

After all, Wilder’s books do contain racist depictions and stereotypes (in Chapter 11 of Little House on the Prairie and in other books in the series) of Native Americans and Africans. In addition, Reese cites Wilder’s recurring descriptions of the land as “empty” and her arguable notions that Indians were primitive beings without civilized, autonomous societies.

Therefore, to celebrate contemporary authors with an award named for an author whose perspective is found objectionable, seemed incongruous for some members of ALSC, which exists to engage “communities to build healthy, successful futures for all children.”

And let’s not forget this: the ALSC is not censoring Wilder’s work. Anyone can still purchase her books or find them at their local library. The ALSC merely removed Wilder’s name from its prestigious award.

It should also be noted that the decision does not appear to have been made hastily and members did not unanimously favor the change. An ALSC task force conducted a survey of members and ALA ethnic affiliates. The results: 305 favored the name change; 156 did not. Still, according to the ALSC task force’s recommendation, “We believe that this decision serves the best interest of our Association, its members, and all of those they serve, not only now, in 2018, but in the long term.

But what about history? Is it wise to attempt to remove evidence of the prejudicial attitudes from our past by denigrating the authors who recorded them? Wilder’s works were clearly set in the past and while they contain objectionable content for some, they remain a historical account. According to a statement from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Mo., “Mrs. Wilder believed her books to be historically accurate and reflect American life during the Western Movement. However difficult it may be to agree with social mores within these years, the fact remains that was a different time and what was accepted then would not be today.”

Even so, the quest for diversity and inclusion in historical literature takes precedence. With its action, the ALSC is indirectly controlling authors by condoning the events, characters and the actions of the characters those authors write about, historical or otherwise.

Regardless, the end result of all this is that now Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name comes with a warning label attached. And so does the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. This is what that label says:

  • Your characters will speak and behave with respect for all.
  • Your plot’s conflict must offend no one now nor in the future, and include the diverse views of all parties.
  • Your character’s thoughts and impressions must not be their own, or the author’s, but of those with the ability to make institutional change within the prevailing culture.

In short, write inclusively or you will be punished.


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