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On Today’s Episode of “Your Faves are Problematic” – Laura Ingalls Wilder

laura-ingalls-wilder-awardIt was announced this weekend that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name will be removed the Association for Library Service to Children’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Award because of how the “Little House on the Prairie” author portrayed minorities in her novels. The name of the award will be changed to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. (The ALSC is the children’s arm of the American Library Association.)

While I’m saddened by the change in name for this award, I do understand it. They are changing the name of an award that, in its present mission, is intended for children’s literature writers who foster inclusion and sensitivity. More and more minority writers are nominated for this award. It makes sense that many of them (and some white writers, truth be told) may not be all that thrilled to accept an award with the name of an author who often portrayed negative stereotypes of Native Americans or African-Americans. Changing the name of the award to something more generic, means it removes some of that baggage for current authors and recipients of the award. I mean, no one wants to feel like crap when they receive an honor.

The list of things the ALSC is not doing includes:

  • Recinding any awards granted to Wilder
  • Banning any of her books or denying any access to her books
  • Speaking out against the long-term worth of the “Little House” books
  • Demeaning the contributions of Wilder’s work to children’s literature as a whole.

Their reasoning for the change includes the following:

“We also acknowledge that Wilder’s books are a product of her life, experience and perspective as an individual White woman of her era. Her works reflect mainstream, although certainly not universal, cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color during the times in which she lived and during the era in which the award was established. . .

[Changing] the name of the award, or ending the award and establishing a new award, does not prohibit access to Wilder’s works or suppress discussion about them. Neither option asks or demands that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children. These recommendations do not amount to censorship, nor do they undermine intellectual freedom.

Additionally, while we agree that adults should think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place with children around them, the purpose of the award is not to highlight or illuminate her works specifically . . .

Finally, changing the name of the ALSC award for significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature has no reflection on past winners or their achievements, and does not negate the honor they’ve received or their accomplishments. . .

That ALSC’s core values have evolved and will continue to evolve over time is a given: ALSC operates within the context of our society as a whole, where the conversations taking place inform our work. But what also informs our work are the struggles and challenges and dreams and desires of children, teens and families that our members witness on a daily basis.”

Basically, they are moving with the times and the times now encourage a broader view for this award than one author’s name can possibly serve.

I’m okay with that.

Edited to add: But as soon as they want to talk about banning the books, revoking awards the books have won, demeaning their place in history or in children’s literature, THAT will be another post and another issue entirely. Shifting an award’s title away from Wilder is not erasing history. But shuffling the books themselves to the basement looks a lot more like de facto censorship.

Everything eventually becomes problematic

I love Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work and have a deep devotion to both the books and the 1970s television series, which I was obsessed with as a child. To give you an idea, I was once given the choice of punishments for a childhood transgression: to get a spanking or not be allowed to watch an episode of “Little House”. I chose the spanking. I sobbed for 45 minutes before appearing in the den at 2 minutes to 8 p.m. on that Monday night to watch the show. Yeah. I was committed.

The “Little House” stories remain very close to my heart. Reading them as a young girl, I simultaneously heard stories from my grandmothers (both sides of my family) about segments of my family moving west. The direct connection to my family’s history only heightened my interest and later led me to the works of Willa Cather, which led me to read infinitely more literature written by women. Cather’s work has, of course, also been described as “problematic”.

So yes, for a goodly portion of my education, most of those women were white and privileged to varying degrees. But they were women, not men. And they told their own stories, not the stories of women through the lens of men.

135441_600Laura Ingalls Wilder, like many women writers of the 19th and 20th century have what’s called a “complex legacy.” Her work can include beautifully nuanced characterizations of people of color, and simultaneously promote bias against them. Wilder’s characterization of Ma’s fear and prejudice against Native Americans is a sharp foil to the openness with which Pa often interacts with Native Americans he encounters. The depiction of African-American Dr. George Tann is one of a kindly, intelligent man who ministered to both Natives and white pioneers alike.

I don’t mention these as a defense. I only intend to point out that there’s a lot of good and bad included in the books, and it is part of the critical thinking process of reading and understanding literature to sort the wheat from the chaff. Especially with regard to historical literature.

For me, the “Little House” books will remain as a sort of compact emblem of my family’s history and the values instilled in me through their experiences: integrity, bravery, resourcefulness, the desire to see beyond a horizon. It is only one part of our country’s broken, patchwork history, however. I take pride in the work and sacrifice of my family when coming west over several generations, trying to build a better life. I can hold that in my heart while ALSO acknowledging that the larger movements of American History they participated in – Manifest Destiny –yielded horrific destruction for Native Americans and continuously reinforced white supremacy over people of color as they also moved west looking to better their own lives.

My legacy, like Wilder’s, is complex. It’s problematic, to say the least.

Standing at the tail end of that legacy, I have a responsibility going forward. However, I don’t feel that responsibility is to toss over all of the white writers I’ve known and held dear. But it is my responsibility, in whatever way I can, to expand my understanding of the perspectives of others who don’t share that history or that literature.

When I was in college in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, there was a rise in multicultural literature that opened my eyes to a lot of new perspectives. In addition to the slave narratives of the 19th century and authors of the Harlem Renaissance, I first encountered Toni Morrison, David Henry Hwang, Amy Tan, Rita Dove, Suzan-Lori Parks, Isabel Allende, Louise Erdrich, Laura Esquivel, Sandra Cisneros, and Sherman Alexie.

Yes, I continue to read all of my problematic faves – from Shakespeare to Dickens to Alexie – knowing that all writers, whether past, present or future, will likely be problematic in some way. They’re likely to be problematic because we’re humans. We’re all full of problems. We all have “complex legacies.” And we can all challenge ourselves to look at everyone’s work and contributions with both a critical and a generous eye.

Renaming an award doesn’t change much in the grand scheme of things. Using the literature itself to help us work on our problems from the inside out is how we keep a legacy alive.  As long as we keep the literature, we stand a chance.

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