I cannot say how much the ditching of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name for a yearly award for the best in published books for children and young adults distresses and disappoints me. I am one of those millions of readers who read and adored the Little House books early on, which various volumes my parents presented to me for Christmas and my birthday from the time that I could read – basically from the age of eight on. I would sit down and read the latest gift from cover to cover almost at once, so much did I love the books. After so many decades of honor, respect, and dedicated fanship, after having basically created (along with her daughter) a whole YA genre – historical adventure novels set on the 19th century frontier – LIW is now writer-non-grata, in the eyes of a segment of the American Library Association which deals primarily with library services to kids. Henceforward, sayeth the Association for Library Service to Children, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award will now be called The Children’s Literature Legacy Award, or something equally forgettable. The public reason given for this are two-fold, as nearly as I can deduce.
In certain brief passages of her nine-volume retelling of her childhood on the post-Civil War American frontier, LIW reflected the attitude of wary dislike with regard to the presence of American Indians common to those 19th century Americans, especially those who lived in close proximity to them. In the eyes of tireless social justice warriors, which appear in oversupply in today’s hypersensitive age, this is practically the same as preaching genocide on every page. And in one single chapter, her father and several men of the town put on black-face makeup and performed a minstrel show to entertain their friends. Such a form of entertainment was as popular then as it is considered disgracefully racist today.
So, rather than look honestly at the mores of the past – and perhaps entertain the thought that many of those notions which today we accept merely as conventional wisdom will, in a hundred years or so be held in as much, or greater disfavor than those attitudes held by LIW’s family and neighbors. I wonder though, if the motivations of the members of the Association aren’t just a little more complicated than polishing their social justice credentials. The Little House series presents – more than anything else – the quiet, intimate epic of a strong traditional family; a hard-working, resourceful, loving family, equal to every imaginable hardship going, from frontier isolation, to plagues of insects, bad weather, and grinding poverty. The Ingalls do not lament their lot, as LIW presented them; they make the most of it, and eventually achieve a quiet and modest degree of prosperity.
The Little House series, originally written and published a little short of a hundred years ago, remain overwhelmingly popular. Thousands visit the places which LIW immortalized in her books – the places where she and her sisters lived and grew up, the farm which she and her husband eventually established in Missouri. The TV series very loosely based on the series continued for years. I cannot help wondering if the kind of family and community life thus portrayed in the book series runs counter to everything in those young adult novels currently being pushed upon the younger generation by teachers and the child librarians; books which revel in gloom, despair, dysfunction and nihilism, a kind of literary filboid studge, in which in every grim trope embraced on the page discourages kids from reading. So – a burnishing of social justice credentials or sabotaging a classic series to advantage contemporary but unreadable books intended for the juvenile consumer? Discuss.