On the ALA and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award

Last week, the news broke that the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), voted to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Created in 1954, the award recognizes the lifetime achievement of a children’s author and/or illustrator. The decision to rename the award was, according to the ALSC, “made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”

Many commentators have opposed the rationale underlying the decision. In a letter, written prior to the vote, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association implored the ALSC to maintain Wilder’s attachment to the prize, stating: “Her perspective provides a window into the perceptions of a young, white, female settler of the world around her in the era in which she was a child. While the works are historical fiction, they are an accurate representation of the vantage point of that time and place in history.”

It appears, however, that it is not just Wilder’s body of work that is “inconsistent with ALSC’S core values” but her “time and place in history” as well. We can judge Wilder, a white female writing in the 1930s, for not adequately transcending her history, but who among us today can claim to be free of or even to recognize all the prejudices of our own time and place? For her part, Wilder portrayed many of the nuances of her world and her characters, reflecting the complexity of her social milieu. In her novels and in her autobiography, Pa stands up for the American Indians even as his neighbors and Ma express fear and revile them. There is truth in that portrayal, if not the whole truth, and, as Pamela Smith Hill remarked on her Facebook page, “Pretending racism didn’t exist in our history is no way to prepare young readers for the racism we must combat in the 21st century.”

In trying to improve their situation, Wilder and her family were part of the westward movement that displaced the American Indians. They made human choices, based on the social norms of the time in which they lived. Carolyn Fraser puts it best: “Wilder’s family was every family that came to the frontier and crossed it, looking for something better, something beyond, no matter the cost to themselves or others” (Prairie Fires, p. 515). Fraser also reminds us that we need to deal with the truths of Wilder’s books if we wish to understand where we come from as a country (p. 508).

In defending its decision, the ALA pointed out, ironically, that the Little House books have not been banned. No, they haven’t, but there have been and will be calls for just that. In many ways, the ALA and its advocates, by removing her name from their award, have shunned Wilder rather than banned her works. So, for the Pioneer Girl Project, the response is simple. We will continue to do what we have always done. We will examine Wilder’s life and her work and explore not only her perspectives of her world but also those of the many others who inhabited it. We began this work many years ago, with John E. Miller’s article “American Indians in the Fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder” in South Dakota History. It is better to study than to seek to erase an important legacy like Wilder’s.

Nancy Tystad Koupal

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13 thoughts on “On the ALA and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award

  1. You pretty much said it all. As a retired librarian and LIW aficionado, I was appalled at ALA doing this and wanted to protest, but it was clear that this move was simply a sign of the times. It is a pity that open-mindedness and learning about history is now taking a back seat to a certain way of thinking among a minority of the public. It is unfortunate that those who did this did not think about the fact that a right-wing backlash is likely to be promulgated by shunning (good word) LIW. I am understanding of the point of view of American Indians and realize that discussion about their portrayal by LIW must take place when the book is used–every time–but going to a “legacy” award is not the way forward. It is ironic that LIW’s legacy is no doubt more about loving literature and history than shutting down discussion and promoting racism.

  2. I am a huge fan of LIW / RWL’s writing. At the same time, most of my friends did not let their children read her works until they were older, out of the very concerns that the ALSC expressed with regard to their award. I support their decision. Her works are an important historical document. Nonetheless, I don’t see her attitudes as ones to be emulated, a stance that a prize naming reflects. Given how hostile Carolyn Fraser is to what she perceives as the (destructive) politics of the books (a reading with which I strongly disagree), I’m surprised that she wouldn’t support this decision herself.

  3. How disappointing and discouraging that the ALSC can be so very closed minded, ignorant, and intolerant. They are the epitome of the very thing in which they claim to be against. They are also guilty of trying to stifle a person’s access to information that would broaden a child’s mind.

  4. I agree completely with Nancy Koupal’s remarks. The ALA’s decision shows a very limited point of view. The benefit of hindsight makes it easy to judge the motives of those of the past; much easier to make this simple judgement than to dig a little deeper and try to learn from the past, and teach our children our whole history. Was Pa a racist? No. Was Ma a racist? By today’s standards, probably, but she was also in a situation that none of us today have or will ever be. She was a mother of children in a very dangerous time and place, and she was very frightened. Her situation was a very real situation for very many women in American history. Her words are racist, but to label Caroline Ingalls a racist is unscholarly, and cheap.

  5. Well said, Nancy Tystad Koupal. As a children’s librarian and LIW presenter I will continue to engage children, teachers and families with the real Laura and her Little House books and continue my own LIW research that SDSHS has aided me in over the years. BTW, I am a member of the ALA and am dismayed at their decision.

  6. “It is better to study than to seek to erase.” I think that just says it all. I grew up reading the Little House books in the 1960’s and ’70’s — the era of Civil Rights and the American Indian Movement. Of course I knew that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” and Minstrel Shows were racist indicators of the past and that they were wrong. Are today’s children so fragile (or stupid?) that they don’t get that? Will reading something historically accurate somehow scar them? No wonder they refer to them as “snowflakes.” The ALA is doing children no favors.

    • Yes, Anne. I’m quite sure that when I read Wilder as a fourth grader (in 1954), I felt terrible about the Indians of Kansas as Wilder intended me to. Pa and Laura felt the injustice, which is clearly delineated. Ma was terrified and somewhat justifiably since as we know and Pioneer Girl makes clear, atrocities had happened on both sides. She was a mother. Kids today would be the same.

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