Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Fairies in Nature

In 1915, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a series of poems about fairies for the “The Tuck’em In Corner,” a children’s poetry column that ran semi-regularly in the San Francisco Bulletin. Wilder’s poems focused on two particular fairies, “lovely Drop-O-Dew” and “little Ray O’Sunshine.” Drop-O-Dew, she explained in a note, was “the Fairy who helps take care of the flowers. All night she carries drink to the thirsty blossoms; bathes the heads of those who have the headache from the heat of the day before, straightens them up on their stems and make[s] their colors bright for the morning.”1 Ray O’Sunshine worked in the daytime, coloring the apples and making the roses red.2 These fairies represented the natural forces at work in the spring and summer. Wilder would again offer a fanciful explanation for a natural process in Little House in the Big Woods: “In the morning the window panes were covered with frost in beautiful pictures of trees and flowers and fairies. Ma said that Jack Frost came in the night and made the pictures” (Big Woods, pp. 26–27).

Wilder explained why she preferred such magical images of natural processes in a column for the Missouri Ruralist called “Look for Fairies Now.” She argued that children needed tales of fairies to help them see beyond the surface and to use their imaginations. In the olden days, she explained, farmers left some of their harvest for the Little People who “worked hard in the ground to help the farmer grow his crops.” Perhaps this idea was just superstition, she continued, “but I leave it to you if it has not been proved true that where the ‘Little People’ of the soil are not fed the crops are poor. We call them different names now, nitrogen and humus and all the rest of it, but I always have preferred to think of them as fairy folk who must be treated right.”3

In Big Woods, Wilder illustrated how fairy images could spark a child’s imagination. When Ma suggests Jack Frost as the maker of the frost, Laura instantly has a picture of him “as a little man all snowy white, wearing a glittering white pointed cap and soft white knee-boots of deer-skin” (Big Woods, p. 26). Laura’s active imagination is one of the reasons young readers find her so appealing as the book’s protagonist, unlike her sister Mary who is often without imagination or humor. Wilder urged readers to help their children see the “deeps beyond deeps in the life of this wonderful world of ours.”4 It is much the same advice that Albert Einstein supposedly gave a parent many years later. “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”5

As both Einstein and Wilder knew, fairy tales gave people another way of viewing their world and of seeing “the magic of nature.”6 Wilder ended her column with a fairy poem in which the fairies go around the world bringing light and color:

“And all the happy children,

In islands of the sea,

Know little Ray O’Sunshine,

Who plays with you and me.”7

“Have you seen any fairies lately,” Wilder asked her readers, “or have you allowed the harsher facts of life to dull your ‘seeing eye’?”8

Nancy Tystad Koupal


  1. Wilder, “The Faery Dew Drop,” San Francisco Bulletin, Feb. 10, 1915, p. 11.
  2. Wilder, “The Fairies in the Sunshine,” ibid., Mar. 17, 1915, p. 13.
  3. Wilder, “Look for Fairies Now: The ‘Little People’ Still Appear to Those with Seeing Eyes,” reprinted in Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks, ed. Stephen W. Hines (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), pp. 62–63.
  4. Wilder, “Look for Fairies Now,” pp. 64–65.
  5. Einstein, quoted in Sally Ketcham, “Fairy Tales, Folklore, and the Little House in the Deep Dark Woods,” in Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, ed. Nancy Tystad Koupal (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2017), p. 212.
  6. Ketcham, “Fairy Tales,” p. 219.
  7. This poem, untitled in the column, originally appeared as “Where Sunshine Fairies Go,” San Francisco Bulletin, Mar. 19, 1915, p. 11. Stephen W. Hines collected Wilder’s poems in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Fairy Poems, illus. Richard Hull (New York: Doubleday, 1998).
  8. Wilder, “Look for Fairies Now,” p. 65.

Past and Future Projects

In 2010, the South Dakota Historical Society Press set up the Pioneer Girl Project as a research and publishing program to create a comprehensive edition of Wilder’s autobiography, as well as to create books dedicated to exploring Wilder’s life and works. We had just earned the privilege of publishing Wilder’s memoir from the Little House Heritage Trust, and we were determined to do a thorough and professional job of it. We modeled the project loosely on the Mark Twain Project at the Bancroft Library/University of California Press, which was then publishing Twain’s multi-volume autobiography. Since 2010, we have had a dedicated team working in period newspapers, census and land records, archival collections in five or more states, and other primary and secondary materials to research the life and times of the original pioneer girl and her manuscripts. In 2012, we began this website as a way to share our research with those who were interested in Wilder’s life and legacy.

PG cover 72dpi 220pxThe first phase of our project came to fruition in 2014, with the publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill. And, as you all know, that book found both a national and international audience and went on to become another bestselling volume by author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Moreover, its financial success gave the Pioneer Girl Project team the resources to plan three additional books. The second is Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, published in May 2017.

The idea for the additional books began as the research for and editing of Wilder’s 9781941813089original handwritten autobiography was drawing to a close in 2014.  The project team could see that many questions remained unanswered about Wilder as a person and about Wilder as a writer—and especially about the relationship between Wilder and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Because we had been studying the text of the handwritten Pioneer Girl so meticulously and comparing it to the typed and edited versions, it became clear that there was indeed something special about that mother/daughter, writer/editor relationship. This complex relationship reveals itself more fully as we examine Lane’s edits to her mother’s writing and then evaluate the evolution in Wilder’s response. Clues about this process abound in both the nonfiction and fiction texts, drafts, discarded pages, and other materials held at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and elsewhere.

In the upcoming books, we plan to address nonfiction and fiction processes separately. Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts will concentrate on Wilder’s and Lane’s interaction in the creation of the nonfiction autobiography. The book will contain the text of the three surviving typescript versions of Wilder’s autobiography in a side-by-side format. This presentation will facilitate intertextual comparison among the Brandt, Brandt Revised, and Bye manuscripts. The book will also contain annotations that highlight differences among the manuscripts and provide an analysis of Wilder’s and Lane’s working relationship as revealed in those manuscripts and elsewhere. The annotations will not repeat material published in the first volume, offering instead new information about Wilder’s life and its historical context where relevant. The Revised Texts will focus on the editorial work that Rose Wilder Lane performed on these adult, nonfiction manuscripts and the revisions or additions that Wilder herself made to them.

By contrast, the fourth book will analyze Wilder’s transition from nonfiction to fiction writer. In Pioneer Girl: The Path into Fiction, we will take a closer look at Lane’s role as her mother’s editor and agent in the field of children’s literature and at Wilder’s initial attempts at writing fiction. While the overarching purpose of both books will be to study the relationship between Wilder and Lane, the fourth book will examine the fiction writing/editorial process itself, a process in which both women took active roles. Other books have discussed this process, but The Path into Fiction will be the first to explore it completely within the context of the most critical piece of evidence—the draft manuscripts themselves.

We are excited about these forthcoming books, and we think that the study of the texts themselves will tell us much about the creative and editorial processes as well as about Wilder and Lane as working writers.

Nancy Tystad Koupal