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