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.

In Search of the Great American Fairy Tale

“But the real magic was in the telling.”

—Virginia Kirkus, Horn Book Magazine, 1953

Even though I grew up in Nebraska with a western historian for a mother, I did not read the Little House books as a child—my loss. At the time, I took the lonely plains of my childhood for granted and dreamed of other, undoubtedly more romantic fields: the Yorkshire moors of the Brontës, the secret gardens of Emily Dickinson, the haunted Black Forest of the Brothers Grimm. But like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s New York editor, the legendary Virginia Kirkus—who famously became so engrossed reading Wilder’s first novel that she missed her evening train home to Connecticut—when the real and shimmering magic of Little House in the Big Woods took hold of me, it did not let go.

When I finally turned the last page of These Happy Golden Years, I had one overriding, visceral reaction: I know Laura Ingalls; I know this girl.

Like so many readers before me, young and old, I did not want her story to end because I knew how much I would miss her. As a children’s writer with a special interest in the history of children’s books, I was curious about how Wilder had pulled off this kind of literary alchemy, how she had forged such intense identification between her readers, her heroine, and her heroine’s lost world.51ojikh0z2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Out of the raw material of her own life, Wilder had created something I had never read before: America’s Great Frontier Fairy Tale. “Once upon a time,” Wilder wrote, “sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.” It was the first line of Little House in the Big Woods and it presaged the highly original, unusual, and evocative artistic decisions Wilder would make as she fused childhood memory, family chronicle, western history, fairytale, folklore, and her love of the living prairie.

By the time she brought her story full circle, culminating in the happily-ever-after marriage of Laura Ingalls to her storybook hero on horseback, Wilder had executed a remarkable literary feat, irrespective of its historical, cultural, or political significance. Her classic American stories of the western frontier have old-vine roots, deeply entangled in European fairy tale, which Wilder uses to strange and surprising effect. Fairytale lies at the heart of Wilder’s artistic vision; it is central to the wandering hero’s journey of Laura Ingalls, not because it is trivial, childish, and superficial, but because it is dark and cautionary, profound and true. Fairy tale is particularly relevant to Wilder’s narrative because fairy tale, in its traditional form, preserves and passes down complicated stories of faith, hope, identity, betrayal, struggle, and redemption. It is the charming red apple in Wilder’s work, luring the reader into the heroine’s quest for self-realization, existential meaning, and the elusive place called home.

It’s the “real magic” in the telling.

Sallie Ketcham, contributor to Pioneer Girl Perspectives




Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal will be available to readers on 18 May 2017.