Laura Ingalls Wilder Award Renamed Over ‘Dated Cultural Attitudes,’ Book Group Says
Posted June 26, 2018 7:42 p.m. EDT
The American Library Association is dropping Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s literature award in order to distance the honor from what it described as culturally insensitive portrayals in her books.
The decision was made out of a desire to reconcile the award with the organization’s values of “inclusiveness, integrity and respect,” representatives of the association said in a statement Monday. The award is given out by its children’s division.
“Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America’s 1800s,” the association’s president, Jim Neal, and the president of the children’s division, Nina Lindsay, said in the statement. “Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.”
Wilder’s books, particularly the “Little House” series based on her childhood in a settler family, have remained popular since they were first published in the 1930s and 1940s. A hit television show based on the series, “Little House on the Prairie,” helped to reignite interest and usher in a new generation of fans in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The name change was a result of months of consideration and was approved over the weekend by the board of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the library association. The honor, formerly the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, is now named the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
The award, distributed to just 23 people over more than six decades, recognizes authors and illustrators whose books have created a lasting contribution to children’s literature.
Wilder herself received the first award in 1954, three years before her death in 1957. It was initially distributed every five years, but its frequency has steadily increased. Since 2016, it has been given annually.
Other winners include authors Beverly Cleary; Theodor S. Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss; and E.B. White. This year’s winner, announced in February, was Jacqueline Woodson, the author of “Brown Girl Dreaming” and other books.
Despite their popularity, Wilder’s books contain jarringly prejudicial portrayals of Native Americans and African-Americans.
In the 1935 book “Little House on the Prairie,” for example, multiple characters espoused versions of the view that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.” In one scene, a character describes Native Americans as “wild animals.”
“Little Town on the Prairie,” published in 1941, included a description of a minstrel show with “five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms” alongside a jolting illustration of the scene.
“There’s this subtle but very clear fear generated throughout the books,” said Debbie Reese, a scholar whose writing and research focus on portrayals of American Indians in children’s literature.
Reese, who belongs to the Nambe Pueblo tribe in New Mexico, said that the books could be used to educate high school or college students, but were inappropriate for young children.
“People are trying to use them and say, ‘Well, we can explain them,’ and I say: ‘OK, you’re trying to explain racism to white people. Good for those white kids,'” she said. “But what about the Native and the black kids in the classroom who have to bear with the moment when they’re being denigrated for the benefit of the white kids?”
The American Library Association said that the name change was aimed only at aligning the award with its values, not at limiting access to Wilder’s books.
“Updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship, as we are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children,” Neal and Lindsay said in the statement. “We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.”