Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder While Black

In the wake of debate surrounding the recently renamed Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, an African-American author considers her relationship with the beloved children’s series.
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I recently dislodged from our family bookshelf one of the Little House books I’d collected so many years ago. Undisturbed for several decades, the entire front jacket of By the Shores of Silver Lake tore apart in my hand, dangerously close to the Harper book ribbon that states: “This seal identifies as a book of tested excellence, conforming to the highest editorial standards.

When I first heard about the controversy surrounding the American Library Association’s decision to rename the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Award” to the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award,” I didn’t remember—but was not surprised by—the passages from Wilder’s work surfacing in the media. They were stereotypical, offensive, and downright “prejudiced” (the term we used before “racist” became the catch-all for all forms of discrimination). Even so, the distasteful portrayals were hard to reconcile with my warm-and-fuzzy-memories of the series.

When Truth Is Stranger Than (Children’s) Fiction

The study with an expansive view of Seattle’s Lake Washington, in the house my parents bought in 1961, now stands as a repository of the artifacts my family—particularly my mother, who so lovingly still maintains the house—has collected over the years. Among the gems we just can’t seem to give away: The 1968 Life magazine documenting the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the rare Black doll that “Santa” brought for my first Christmas, and my collection of hardcover children’s books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

In the early ’60s, when I was a child, I binge-read the Little House books. My mother was a second-grade teacher who also served as a librarian and reading specialist in her career in Seattle Public Schools, so books and reading were highly valued in our home. She was paid once a month. On those days after school, we went downtown to the Frederick & Nelson department store. While she shopped I was left in the fourth-floor children’s book department, next to the toys. She knew she could take her time; I wasn’t going anywhere. I was allowed one book a month. When I discovered Little House in the Big Woods, I enjoyed it so much that I looked forward to going back for the sequel. Then the next one. And the next. Until I‘d read all nine in the series.

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There were differences between the life of Laura, the main character, and my own. She was White; I was Black. She was a pioneer child; I was an urban girl. I think, though, in the years before puberty, children do not see race as the firewall they do in later years. In multi-cultural Seattle, a city named after Native American Chief Sealth, I sat in class next to kids of all races, so having Laura Ingalls Wilder as a literary friend in my head was no great stretch.

Laura was a daddy’s girl, who thought her father was funny and charming. I thought the same of my father. Like Laura’s dad, my father’s name was Charles. He was born in Kansas, one of the prairie states. One could say he was pioneering when he left the Midwest for more racially tolerant opportunities as an attorney in the Pacific Northwest. Laura’s first-person narrative is billed as fiction, but it seems that most readers consider her books a series of memoirs. Influenced by this genre, which I have favored since reading Wilder, I grew up to write a memoir about my own family, entitled Song for My Father.

By the ’80s and ’90s, there was more children’s literature featuring African-American and African main characters for my daughter to enjoy. I didn’t impress Wilder upon her. I let her decide what appealed to her, as my mother had done. Her favorites were Just Us Women and My Mama Needs Me (both illustrated by Pat Cummings). John L. Steptoe’s Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale is still a favorite. My daughter’s own 1800s period character was Addy, of the American Girl series. Now grown, she still has in storage the storybook Meet Addy: An American Girl, next to the doll. I wanted her to know that Black characters in books could be based on real people and depicted as “All American,” just as Laura was.

I now have a granddaughter, born in the last days of the Obama presidential administration. One book I bought for her is Grace for President, a charming illustrated book written by Kelly DiPucchio. This story exemplifies what is possible in the great expanse beyond race now and in the future, as the brown-girl Grace decides to start her political career at a school election, so she can one day become the first female United States president.

That’s where the Little House series fit into my memory when I learned the ALA had decided to rename the award eponymous with Wilder the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award.” The change was prompted by a growing outcry over Wilder’s negative portrayals of—and racially insensitive references to—Native Americans and African-Americans. Not being a children’s book author, I have to admit that I wasn’t familiar with the Wilder Award, but was pleased to see that it had been won by African-Americans in the past four years (including this year’s winner, Jacqueline Woodson). The name change does not bother me. I appreciate the consideration to make the award’s title a reflection of the diversity of children’s books, which I hope most of us would like to continue to see grow more inclusive, as the We Need Diverse Books movement, other literary activists and just plain “woke” readers have espoused.

Among my own collection, Little Town on the Prairie, with its lively illustrations by Garth Williams, was the best preserved. As fate would have it, however, after I dusted it off and opened it gently, the first random page I flipped to depicted a drawing of Pa in a blackface minstrel show. The passage next to the sketch describes Laura trying to figure out if the “darky” playing the bones is Pa.

Things change. Times evolve. Our knowledge and preferences progress. I’m glad Wilder’s series is still available, but I also support the decision that the prestigious children’s book award is no longer her namesake. I plan to keep my own Little House collection for nostalgic purposes, in the context of childhood reads I enjoyed—but also as a historical record of prevalent attitudes from our turbulent American past. As Maya Angelou, whose memoirs took me through my young-adult years, was known to say: “When you know better, you do better.”

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