The "Little House on the Prairie" book series by author Laura Ingalls Wilder, once a staple of mainstream culture, is now undergoing scrutiny by some literary scholars for its racist portrayal of Native Americans and African-Americans. The criticism comes as the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) began steps in February to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, a children's literature award, to the Children's Literature Legacy Award. The organization finalized the decision on June 23.
In its February announcement, the ALSC noted that they recognize "Wilder’s legacy is complex and that her work is not universally embraced."
Since the name change, the decision has been getting a lot of attention, both from those who don't agree with the organization, and those who support its attempt to recognize the racist sentiments expressed in the books. The ALSC released a statement in response to the media attention, noting that changing its award name is not an attempt to "censor" or "limit" access to Wilder's books and materials, but instead to realign the award's title with their core values:
"Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books have been and will continue to be deeply meaningful to many readers. Although Wilder’s work holds a significant place in the history of children’s literature and continues to be read today, ALSC has had to grapple with the inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and its core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness through an award that bears Wilder’s name.
"Wilder’s books are a product of her life experiences and perspective as a settler in America's 1800s. Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration and understanding of diverse communities.
"ALSC works within the context of our society as a whole, where the conversations taking place inform our work and help us articulate our core values and support of diverse populations."
Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance.
Although some people were quick to point out that this is just a name change for one award, others noted that the name change is reflective of a larger movement to re-examine many "classic" pieces of literature in a broader, more inclusive perspective, especially when it comes to children's literature, as children may exposed to the pieces without a clear understanding of the context or time constructs that affect how they should be absorbed.
The Washington Post pointed out several examples of how the books contain racist stereotypes and language about Native Americans, including characters who say, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian," and vivid, animalistic descriptions of Osage tribe members who make "harsh sounds" and have “bold and fierce” faces with “black eyes.” Even Pa Ingalls, who at times is a depiction of a more progressive view, describes a "good Indian" as one who is "no common trash."
The news and ensuing scrutiny over the "Little House" series has been met with some criticism, as well as praise. "This is kind of ridiculous," wrote one Washington Post commenter. "You can't retroactively judge people by the standards of today. We have a history—we need to own it. Acknowledging it doesn't mean we can't change our present."
On the other hand, there are those who believe that the name change awakened an important and growing discussion about racism in literature. "Personally, I agree with the decision and welcome the growing amount of scholarship on Wilder and race, especially her family's displacement of Native people," tweeted one author.