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Yup, Sometimes Your Favorite Children’s Books are Racist

Melissa Gilbert in Little House on the Prairie (1974)

Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of The Little House on the Prairie books, had her name removed from a children’s book award. Now, instead of The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, it will be known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Neither award name really gives an actual hint of what the title means, but that’s fine.

The news was announced earlier this week by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and of course, there are some lamenting this “whitewashing” of history. This is the idea that we’re going around and erasing problematic images because they don’t fit into a more progressive view. I mean first Laura Ingalls Wilder, who’s next? Dante?

Wilder’s literary legacy is being particularly criticized for the language she uses concerning Native people. As Vox describes: “‘There were no people’” on the prairie, the line went. ‘Only Indians lived there.'” It wasn’t until 1952 that Wilder realized this was an issue, after a parent wrote to her, which she said: “It was a stupid blunder of mine. Of course, Indians are people and I did not mean to imply they were not.”

Racism, always just stumbling into it. I’m sure the part about a minstrel show and “darkies” being funny was also a “stupid blunder.”

In their statement, the ALSC said: “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 […] We are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children. We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.”

In her roundtable discussing the Wilder’s name being removed from that award, host Megyn Kelly says that Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in 1867 and therefore would have those kinds of views Kelly says “good luck finding anyone who was pro-minority in 1867.”

To which, I can’t believe I’m saying this but, #NotAllWhitePeople:

Matilda Joslyn Gage (b. 1826), Mary Lucinda Bonney (b. 1816), Amelia Stone Quinton (b. 1833), Lydia Maria Child (b. 1802), Mary Ellicott Arnold (b. 1876), Helen Hunt Jackson (b. 1830) Plus like a good chunk of Quakers.

This may be hard for some people to understand, but there have always been people who have thought racism was bad.

Removing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from this one award is not removing her books or altering the material in any way that would be “whitewashing”—it is recognizing that the content in the books does not hold up to the ideals of the organization or award now, hence it being renamed. We rename things all the time.

If people were advocating for Wilder’s books to be re-edited or banned I’d have more a problem with that because (a) banning books never works and (b) the books should be allowed to be capsules of their time and give the reader insight into the ideologies of the author.

Any of us who are fans of “classic” works are familiar with navigating the space of understanding that something can be “of its time” but still perpetuate harmful stereotypes. I can still love The Secret Garden and A Little Princess and recognize that those books are filled with imperialism. I can adore Jane Eyre and find is suspect that their madwoman in the attic is a Creole woman. William Faulkner is one of my favorite authors, hell I even like (whispers) … Hemingway. Plus, it makes the moments were authors, like Jane Austen, for example, discuss the slave trade in Mansfield Park more interesting among those today who wonder if the book endorses or condemns the practice (I’m Team Condemn).

What the ALSC asks, which is the most important part of their statement, is that people will use Little House on the Prarie as an educational tool to educate young people about the historical context of the work. When you read Wilder describe Native people as “savages” that shouldn’t just be skipped over, it should be discussed. The uncritical eye when it comes to social issues in classics is sometimes the most frustrating thing about these dialogues concerning how we analyze literature in the modern lens.

While I don’t like Huck Finn as a book, the book is largely anti-slavery. Jim, arguably the deuteragonist, is humanized by showing his sadness about losing his wife and child, and ultimately this book condemns slavery. The use of the word “nigger” in the text is not indicative of what the novel is about, which is often lost when having these discussions.

Unlike Wilder’s book, which plays into those stereotypes wholesale. Not simply because she writes them, but because there is no self-examination of what is being said.

As for who is next on the chopping block, one conservative website brought up Betty Friedan “feminist hero” for her gross views on homosexuality. To which I say:

(via Disney: Pictured me waving goodbye to all the racist and homophobic feminists and suffragists)

Also, here is a list of Science Fiction novels by Indigenous writers.

(via Vox, image: CBS Television Distribution)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.