The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award name change is OK … and so is liking her books

This past weekend, the Association for Library Service to Children made a change to a major children’s award.

“Little House on the Prairie” author Laura Ingalls Wilder has long been the namesake of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, which earned its name after it was first presented to her in 1954 to honor outstanding children’s literature in the United States.

More than six decades later, the award will henceforth be known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

The reason for the name change is stereotypical and racist depictions of Native American and black individuals in Wilder’s series, which the ALSC has previously said is not “consistent with the intention of the award named for her.”

The change has sparked a variety of reaction among children’s literature readers and writers. A sampling of voices from the Twitterverse give a micro-glimpse of how folks are feeling:

 

You get the idea.

I think there are two angles to this issue that are important to keep in mind:

  1. Renaming the award is OK. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging a societal shift in values and updating symbols of those values (in this case, the name of the award) to reflect the modern conscience. The name change isn’t about disrespecting Laura Ingalls Wilder; it’s about respecting indigenous and black Americans.
  2. It’s also OK to still read and appreciate the “Little House” books. They are a reflection of the attitudes of their time and of our history — positive and negative elements alike. There’s no hiding from or sanitizing the distasteful parts of our history; there’s just a responsibility upon parents, teachers, and librarians to impress context upon young readers and guide them in discerning shifting values.

The Association for Library Service to Children isn’t stripping Wilder of her award — she remains the first recipient. Instead, it’s making an effort to give the award a name that is more inclusive and reflective of its current values. Wilder remains among the ranks of honored writers, and her contributions to children’s literature are not being disavowed.

Wilder is part of the American literary legacy. At the core of the issue is that her body of work is no longer reflective of all of the values of children’s literature, so the association opted for a name more specific to the goals of the award.

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5 Responses to The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award name change is OK … and so is liking her books

  1. angie5804 says:

    Earlier this year I read Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved her books as a mom when I read them to my kids. This book was an eye-opener and I learned a lot, not just about her but about history. I’m not sure how I feel about renaming the award, but she did come across a bit racist, but so was just about everyone during that time. Especially L. Frank Baum – he REALLY was. So, would people ban The Wizard of Oz if they knew? hmmm

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    • In this specific instance, I think renaming the award is appropriate because an award’s name is a direct reflection of the values the award represents.

      In terms of still reading and loving the books, I think that’s perfectly OK. There’s plenty to appreciate about them and learn from them. Not to mention we can’t disown the history of racism in the U.S. — those depictions and stereotypes have educational value in the sense that people should be aware of what societal attitudes used to be and to contrast them to what they are now. It’s just a matter of being aware of their historical context.

      Your point about L. Frank Baum raises an interesting side issue: How much should consumers separate the creator from the work? I have some friends who insist if an author, actor, artist, etc. commits a crime or misdeed, no one should consume their work because it continues to support the person creatively and/or financially and, by extension, condones the person’s behavior. I know others who believe the work stands alone, separate from the artist once it’s released into the world. I still haven’t settled comfortably on where I stand on that issue, although I lean toward the latter of believing a person can appreciate the work without endorsing the creator.

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  2. trinitygrau says:

    How is changing the name giving any more respect to indigenous or black people?

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    • When an award bears a namesake, it’s usually an indication that the person’s body of work or the person him/herself — in this case, Laura Ingalls Wilder — represents the spirit and values of the award. In this case, Wilder’s body of work includes depictions of marginalized groups (such as references to “the only good Indian being a dead Indian” and a festival in which people perform in blackface) that are offensive by today’s standards.

      That’s not to say the books should be banned, because they have be read in the context of their time, but those depictions in the current day and age are no longer the values the award strives to uphold. Renaming the award is a step toward respecting marginalized groups who are misrepresented in historical texts and literature because the new name reflects the modern values and goals of the award.

      I’m interested to hear your thoughts, too. What do you think of the name change?

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      • trinitygrau says:

        I say this as respectfully as I can, but I don’t think there are any Native Americans or black people running around wringing their hands because this award that many of them have never even heard of is named after someone who is “racist”. Firstly, most of the black people I know don’t seem to care or be offended by the books and if they even know of the books they regard them as significant pieces of literature, if not dry and boring.

        Secondly, to call Laura Ingalls Wilder racist is anachronistic. For a pioneer whose only interactions with Native Americans were dangerous, it is not “racist” to be wary of them. While I would agree Ma’s statement […”the only good Indian is a dead Indian”] is not necessarily correct, for them that is what their entire knowledge revolves around and unlike in our ultra-connected world where people have the luxury of getting to know others, back then it was a fight to survive. One did not have a huge amount of time to try and make peace with their warring neighbor who would just as soon as kill them as look at them.

        Again, I say this not to be disrespectful, but to point out that 1. calling Laura Ingalls Wilder “racist” seems highly over-sensitive and 2. I don’t think any marginalized groups are – on a large scale at least – offended by these books or the name of the award.

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