Back in February of 2018, I was astonished and excited when I learned that the American Library Association’s Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) was taking a look at the names of its book awards, asking if the award names are in line with the association’s core values. They were going to start with the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.
In truth, I was also skeptical. The book series that Wilder wrote—and in particular The Little House on the Prairie—are at the heart of how people think about the US and its history. Changing the name of that award struck me as impossible, especially in light of activist work I have done. I had spent over twenty years trying to get the University of Illinois to change its sports teams’ nickname and get rid of its mascot, so I knew from experience how tenaciously people hold on to things for which they have deep emotional attachments. I’d hazard a guess that there are just as many people in the Midwest playing Indian as there are people who play (in musicals, pageants, and plays) that they are Laura and her family!
I was at the ALSC meeting on Saturday, June 23 when the board discussed the findings of the task force that had spent several months gathering and analyzing input about a change to the Wilder award’s name. Shortly after 4:00 PM, the board voted. I sat there, somewhat stunned. It was a unanimous vote to change it, immediately. Their decision was based on the association’s “core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness” to people who use libraries. It is now the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
When the University of Illinois dropped its mascot name in 2007, there was—and continues to be—tremendous upset. It is no surprise, then, to see the massive resistance to the ALSC decision. Their press release about the change called attention to the anti-Native and anti-Black depictions in Wilder’s books. That prompted many people to defend the books, saying things like “that’s what they thought back then” about American Indians and African Americans. I’ve heard that response before. For over twenty years, I’ve worked with teachers and librarians on the subject of the stereotypical and derogatory ways that Native people are depicted in children’s books. Years ago, Jean Mendoza, a dear friend and colleague who I do a lot of work with, pointed out that the word “they” in that response has a specific meaning. Who, she asked, is “they”? Who exactly thought that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”? That racist sentiment appears three times in Little House on the Prairie. Obviously, American Indians did not think that way. In Little Town on the Prairie, Pa—in blackface—sings about “darkies” with a group of other men. That too is racist, and, obviously, African Americans did not think blackface was okay. And, in fact, a good many White people did not think that way in the 1800s when Charles Ingalls took his family onto Native lands, or in the 1930s when the book series was published!
Some people, in other words, knew there were problems in the books from the start. But for a lot of others, the Little House books have an exalted status. My research indicates that between 2011 and 2017, there were at least 18 children’s books published in the US in which a writer included characters who are reading or fondly remembering Little House on the Prairie. In Nora Raleigh Baskin’s The Summer Before Boys, for example, the two main characters are twelve-year-old girls. They imagine Indians killing and scalping their parents, and being taken captive. Most people who read and love Little House on the Prairie do not remember the anti-Indian or anti-Black passages, and in books published today, similar kinds of passages aren’t noticed—or, to use the jargon of the present, “called out.” They should be, though. Racism in children’s books is recycled in the United States. Children are taught to fear “savages.” That idea lives in hearts and minds and gets deployed in wartime. Indeed, soldiers in Iraq, like Chris Kyle, used “Injun” and “savage” repeatedly, as depicted in his best-selling memoir about being a sniper there. I do not claim that Little House on the Prairie—all on its own—is responsible for the ways that people, today, think about American Indians. I do think, however, that it is important to acknowledge this fact: people think books shape and inspire us in good ways. The opposite must also be true: they can shape us in not-good ways, too.
ALSC is not asking that the Little House books be removed from libraries or classrooms, but if the name change prompts teachers to revisit how they use them with children, that is a collective good for all children. In the 1960s, librarian Nancy Larrick wrote an article called “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” As this graphic shows, we still have a nearly all-white world of children’s books, 50 years later!
An unsettling fact not captured in the graphic is that the 0.9% of books with Native content, read by Native (and other) children, include stereotypical images like those in Little House on the Prairie.
We can all do something to change what gets published! As individuals who buy and gift books, look for ones by Native writers and illustrators! To find some, visit the Best Books tab at my blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, at https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/.
Tribally enrolled at Nambé Pueblo, located in northern New Mexico, Debbie Reese is the founder and editor of American Indians in Children’s Literature. Her research articles are used in English, Education, and Library Science courses in the US and Canada.