Little House author dropped from award for racist content

NEW YORK • In 1952, a reader complained to publisher Harper's about Laura Ingalls Wilder's (above) characterisation of the West as a place where "there were no people".

"Only Indians lived there," wrote the author whose best-selling books detailed life in the American Midwest settled by pioneers in the 19th century.

Wilder also had her characters say "the only good Indian is a dead Indian".

In 1998, an eight-year-old girl in the Upper Sioux Reservation was so disturbed after hearing her teacher read the statement aloud in class that she went home crying.

Her mother later petitioned the school district to ban the book from its curriculum, but failed.

Now, Wilder has been dropped from an American children's literature award because of racist content in her books.

The decision comes with many in the United States reassessing historical and cultural legacies, leading to monuments being taken down and buildings renamed as the country grapples with ongoing racism and discrimination disputes.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award will now be known as the Children's Literature Legacy Award, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) announced.

It said the decision was made in consideration of "expressions of stereotypical attitudes" in Wilder's work that are "inconsistent with ALSC's core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness".

"While we are committed to preserving access to Wilder's work for readers, we must also consider if her legacy today does justice to this particular award for lifetime achievement, given by an organisation committed to all children."

Wilder won the first award in 1954. Other winners are E.B. White, author of Charlotte's Web; and Theodor Seuss Geisel, author of the Dr Seuss books.

Critics have highlighted antinative and anti-black sentiments in Wilder's work for decades though her books are still published, read and loved by many.

Wilder was born in 1867 in Wisconsin, becoming a school teacher and moving to Missouri with her husband in 1894.

She died at age 90 in 1957.

Her first book, The Little House In The Big Woods, was published in 1932 when she was 65. It told the story of five-year-old Laura and her pioneer family in Wisconsin.

It was followed by Little House On The Prairie in 1935, On The Banks Of Plum Creek in 1937 and By The Shores Of Silver Lake in 1939.

The books inspired the hugely popular 1974-1983 television series Little House On The Prairie, starring Melissa Gilbert.

But not all think that Wilder should be boycotted.

Caroline Fraser, author of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams Of Laura Ingalls Wilder, argued that the racial insensitivity in Wilder's books should not mean that children should not read them.

In a March column for The Washington Post, after the ALSC announced that it was considering stripping Wilder's name from the award, Fraser argued that no book has ever been "universally embraced".

"Each generation revises the literary canon. While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no eight-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of Little House On The Prairie," she wrote.

The Dakota people are a Native American tribe.

"But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2018, with the headline 'Little House author dropped from award for racist content'. Subscribe