Little House on the Prairie author’s name removed from award over book’s racial language

A division of the American Library Association has voted to remove the name of the Little House on the Prairie’s author from an award because of the way she referred to Native Americans and black people.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, who lived from 1867 to 1957, was the first recipient of the award which bore her name, in 1954.

The award was designed by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) to celebrate books in the US which have had a significant impact on childrens’ literature.

But on Saturday the ALSC voted unanimously at their gathering in New Orleans to rename the prize. It will now be known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

The ALSC had been considering whether it should strip Wilder’s name from the award since February and announced at the time that the author’s legacy "may no longer be consistent with the intention of the award named for her."

"The decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness," the ALSC said in a brief statement following the vote. 

Laura Ingalls Wilder, pictured around 1950Credit:

Previously, the organisation had noted the "anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments" in Wilder’s writing.

The ALSC said that Wilder’s work continues to be published and read but her “legacy is complex” and “not universally embraced.”

The Little House series was based on Wilder’s own life and told the story of the Ingalls family as it moved around the Great Plains in the 19th century.  While many of the Little House books became widely read, critics said her work included many stereotypical and reductive depictions of Native Americans and people of colour.

In 1935’s Little House on the Prairie, for example, Wilder described one setting as a place where "there were no people. Only Indians lived there."  The description was changed in later editions of the book. 

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Multiple characters in the Little House series proclaim that "the only good Indian is a dead Indian."

However, some Wilder scholars say the author’s work should not be seen through a modern lens, arguing that it should be used as a platform for debate.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, pictured in 1917Credit:

The Laura Ingalls Wilder legacy and research association released a statement defending Wilder’s work, saying that while her writing included "the perspectives of racism that were representative of her time and place," it also made "positive contributions to children’s literature".

"We believe it is not beneficial to the body of literature to sweep away her name as though the perspectives in her books never existed,” they said. 

“Those perspectives are teaching moments to show generations to come how the past was and how we, as a society, must move forward with a more inclusive and diverse perspective."

Caroline Fraser, author of Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote in The Washington Post that the racial insensitivity in Wilder’s book should not mean that children avoid reading it. She added that no book, “including the Bible, has ever been ‘universally embraced.’ ”

“Each generation revises the literary canon,” she wrote. 

“While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no 8-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of Little House on the Prairie.

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

But Debbie Reese, a scholar and the founder of American Indians In Children’s Literature, celebrated the decision. She tweeted that the vote to change the award’s name was a "significant and historic moment" but still only a step.

"There are many more, ahead of us. The backlash to the change is already evident."

The author Jacqueline Woodson, known for award-winning books including Brown Girl Dreaming and Another Brooklyn, will be the first honoree of the newly-named award.

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