June 26, 2018
Recognizing dehumanizing language in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing, the ALA decides to remove her name from an award
by Michael Barron
On Saturday, the board of the American Library Association’s Association for Library Services to Children released this statement:
At its meeting on Saturday, June 23, 2018, the Association for Library Service to Children Board voted to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. This 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.
As Meagan Flynn of the Washington Post reports, Wilder’s classic pioneer novel Little House on the Prairie has been taken to task for wildly offensive language that dehumanizes Native Americans, beginning sixty-five years ago, when the idea of naming the award for Wilder first arose. As Flynn notes:
The 1935 tale of a pioneering family seeking unvarnished, unoccupied land opens with a character named Pa, modeled after Wilder’s own father, who tells of his desire to go “where the wild animals lived without being afraid.” Where “the land was level, and there were no trees.” And where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.”
Little House on the Prairie was publsihed by Harper and Brothers in 1936. In 1952, when the ALA decided to name its award after Wilder, a studious and alarmed reader wrote to Wilder’s editor, calling out the “there were no people” language. The editor wrote back, noting her own shock, and had “people” changed to “settlers.” Flynn does not make clear whether Wilder, then in her eighties, was informed of the change.
But as Flynn observes, the change “did little to quell the critics in later decades, who began describing Wilder’s depictions of Native Americans and some African Americans—and her story lines evoking white settlers’ Manifest Destiny beliefs—as racist.”
Now, after years of advocacy to bring Wilder’s offending words to light, and in the continuing efforts, as Flynn writes, “to purge from the cultural landscape symbols that honor historical figures who owned slaves, espoused racist views or engaged in racist practices,” Wilder’s name has officially been taken off the award.
The ALA has made a full accounting of their decision-making process available here. Noting that the decision had been made “after much consideration and fact-finding,” ALA president Jim Neal and ASLC president Nina Lindsay also issued a joint statement, in which they note:
Changing the name of the award should not be viewed as an attempt to censor, limit, or deter access to Wilder’s books and materials, but rather as an effort to align the award’s title with ALSC’s core values. This change should not be viewed as a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books. Updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship, as 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.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece failed to fully explain the context of the the change in the award’s name, and appeared under a headline that, in an attempt at humor, was misleading. We apologize, and offer thanks to the many friends and readers who continue holding us to high standards of intellectual clarity and commitment to justice.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.