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 award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature. In discussion this award, we’d also like to congratulate this year’s winner, Jacqueline Woodson. As the committee chair, Rita Auerbach noted, “From picture books through novels for young teens to her exquisite memoir in poetry, Jacqueline Woodson has established herself as an eloquent voice in contemporary children’s literature.” Headlines, however, have been focused on the change in the award’s name, and it is that, specifically, we are addressing today.
This was not a decision that was taken lightly, nor was it done for frivolous reasons. Indeed, there has been a discussion of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s historical legacy and descriptions of native peoples. As Samira Ahmed wrote in The Guardian in 2010, “While she often writes of her desire to be “free like the Indians”, riding bareback, Little House on the Prairie is built illegally on occupied Osage Indian land.”
The settlement of the American West fundamentally involved the dehumanization of the Native American/Indian peoples who were present on the land that settlers wanted to own. Part of this process involved talking about Native American/Indian people as less than human. Wilder utilized this language in her works. Just one example can be found in Little House on the Prairie, where she states that Kansas had “no people, only Indians”. Such language reflects the delegitimization and dehumanizing that settlers enacted in their move West. In this specific case, Wilder refers to the Osage peoples. A series of treaties and agreements from
1865 to 1870 forced the Osage people off the land that a previous treaty, signed in 1825, promised would be theirs in perpetuity. They were sent to reservations in Oklahoma. The travel, the lack of funds and support, as well as the violence they sustained impacted the tribes for generations. Their population decreased by over 50% in the course of a generation. But this is not merely a historical issue; when oil was discovered on their land, the Osage people were forced to sue the Federal Government over its management of the trust assets, alleging that it had failed to pay tribal members appropriate royalties, and had not historically protected their land assets and appreciation. The suit was settled in 2011.
Over the course of time, Wilder (pictured at left) gained some insight into the damage such language could have. Later editions of the book feature an edited line, which reads, ‘no settlers, only Indians’.” While this edit is a positive change, it is a limited one. Little House on the Prairie discusses the removal of the Osage people, but never condemns it. In some ways, this does indeed make Wilder a product of her time. But it is completely historically inaccurate to assume that her language, opinions, and descriptions represent a universal opinion. There were a large number of people who spoke out against the removal of Native American/Indian people, and the kind of language that helped facilitate their dehumanization–including Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett, Massachusetts Congressman Daniel Webster, and a large number of missionaries–both male and female. Additionally, the Osage people continue to condemn Wildler’s work for its language and representation of their history.
At the same time that Wildler’s work is being re-assessed, book writers, makers, and readers are realizing how poorly non-white, non-male readers have been represented, not only in terms of the types of books produced, but the authors who are honored by awards. We’ve covered some of that debate here at the Free-For-All, but the ALA has also engaged in some soul-searing conversations. These don’t condemn Wilder or her work, nor do they comment on the quality of her novels. However, they do think meaningfully about how naming an award after Wilder might affect the ways readers see their engagement.
Changing the name of the award is part of a process that involves facing the problematic aspects of American history, and attempting to do better by current and future generations. It is part of a commitment to ensuring that readers have access to books that speak to them: to their identities, to their history, to their experiences, and to their abilities, and to recognize the ways they have been under-represented previously in an open, honest, and effective manner. To continue to award a prize named after someone who did not recognize the humanity of the non-white people around her makes a lot of the positive changes we see in children’s literature feel ultimately disingenuous.
For the record, no one–not I, not the Free-For-All, not the Library, and not the ALA are accusing Wilder of intentional hate speech or overt racism. Indeed, her attempts to moderate her own words points to her potential to change and improve. And we are actually enjoying a rich moment where Wilder’s history, experiences, and struggles are being honored and remembered in a new, and for more nuanced, way (see last year’s Pulitzer-Prize-Winning biography by Caroline Fraser). But by renaming the award that previously bore her name, the ALA is acknowledging the harmful stereotypes that she used and promoted, and attempting to move beyond them. In doing so, it allows us to create room to consider authors contemporary to Wilder who were not using the kind of language she did, and promoting their words, their message and their principles. So doing can only enrich our literature by recognizing inclusion and diversity, as well as help those readers who have been outside our gaze for so long.