A Different Perspective on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal

Let’s talk prairie.

For those of you who aren’t part of adorably nerdy bookish communities, here’s the short version of the controversy.

In the 1950s, an award was created called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal in honor of Wilder’s contributions to children’s literature. (She wrote the Little House series, among others, turned into a beloved T.V. show still re-running late at night somewhere.) It is given to someone who has had a significant impact in the world of kids books.

In addition to displaying family and faith values, Wilder’s series, a fictionalized version of her 1800s childhood, contains stereotypes of Native Americans and is not nuanced about the complex history of the American West. In the Little House books, the homesteaders are good, and the books remove most of the uncomfortable aspects of exploitation, forced removal, and taking away of rights from native people.

This week, the American Library Association decided to change the medal’s name to the more generic Children’s Literature Legacy Award. And a lot of people are really angry.

Disclaimer: I read some of the Little House books as a kid, but didn’t care for them, probably because I read them in that stage where every other little girl was devouring countless books about dogs, cats, and horses which I HATED, and Laura and her family regularly interact with cute animals.

So I don’t have emotional stakes in keeping the Wilder name attached to the award, because it’s not something dear to my heart. For other people, it’s touching a raw spot…and it’s also become politicized.

I made the mistake of reading the one-star reviews people have left for the ALA to protest this choice. Some of them were thoughtfully articulated, like, “I have a hard time understanding this decision, since it seems that Wilder was a product of her times and even apologized for and changed an offensive passage when it was pointed out to her.” (A reference to the edit made from “there were no people, only Indians lived there” to “no settlers,” for which Wilder apologized in the 50s.)

Other responses were…less helpful, using profanities against PC advocates in between references to 1984.

After reading and thinking, I settled on a few thoughts to help me decide how to think about the new non-Wilder award.

It is not really censorship or book burning.

The ALA isn’t suggesting that no one read the Wilder books, or even that schools remove them from their curriculum or libraries take them down from shelves, as far as I’m aware. They just want to have an award that fits with their values. Maybe you disagree with how they’re applying their values, or don’t think the Little House books are really that offensive, but no matter what, this isn’t a dystopian book burning situation.

It may or may not be erasing history, depending on what you mean by that.

For the “it’s not erasing history” view…history isn’t a string of facts, it’s the story that pulls those facts together. It has a bias, especially history taught to kids. And it’s safe to say that for generations, patriotism made edits to American history to minimize certain uncomfortable facts, from the Founding Fathers as slaveholders to the atrocities committed against Native Americans. Part of the story was told—George Washington was a great leader, there was violence from Native Americans against white settlers—but another was often left out.

With that in mind, changing the name of the Wilder medal is actually correcting history—it’s making a statement to kids that “This is only one highly-biased side of a very complex story.”

But for the “it is erasing history” side, kids can learn a lot from the Little House books. Why they shouldn’t complain about modern chores, for one, but also the biases and dangers of a certain way of thinking, one that said, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Now, kids often need parents to discuss those issues with them and point out flaws in characters’ thinking, especially the “good characters,” but if we never let kids encounter media that shows the ugliness of who we were and what we believed, we’re more likely to repeat the same mistakes.* (But again…remember that the ALA isn’t telling people not to read the books.)

It is deeply influenced by current-day values.

This choice was made because we’re going through a season of sensitivity to issues of race. You can think that’s good or bad or well-intentioned-but-with-some-negative-results. But it is true that the Wilder medal was renamed because of what our generation values.

Every single historical figure has a mixed legacy. We are human. We are so deeply influenced by the biases of our time that we can’t even recognize them, and generations from now, people will look back and point out our own blind spots. They’ll remove 2018 heroes from honors in their names, strip them from awards and tear down their statues, all because the particular sin and selfishness within a particular saint has suddenly become the issue of the day. I guarantee it.

(As a Christian, this doesn’t particularly bother me, because it removes the temptation to idolize people instead of God. But that’s another blog post.)

Now, maybe you’ve read about the content that some people are calling out in Wilder’s books and don’t find it offensive, given all the good aspects of the books.

Think about this, though: how awkward would it be to give the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to this year’s recipient, Jacqueline Woodson, who is an African American writer, when you know her community is protesting Wilder’s treatment of people of color in her books? In the often chalky-white kiddie lit world, authors of color care deeply about issues like these.

It would be kind of like if someone gave the Paula Deen Medal for Excellence in Culinary Publishing to the National Heart Institute’s Low-Cholesterol Cookbook.

Or if we celebrated Willie Robertson of Duck Dynasty as the latest winner of The Huffington Post Media Sensation Award.

Or if John Piper won the Joel Osteen World Impact Award.

(Have I covered enough groups to make everyone feel included? Good. All of those awards are totally fictional, by the way.)

Granted, all three of those scenarios are much more exaggerated than the Laura Ingalls Wilder legacy. But in each case, the award recipient is part of a group that opposes something the namebearer of the award contributed to.

So if you’re mad about the name change, I get it. To be honest, I don’t know that I’m convinced yet that it was the right move. Beyond that, it’s difficult to live in a world where what is offensive seems to be constantly shifting, where complete strangers can get into shouting matches online, where it feels like we’re so focused on being outraged that we’re forgetting how to love one another.

But even if you don’t agree that the decision was necessary, be sure to think about why it was made, because the more we understand people we disagree with, the easier it is to love them. And that’s one way you can be on the “right side of history” when judged by future generationsby taking a stand for gracious and reasonable dialogue in an era defined by noisy division and outrage.

*Stuffy Historical Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: You may have read my post about why I’m fine with the removal of some Confederate statues. Summary: some of those memorials were put up with the express purpose of championing a certain set of ideals over the coming change of civil rights. They are there to honor the cause the men fought for, not just to record the history that happened. Because of that, it makes sense to let legal, democratic processes in a community remove them. This is not the same issue, in my mind, because the intent (the award honors Wilder’s contribution to children’s literature, no hidden agenda) and figure (Wilder was a product of her times as much as any of us, but she’s not a symbol of racism like a KKK leader such as Nathan Bedford Forrest is) are different. Although the reactions to the choices are pretty similar.

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