Monday, July 11, 2011

Anita Silvey recommends LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS

Yesterday (July 10, 2011) at "Children's Book-A-Day Almanac," Anita Silvey featured Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods. She writes that the Little House books "remain one of the best-loved stories of childhood."

Best loved story for whom?

Are they "the best-loved stories of childhood" for everyone? Little Town on the Prairie has Pa in blackface. Dawn Friedman addresses it in her post "Pa in Blackface: Confronting racism in our children's books." I don't think everyone would look on this as a "best loved" story. Would you, for example, knowing it has blackface in it, call it one of your best loved stories? (Update, Feb 5, 2013: Added Garth Williams' illustration of blackface, from page 258.) Here's Pa in blackface:

Same thing with Little House in the Big Woods. On page 53, Pa regales Laura and Mary with his days of youth when he'd pretend he was "a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians." Here's the passage where he said that: 
When I was a little boy, not much bigger than Mary, I had to go every afternoon to find the cows in the woods and drive them home. My father told me never to play by the way, but to hurry and bring the cows home before dark, because there were bears and wolves and panthers in the woods.    

One day I started earlier than usual, so I thought I did not need to hurry. There were so many things to see in the woods that I forgot that dark was coming. There were red squirrels in the trees, chipmunks scurrying through the leaves, and little rabbits playing games together  in the open places. Little rabbits, you know, always have games together before they go to bed.    

I began to play I was a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians. I played I was fighting the Indians, until all woods seemed full of wild men, and then all at once I heard the birds twittering 'good night.'
Would you call a book in which the characters romanticize hunting people one of your "best loved" stories?

And of course, there are multiple problems with Little House on the Prairie. (Scroll down to the "labels" section of AICL and you'll see that I've written about the book several times.)

There is no disputing the love and adoration readers shower on the series, but it is a blind love and a blind adoration that has ramifications for all of us. Thinking of a people as "wild" makes it easier to hunt and kill them. I'm thinking the uncritical embrace of these books is akin to planting seeds that will get watered later when someone deems it in America's best interests to go to war...  

I wish that Silvey would take a moment to give her readers a critical view of the Little House series. In her post about Julius Lester, she writes that Lester and Pinkney's Sam and the Tigers removed "the racial sting" associated with Little Black Sambo. "Racial sting" is a mild way to reference racist stereotypes, but she did acknowledge the problems with LBS. I wish she could do the same with LHOP.


Wendy said...

Many of us love these books NOT blindly. It's perfectly possible to love a book and want to share it with other people, including children, while acknowledging its faults.

Debbie Reese said...

Hi Wendy,

I'm guessing you acknowledge the faults when you read it with children. I'd love to hear how you do it and what they say.

Mel said...

I don't think I can stomach these books now as an adult, but I did love them as a child--and even then, it wasn't without noticing their problems. I might not have been able to fully articulate it if asked, but I knew the blackface was wrong, and I knew the dehumanization of Native Americans was wrong--I loved the books despite these things, not because of them. (Now, some the things I did love the book for--the survivalist/settlement aspects--are also problematic, if more subtly. I had a huge thing for survival stories as a kid, from Boxcar Children to Swiss Family Robinson, and a lot of survival stories are inextricable from a colonialist Manifest Destiny ideology.)

I do think kids are capable of loving problematic books with open eyes, even if adults don't explicitly discuss the problems with them. If a child is taught that blackface is not acceptable, they'll do a double-take, even if their parents don't sit down with them and discuss blackface in the specific context of a specific book. Kids can do a lot more critical thinking than many adults give them credit for.

But those discussions are valuable, so I certainly wouldn't want to discourage people from having them! And there is an awful lot to discuss in these books.

Sam said...


With respect, can I ask if you mean sharing it with non-Native children? Because when I was eight years old, I ended up crying in the girls' room at my school after my teacher read to us from the Little House Books. That was sharing I really could have done without, no matter that she paused and added as an aside, "That's how people thought back then, but we don't think that anymore." Because it sent a clear message to the child I was: our enjoyment is more important than your basic dignity as a human being.

jpm said...

And to Sam's heartbreaking comment, I feel the need to add that her teacher was suffering from a severe case of denial if she genuinely believed that "we don't think that anymore". I wonder whom she meant by We -- Because even now there are those who "think" that way about Native people, and some of them may well be the relatives of children with whom those Little House books are being shared.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for sharing this analysis of the Little House books. I love the books and am reading them with my kids now. I do feel like their is a significant difference between reading biographies that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote ~1900 and reading a book written today that negatively portrays Native Americans. When I read these books aloud to the kids, I skip over or reword parts (like Pa's story in Little House in the Big Woods). I also discovered upon rereading these books that I don't want to share the violence between students and teachers in Farmer Boy even though it was apparently ok for a teacher to whip students back when Laura was alive. The most problematic book, in addition to Farmer Boy, is Little House on the Prairie. Little House on the Prairie depicts in very human terms, and in a completely one-sided way, the conflict that arose between settlers and Indians. When I was an older child, I actually thought that it was eye-opening that settlers had had such an aweful, unhuman view of American Indians. While I read and "discussed" Little House on the Prairie with my 6-year-old son, I feel like I should hide this book until my three kids are older and have learned about American history elsewhere first.