Wednesday, February 07, 2018

BIG NEWS: A possible change in name of ALA's Laura Ingalls Wilder Award!

Editors note: If you are not attending ALA's Midwinter Conference, you can submit a comment directly to ALSC regarding the proposed change to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award name at the ALSC blog. If you are attending, you can go to the meeting on Saturday (Feb 10). I welcome your comments here, as well, but urge you to submit comments directly to ALSC. 


Earlier today, there was some big news!

Way back in 1954, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) established the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. It is given annually to an author or illustrator in the US whose books have made a "substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children."

On Saturday, Feb 10 at the American Library Association's 2018 Midwinter Conference, ALSC will begin a discussion about changing the name of the award.

As I look at the logo for the conference, the line "The conversation starts here..." takes on new meaning!

In Nina Lindsay's (she is current president of ALSC) memo about the discussion, she included information that brought ALSC to this point. Here's some lines from her memo:
Today, this award elevates a legacy that is not consistent with values of diversity and inclusion--something we did not fully understand as a profession when we created the award.
A member wrote to me: “the Wilder is a monument that says something about our profession's history, but every year it is given out it also says something about our present.” 

My work has shown me that critical reflection on Wilder and her books is--for some people--uncomfortable. It is hard to look carefully--and acknowledge--that Wilder's depictions of African Americans and Native people, are flawed and racist.

Some will argue that at the time she wrote the books, things like blackface and stereotyping weren't seen as wrong. But, of course, African Americans and Native peoples knew them to be wrong. Here's some examples from the books:

In Little House in the Big Woods (1932), Pa tells Laura and Mary about his childhood in New York, where he'd pretend he was "a mighty hunger, stalking the wild animals and the Indians" (p. 53).

In Farmer Boy (1933), Almanzo and and Alice play "wild Indian" (p. 277).

In Little House on the Prairie (1935), the phrase "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" appears three times. I've written a lot about that book. The memo about the change points to one of my articles. They are depicted in menacing ways:

In On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), Mary tells Laura to put on her sunbonnet because if she doesn't "You'll be brown as an Indian, and what will the town girls think of us?" (p. 143).

In By the Shores of Silver Creek (1939), Ma recalls her fear of being scalped by "the savages" who had come into their house on the prairie (p. 100).

In The Long Winter (1940) when Pa mentions an Indian who told him that "heap bad snow come" (p. 61), Ma asks him what Indian, and she "looked as if she were smelling the smell of an Indian" (p. 64).

In Little Town on the Prairie (1941), Pa does blackface.  The newly released Kindle copies of the series changed the illustrations from black and white into color:

In These Happy Golden Years (1943), Uncle Tom tells about when he was on his way to the Black Hills, looking for gold, and had to go into a "strange depression" that, a prospector told him, the Indians called "the Bad Lands." The depression is a "heathenish" place with skulls and bones. Of it, Tom says "I think that when God made he world He threw all the leftover waste into that hole" (p. 106). When Laura and Almanzo are leaving, Grace runs out with Laura's sunbonnet, saying "Remember, Laura, Ma says if you don't keep your sunbonnet on, you'll be brown as an Indian!" (p. 284).

I was--and am--deeply moved by this news from ALSC! Here's their immediate plan:

In order to further move forward with a deliberate and open examination of our awards program, we suggest, at minimum, both of the following:  
1. Establish a task force to explore the ALSC awards program within the context of our core values and the Diversity & Inclusion goal of our strategic plan, beginning with whether to rename the Wilder Award. The task force should deliver recommendations regarding the Wilder in time for any changes to the 2019 award, soliciting feedback from members and other stakeholders, and consulting with the EDI within ALSC Implementation Task Force, ALSC Fiscal Officer, ALA Awards Committee, and other critical stakeholders upfront. Additionally, the task force may be charged with additional direction formed from the Board’s discussion.  
2. Immediately update the “About the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award” webpage with more informed background on Wilder and her legacy, and a statement about ALSC’s values and current actions in regard to the award. A proposed rewrite will be shared with the Board for discussion, and if the Board approves could be uploaded immediately, in time for the 2018 YMA announcements. A rewrite would additionally reaffirm the honor bestowed upon Wilder Award recipients, whose life work contributes essentially to ALSC’s vision of engaging communities to build healthy, successful, futures for all children.
I am a member of ALSC and will find out how I can contribute to the Task Force. I am also going to see how Native patrons of libraries across the country might be able to submit comments to the Task Force.

For me--as a Native parent, educator, and scholar--this has been a momentous day.

Update, 6:45 PM
Nina Lindsay submitted a comment below, which I am pasting here for your convenience. Above, I referenced the announcement and memo. The proper name is Document 29.
Debbie, thank you for sharing this. As the current ALSC President chairing this discussion, I'd invite everyone to visit to find our board agenda and documents; this discussion is title "ALSC Awards Program in Context of Strategic Plan" and is Document 29. 


Ava Jarvis said...

Most excellent!

Unknown said...

Debbie, thank you for sharing this. As the current ALSC President chairing this discussion, I'd invite everyone to visit to find our board agenda and documents; this discussion is title "ALSC Awards Program in Context of Strategic Plan" and is Document 29.

Anonymous said...

I won't be renewing my membership if this goes through. I know many more students that have loved her books than found offense in them.

Unknown said...

Anon105123- The change of the name reflects the need to have an award anyone would be proud to win. The novels reflect their time, clearly, and perhaps we need to name the award for an author without the bias of that time. It will be difficult to find an author with no point of view flaws, and It will be essential that the process for nominations and selection be based on criteria that represent both our objectives and values as e rename the award.

NasturtiumGirl said...

Anon105123, be that as it may, how many students of indigenous heritage have been quietly hurt by these stories after being hurt in a myriad of other ways? I love the Wilder books, but am able to see how they are not universally applicable and as products of their era are important to read with caveats and recognition of the bias written into them. These books are an important part of the literary heritage of our part of Wisconsin, but it's also important to be honest about what LIW could not separate from her personal experience and perspective. Her stories need to be a teachable moment, not an automatic read at an age when recognizing cultural bias is not even on their radar.

Mia said...

The ALA is also considering changing the name of the Geisel (Dr. Seuss) Award based on his racist books and beliefs. I think these are positive changes!

Mrs. Marshall said...

This is good to see. I have many indigenous students in my school. There are also many in our school district. I would _not_ want them what is above and worse still thinking that I somehow
think it is okay, no big deal. It's not and it's not about whether or not we found offence or others who read them as young non-indigenous readers or do now didn't/don't realize just how wrong it was/is. The fact is there is offence. And as Kathryn says and the ALSC recognizes it is important to have an award that anyone would be proud to win.

Unknown said...

In these most recent times, especially with the current President in Office, it seems it is “okay” to be blatantly racist and not even be ashamed of how some members in society are behaving. I have to question why the ALSC would continue with such an award when there has been proof that the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was racist. During her “peak” in her career, perhaps it was acceptable to be openly racist but it should by no means be justifiable today. How would a child today even know who Laura Ingalls Wilder is? If I saw any of her books in our current collection, it would probably be weeded out and discarded due to it never being checked out.

Unknown said...

In response to anon105123: Perhaps you've known "more students that have loved her books than found offense in them" because the majority of your students have been white?

Unknown said...

"Blogger Nancy Boone said...
In response to anon105123: Perhaps you've known "more students that have loved her books than found offense in them" because the majority of your students have been white?"

And maybe, more than that, while they haven't found the books offensive, it didn't teach them not to be offensive themselves. It subtly told them, that talking about Natives and African-Americans that way is okay. It didn't teach them that treating people that way isn't how we should be living now.

Nannette said...

Change is needed. Replace this award. The seeds we plant in young minds contribute to the current state of racial discourse in the U.S. and Canada. All children deserve better.

Bellevue reader-teacher-librarian said...

I applaud ALSC for considering this name change. I'd like to think that if Wilder we're alive today she would too. If we've learned anything recently about human rights, we must make this change.