Wednesday, July 15, 2020


Note from Debbie on December 3, 2020: When we hit 'publish' on this post, all the images were viewable. They are not visible now. I don't know why that happened here, and on other posts, too, but will try to figure it out. Our apologies! In the meantime, you can see the original post at the Wayback Machine

On social media and in some newspapers, people are talking about a documentary about Laura Ingalls Wilder that is in development.

I've done a lot of writing about the books and Wilder. I am not a fan. I think they've got many problems that are not seen as such by most readers.

I've pulled a lot of my materials on Wilder out, and thought some AICL readers might be interested in seeing the original illustrations done by Helen Sewell, compared to what Garth Williams did. I'm using a hardcover copy of the Sewell book. I don't have the book jacket, but for your reference, it looked like this:

Little House on the Prairie: Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Illustrated by Helen Sewell.

Most of the books that have illustrations by Williams have the cover shown below (a notable exception was one that showed a photo of a little girl meant to be Laura).

So--here you go! I'll number the side-by-side photos as I place them here. If you want to, submit comments below and refer to the photo number when you refer to a specific one. Apologies for the rough quality of the photos! I don't have lighting or equipment to do a professional-looking presentation of the books. Today you'll see photos of the cover thru end of the first chapter. I'll add others as time permits.

As you'll see when you scroll down, I'm trying to match text on page whenever either book has an illustration. Why did Sewell make decisions she did? Or Williams? How much autonomy did they have? How much was determined by Wilder? Or by the book editor? Or by the art department?

I welcome your thoughts and if you can point to writings about any of this, please do! And if you use these for your own writing, please cite me (Debbie Reese) and AICL.


COVER (on left is Sewell; on right is Williams).

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My only observations at the moment for chapter one are that the Williams edition has more illustrations than the Sewell one. Four illustrations of the wagon versus one illustration of the girls clinging to their rag dolls. Quite different in tone, isn't it?

Update: July 29, 2020--Back to add photos of illustrations in chapter two, "Crossing the Creek"

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Observations: The Sewell edition has no illustrations in chapter 2. The Williams one has illustrations on four pages. Three of the four have the wagon, and Williams is bringing a visual emotional tone of danger and loss to the story.


  1. I'm noticing how prominently the wagon is featured in the Williams illustrations, so far. Between editions of the book, had the reading public become more interested in the travel aspect of "going west"? Was it a matter of the illustrators choosing what they wanted to depict?

    So far, Sewell focuses on the children and animals. The dwelling appears only on the cover. Williams' illustrations show a landscape, birds, people (from a distance), and the wagon. The "little house on the prairie" appears at a distance on the Williams title page, and the "little house in the big woods" is in the background when the Ingalls family says good-bye to their family. On the table of contents page, Williams depicts a small, indistinct "Indian"figure on a hilltop. So that's probably a bit of foreshadowing for the early-20th-century reader: "There will be Indians in this book!"

  2. I am not sure if my previous comment submitted. If so, please delete this one.

    I found the letter Williams wrote to his publisher interesting. Looks like he was just going to draw whatever he wanted until he saw the sites in person and in pictures.

  3. FYI, the illustrations are all gone, except the first one of the cover of the Sewell book.

    (I read your blog because I'm a parent, and because my job as a college librarian includes choosing English-language fiction for our library.)

    Karen Gorss Benko

  4. This information was on Wikipedia and source citations are Campbell, Gordon (July 7, 2009). "Classics: The Rabbits Wedding by Garth Williams" and Anderson, William (March 1, 1993). "Garth Williams after eighty". The Horn Book Magazine:

    Williams received the commission to illustrate the new Little House edition in about 1947. To know the worlds of Laura's childhood, Williams, who had never been west of the Hudson River, traveled the American Midwest to the places the Ingalls family had lived 70 years before, photographing and sketching landscapes, trees, birds and wildlife, buildings and towns. "The trip culminated in a search along the riverbank along Plum Creek where the family had built their dugout home, so long ago.

    I did not expect to find the house, but I felt certain that it would have left an indentation in the bank. A light rain did not help my search, and I was about to give up when ahead of me I saw exactly what I was looking for, a hollow in the east bank of Plum Creek. I felt very well rewarded, for the scene fitted Mrs Wilder's description perfectly.

    [He] wanted to ... be able to see the house on Plum Creek ... as Laura would have done, as a happy, flower bedecked refuge from the elements, with the music of the nearby stream. Which is how he drew it.[2]

    Ursula Nordstrom's initial plan was for Williams to produce eight oil paintings for each book, sixty-four in all. This proved to be not cost-efficient. Williams illustrated the Little House books with a simple pencil, charcoal, and ink. Much of his work was accomplished in Italy.[4]

    Williams later illustrated the first edition of The First Four Years (1971), which is commonly considered the last of nine books in the Little House series.

  5. I am currently reading this to my six year old, as it was a beloved story from my childhood. I have tried to shelter her, but am realizing, as a white family, we need to be reading material that brings up difficult conversations about mistakes of the past, and talk through what is appropriate for now. I am so uncomfortable reading some of it though. I have a long way to go in my own prejudice and want to try and instill less in her. If you revisit this, I would love to hear how you would talk through the inaccurate portrayals And what would be more appropriate. Or would you just skip the bad and insert the appropriate. (So far I have been doing this with “Indian,” replacing it with Native American.) We talked about Papoose. I’d appreciate any help so I can send her in the right direction before she learns all this stuff in school.

  6. Amy,

    I wouldn't read the book to kids, at all. Instead, I'd be giving and reading books to them that accurately depict Native peoples. And I'd give them books by Native writers and illustrators. When kids have solid information about who Native peoples were and are, I think they will be better able to detect problematic content on their own when they come across it. If you're looking for historical fiction of that time period, you could read Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich instead of LHOP.

    Many parents and teachers are finding An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, for Young People helpful as they work on lesson plans that have content specific to Native peoples--or that omit us entirely.



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