Children’s Books

Yes, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ is racially insensitive — but we should still read it

27 June 2018

From The Washington Post:

Since 1954, the American Library Association has awarded a medal for lifetime achievement in children’s literature in the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The original impetus behind the honor was dismay. Librarians were “chagrined,” wrote historian Leonard Marcus, that none of Wilder’s eight critically acclaimed Little House books had been recognized by the ALA’s highest children’s accolade, the Newbery.

Now, however, librarians are chagrined again. In February, the ALA announced that it was reconsidering the name of the Wilder Award. Alluding to the depiction of American Indians and African Americans in Wilder’s work, the ALA declared that her legacy put the group in the uncomfortable position of serving children while being unable to model values of “inclusiveness, integrity and respect.” Wilder’s books, it went on, “reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced.”

True enough. But the ALA’s statement nonetheless evokes the anodyne view of literature it has sought to correct through its annual Top Ten Most Challenged Books list. Changing the name of the Wilder Award is not an act of censorship, but no book, including the Bible, has ever been “universally embraced.” Mark Twain — whose “Huckleberry Finn” often appears on the list — himself mocked the idea that children’s books should never cause outrage. “The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean,” he once sighed sarcastically.

. . . .

Whatever the ALA decides, as a Wilder biographer, I would argue that her work and its reception are more complicated than we may once have believed, shedding light on the myths that white Americans have woven about the past.

Over the past 20 years, Wilder’s most famous novel, “Little House on the Prairie” (1935), has inspired almost as much disapproval as devotion. The novel has racist elements, and its portrayal of Indians has consequences when read uncritically and approvingly in schools. In 1998, an 8-year-old girl on the Upper Sioux Reservation of southwestern Minnesota — only miles from the storied town of Walnut Grove, immortalized in the 1970s-era “Little House” TV show — came home in tears after listening to her third-grade teacher reading the novel and a character’s repetition of the infamous slur, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Indians appear alternately as thieves or screaming warmongers, and the overall portrait is not tempered by Laura’s childish fascination or her father’s remark about a peaceable Indian, whom he describes as “no common trash.”

. . . .

The Minnesota girl’s mother, Waziyatawin Angela Cavender Wilson, a member of the Wahpetunwan Dakota and a scholar of history and American Indian studies, complained to the school, only to discover that her daughter’s teacher was “a fervent Wilder fan.” Wilson devoted months to an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to have Wilder’s books dropped from the curriculum, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to threaten the school board with a lawsuit over censorship.

In recent years, Wilson’s disgust has been echoed by other academics and joined by demands for greater diversity in children’s publishing, extending to editors, booksellers and librarians. Decrying Wilder’s widespread popularity, the scholar Debbie Reese, a member of Nambé Pueblo in New Mexico and founder of the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, has pleaded for everyone to “read more history.”

. . . .

Complicating the issue, other writers and immigrants, including those of color, prize the Little House books for their cozy family values. In her 2014 novel, “Pioneer Girl,” Bich Minh Nguyen, who was born in Saigon and immigrated to the Midwest with her family in 1975, explores Little House fandom as a means of negotiating assimilation. As for Walnut Grove, some 70 Hmong families — natives of Laos — are now living in and around the town, drawn by one Hmong girl’s devotion to the television show. There is a mural there, painted on the side of a brick building, featuring a smiling Laura alongside a Hmong woman in traditional dress. Their integration into the community has been called “the little marvel on the prairie.”

Whether we love Wilder or hate her, we should know her. For decades, her legacy has been awash in sentimentality, but every American — including the children who read her books — should learn the harsh history behind her work. Vividly, unforgettably, it still tells truths about white settlement, homesteading and the violent appropriation of Indian land and culture.

. . . .

 Each generation revises the literary canon. While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no 8-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of “Little House on the Prairie.” But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell. If the books are to be read and taught today — and it’s hard to escape them given their popularity—then teachers, librarians and parents are going to have to proceed armed with facts and sensitivity.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

In disputes such as have involved Ms. Wilder, PG tends to be in favor of historical accuracy and also respect for the right of an author to choose her words and phrases, particularly when she is writing about her own life and experiences.

In times of violent conflict, it is common, even expected that each side will create some epithets to describe those on the other side of the conflict. In 20th century United States history, World War II brought Krauts (see, for example, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 4, 1944) and Japs (see, for example, The Chicago Tribune, November 10, 1942) into regular use. If you look at contemporary newspaper accounts of battles, you will see those terms used liberally. The Korean War (see, for example, the Wilmington Morning News, December 26, 1952) and The Vietnam War (see, for example, The Boston Globe, December 9, 1969) brought Gooks into prominent use.

Turn the sides around in these wars and you will find Americans referred to as Scheiss-AmiGaijin and Miguk Nom.

To address the particular anti-Native-American epithet in Wilder’s stories, it’s easy to find “The Only Good Communist Is A Dead Communist”, ‘The only good Kraut is a dead Kraut”, “The Only Good Russian is a Dead Russian”, “Tthe Only Good Chinaman is a Dead Chinaman” and “The Only Good American is a Dead American” (“The continued survival of life on this planet depends on the extermination of the american nation. This is the simple, unvarnished truth, as any informed person will understand. No tears should be shed for americans, who are not humans any more. They have long since lost the right to be called that. One should not waste tears over roundworms and pathogenic bacteria.”)

The sentiments of the people on one side of an armed battle toward those fighting on the other side tend to be extremely demeaning. The brutal calculus of armed conflicts is that the side that creates the most dead enemies as fast as possible tends to win.

The Little House on the Prairie tells the story of the move of the family to Independence, Kansas, in the southwest southeast corner of the current state of Kansas a bit west of the Missouri border and on the border of what would later become the Oklahoma Territory.

In 1854, what was formerly recognized as part of Indian Territory was, by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, organized into the Kansas–Nebraska territory. The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively overturned the earlier Missouri Compromise between the the Northern and Southern states and nullified the earlier Dred Scott decision which declared that slaves and former slaves could not become United States citizens. These events were, of course, an important prelude to the American Civil War.

The states of Kansas and Nebraska were included in the large parcel of land acquired by the United States from France in 1803 and called the Louisiana Purchase. All the land east of the Mississippi River between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico had been transferred to the United States by Great Britain in 1783. A huge parcel of land west of the Mississippi, comprising the Louisiana Territory had been involved in disputes between the great powers of Europe, first claimed by France, then transferred to Spain then back to Napoleonic France.

Spain continued to own and control a huge portion of the land between the western edge of the Louisiana Purchase and the Pacific Ocean with this control and ownership dating back to the arrival of the first Spanish explorers at present-day San Diego in 1542.

President Thomas Jefferson engineered the Louisiana Purchase and determined that the acquisition of the land was permitted under the United States Constitution pursuant to the President’s power to negotiate treaties on behalf of the United States. After the acquisition, women, Native Americans, slaves, and freemen of color were not permitted to vote in any elections.

For better or worse, large European powers plus the United States were asserting ownership and control over North and South America. Spain and Portugal effectively divided all of Central and South America between them.

Back to Laura and her books. By the lights of standard legal understandings of the day in the United States and its territories, when Laura’s family moved to a farm near Independence, Kansas in about 1869 and settled, they were acting in a perfectly legal manner under the Homestead Act of 1862.

Homesteading in American territories and states continued through the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century with the last legislation, providing for Subsistence Homesteads as part of the New Deal in 1930. When PG was quite young, he remembers meeting a man who was living on land he homesteaded in the mountains of Colorado. The land titles in large swaths of the Midwest and Western United States derive from homesteads.

PG suggests that Laura Ingalls Wilders’ accounts of her experiences and the words and behavior of her parents that are recorded in her works of fiction were perfectly understandable and accepted as reasonable words and actions on the part of reasonable American citizens living under the conditions extant in the Western territories of the United States during the 1860’s.

PG suspects that locating anyone who held substantially different views of Native Americans within several days’ travel from Independence, Kansas, during that time would have been impossible. Indeed, traveling very far east from Douglas Montgomery County, Kansas (where Independence was and is located) would take a traveler into a state in which slavery had been legal until a handful of years earlier.

PG suggests that applying 21st century mores and habits to 19th century words and fears is silly.

If the 19th century has nothing worthwhile to teach us, by all means, don’t study it. However, if we believe people who lived a long time before we do learned any lessons or discovered any truths during their lives that may be beneficial to us, we should be prepared to accept them on their own terms and as inhabitants of their own times and conditions, living among people who believed and spoke much as they did.

Some have suggested that Laura’s way of speaking has simply become unacceptable in today’s world. While PG would not make some of the statements contained in Laura’s book today, Laura has already made those statements and is notably unable to revise or adapt the words she wrote a long time ago.

Laura has moved on. She can’t be punished or shamed by anything we do or say today.

On the other hand, generations of readers have consumed the words of her books and, on balance, have loved what Laura has written. Like a great many readers of a variety of older books, they have worked around anachronisms and odd habits of speech to make a connection with the author and the characters she has created.

A great many readers have managed to deal with Twain’s Nigger Jim and found his works rewarding. Jane Austen’s characters seem to have survived blatant misogyny in a great many forms.

Have readers become so delicate that they’ll shatter if they read about the only good Indian?



Laura Ingalls Wilder Hits the PC Guillotine

26 June 2018

From Intellectual Takeout:

Growing up, I never got into stories with knights and fair maidens. Walking around in princess dresses while imagining I was trapped in a castle by a vicious dragon? Not interested.

But give me a sunbonnet and braid my hair and I was lost in the world of Laura Ingalls. I still remember being in a titter of excitement at age four when my parents took me to the famous Little House on the Prairie pageant in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

As I grew older, my conception of Laura grew a little less romanticized as I read her books and realized the amazing hardships she and her family went through. I certainly wouldn’t want to spend six months freezing and starving through a horrendous winter, nor do I relish the thought of huddling in a cabin for several days thinking I could be killed at any moment by my screaming, angry neighbors close to going on the warpath. The Ingalls family had a tough life, yet they weathered through the storms and gave America an inspiring story of strength and perseverance.

Unfortunately, good ol’ Laura is the latest victim of our PC culture. As the New York Daily News reports, Ingalls was the first recipient of an author award given by the Association for Library Service to Children. The award was then named in her honor.

After 60 years, however, the award is being renamed as “the Children’s Literature Legacy Award” because of the attitudes conveyed toward minorities in the Little House books:

“‘This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness,’ the Association for Library Service to Children said in a statement after the unanimous vote.

The racial issues in her books have been debated long before February, when the ALSC announced it would be voting on whether to keep Wilder’s name on its award, calling her legacy ‘complex.’ At the forefront of the argument is her handling of black and Native American characters, both in namecalling and characterization.”

In the PC culture in which we live, I can see why Laura’s family story might be problematic. Because of bad experiences, the family – Ma especially – had some understandable fears of Indians, which naturally resulted in prejudices. And while these prejudices weren’t right, they were a fact of life which the pioneers had to wrestle with.

Link to the rest at Intellectual Takeout

PG worries that if de facto censorship of historic voices continues, the people who live in nations where such censorship occurs will increasingly become historically ignorant of past events and the sources of today’s (and tomorrow’s) social values.

In a very real way, the world in which Laura Ingalls Wilder lived and about which she writes is a direct cause of the nature of the United States in which its citizens live today. If the citizenry doesn’t know where it’s been, it may not collectively make wise decisions about where it’s going.

There were, in fact, Indian wars in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries, wars in which both Native Americans and Anglo Americans, including active participants and innocent bystanders, were injured and killed. To paint all those on either side of those conflicts as innocent of bad behavior is simply incorrect. Blood lust characterized each side on more than one occasion.

When PG was in high school, he lived within walking distance of the site where a major massacre of white troops was carried out by a group of Native Americans. A number of white civilians were also killed. Later, Native Americans, combatants and non-combatants, were also killed in retribution.

The descendants of some of those on either side of this battle attended a small local school together. The school’s athletic teams were called the Indians and both whites and Indians played on those teams.

At the time, the tribe lived in poverty on land set aside for their settlement several years after the big battle. PG did some checking a few years ago and the fortunes of the tribe and its members have taken a distinct turn for the better. The former lands held by Native Americans have been transformed into a reservation.

The tribe has built a gambling casino on its land and one of PG’s former high school football and basketball teammates is the President of the tribe. According to the reports PG has read, the financial conditions for members of the tribe are much better today than in former days in large part from the jobs and financial distributions to tribal members from the casino.

PG is not trying to imply a happily ever after ending for all or most survivors of the Indian wars in the United States. He does suggest that learning this history, whether through the fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder or from even-handed historians, is important, in part because doing so may help us avoid a repetition of it in the future.

For those who think that 21st century residents of western civilizations are well beyond the behavior others exhibited in former times, PG suggests that many things change, but human nature is remarkably similar in all ages. Having a clear view of former hostile manifestations of human nature is important if we are to diminish and eventually eliminate the adverse consequences of future disagreements.

B&N to Create Kids’ Graphic Novel Sections In All Its Stores

25 June 2018

From Publishers Weekly:

In the latest example of the growing popularity of the graphic novel category, Barnes & Noble announced plans to create dedicated sections for middle grade (ages 7–12) graphic novels in all of its stores beginning in June.

The new kids’ graphic novel sections will collect more than 250 book format comics titles aimed at children and preteens in one central location in each B&N store. The new sections will be labeled with “graphic novel” signage and will be located adjacent to the Young Readers areas in each store’s children’s dept.

Stephanie Fryling, B&N v-p merchandising, children’s books, said the new dedicated middle grade graphic novel sections will allow parents and kids to easily find their favorite comics artists as well as new and forthcoming works.

. . . .

Fryling said, “Readership of graphic novels continues to grow and expand, with kids flocking to this popular genre. Graphic novels are a way for kids to appreciate both reading and art, and the breadth of talent for both authors and illustrators in this category is amazing.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Carnegie medal winner slams children’s book publishers for ‘accessible’ prose

18 June 2018

From The Guardian:

Carnegie medal winner Geraldine McCaughrean has castigated the books industry for dumbing down language in children’s literature, warning that a new focus on “accessible” prose for younger readers will lead to “an underclass of citizens with a small but functional vocabulary: easy to manipulate and lacking in the means to reason their way out of subjugation”.

McCaughrean was named winner on Monday of this year’s CILIP Carnegie medal for her historical adventure novel Where the World Ends, 30 years after she first took the prize, the UK’s most esteemed children’s literature award. She used her winner’s speech to attack publishers’ fixation on accessible language, which she called “a euphemism for something desperate”.

“Most of its tyrannies are brought to bear on younger books right now. But blink twice and today’s junior school readers will be in secondary school, armed only with a pocketful of single-syllable words, and with brains far less receptive to the acquisition of vocabulary than when they were three or seven or nine,” she said. “Since when has one generation ever doubted and pitied the next so much that it decides not to burden them with the full package of the English language but to feed them only a restricted diet, like poorly patients, of simple words?”

Words are mastered, said McCaughrean, by meeting them, not by avoiding them, and young readers “should be bombarded with words like gamma rays, steeped in words like pot plants stood in water, pelted with them like confetti, fed on them like Alphabetti spaghetti, given Hamlet’s last resort: ‘Words. Words. Words.’”

Otherwise, she warned, publishers would “deliberately and wantonly create an underclass of citizens with a small but functional vocabulary: easy to manipulate and lacking in the means to reason their way out of subjugation, because you need words to be able to think for yourself.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

What’s Going On In Your Child’s Brain When You Read Them A Story?

26 May 2018
Comments Off on What’s Going On In Your Child’s Brain When You Read Them A Story?

From National Public Radio:

“I want The Three Bears!”

These days parents, caregivers and teachers have lots of options when it comes to fulfilling that request. You can read a picture book, put on a cartoon, play an audiobook, or even ask Alexa.

A newly published study gives some insight into what may be happening inside young children’s brains in each of those situations. And, says lead author Dr. John Hutton, there is an apparent “Goldilocks effect” — some kinds of storytelling may be “too cold” for children, while others are “too hot.” And, of course, some are “just right.”

Hutton is a researcher and pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital with a special interest in “emergent literacy” — the process of learning to read.

. . . .

While the children paid attention to the stories, the MRI, the machine scanned for activation within certain brain networks, and connectivity between the networks.

“We went into it with an idea in mind of what brain networks were likely to be influenced by the story,” Hutton explains. One was language. One was visual perception. The third is called visual imagery. The fourth was the default mode network, which Hutton calls, “the seat of the soul, internal reflection — how something matters to you.”

. . . .

In the audio-only condition (too cold): language networks were activated, but there was less connectivity overall. “There was more evidence the children were straining to understand.”

In the animation condition (too hot): there was a lot of activity in the audio and visual perception networks, but not a lot of connectivity among the various brain networks. “The language network was working to keep up with the story,” says Hutton. “Our interpretation was that the animation was doing all the work for the child. They were expending the most energy just figuring out what it means.” The children’s comprehension of the story was the worst in this condition.

The illustration condition was what Hutton called “just right”.

When children could see illustrations, language-network activity dropped a bit compared to the audio condition. Instead of only paying attention to the words, Hutton says, the children’s understanding of the story was “scaffolded” by having the images as clues.

“Give them a picture and they have a cookie to work with,” he explains. “With animation it’s all dumped on them all at once and they don’t have to do any of the work.”

Link to the rest at NPR

Christopher Robin – The Movie

25 May 2018

Timeless Preoccupations and Old-School Virtues

20 May 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:


Louisa May Alcott’s 150-year-old novel, “Little Women,” has remained in print despite a message strongly at odds with contemporary mantras of acquisitiveness, self-indulgence, self-promotion and vulgarity.

The tale of a quartet of sisters in Civil War-era New England has an unfashionable theme: Virtue is always rewarded. Profound tensions—over money, marriage and a woman’s role in the world—propel the novel, slingshotting Alcott’s work into the pantheon.

Alcott wrote “Little Women,” which was published in installments in 1868 and 1869, in a matter of months. The book follows the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy—who live in straitened circumstances and have fallen on even harder times now that their father has gone off to war as a chaplain. That leaves their mother, Marmee, a single parent to the girls. Meg and Jo, 16 and 15 years old when the story begins, already are working—Meg as a governess and Jo as a companion to Aunt March, the family’s well-off relative. Beth, a frail and shy 13-year-old, keeps house and plays the piano while Amy, 12, is still in school.

As illness, disappointment and other tribulations pile up on the Marches, Marmee keeps her daughters cheerful and resolute. But life among the little women isn’t all bearing up under adversity, even if the March girls lack the guile of Becky Sharp, the peerless schemer in Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.” Laurie, the Marches’ handsome and prosperous neighbor, becomes a family favorite. Jo, an aspiring author, finds success with her writing. And, in the end—spoiler alert—most of the Marches end up happily married.

. . . .

Alcott’s genius is her timeless preoccupations—love and death, jealousy, fear and joy—which, despite changing mores, have kept the March family current for 1 1/2 centuries. The conversational prose often sounds as if the author’s pages flew directly from her desk to the printing press. She flouts chronology—“The three years that have passed have brought but few changes to the quiet family”—and sometimes ducks out of the narrative to address the reader directly. The occasionally insipid family scenes are leavened with bracing displays of bad behavior. Alcott details the Marches’ humiliations, such as Meg’s fashion missteps, Jo’s disastrous attempts at cooking and Amy’s star-crossed social-climbing. The author wrings a humanity from her characters that magnifies even the smallest events, such as when Beth dares to venture over to the neighbors’ house and is bewitched by the piano.

. . . .

Jo, the character who most reflects Alcott’s spirit, aims to earn a living with her writing and insists that her independent nature renders her anything but marriage material. Alcott gives Jo the book’s opening line, in which she vents over the family’s meager holiday plans: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” It’s a startling outburst, even if the girls do reconcile themselves to Marmee’s heartfelt if austere gifts: copies of John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” slipped under each daughter’s pillow. “Little Women” often reads as if Alcott had Bunyan’s work—something of a roadmap for a soul’s trek to heaven—in mind while writing.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal


Sexist Little Miss books? Bedtime reading is always a gender minefield

11 May 2018

From The Guardian:

Emily Thornberry doesn’t like “this thing about being little” and Piers Morgan wonders why “people bother with these things”, but this week’s kerfuffle over an undergraduate study on gender and stereotyping in children’s books shows that the Mr Men have their shocking side.

To be more precise, it’s the Little Miss series that has been causing all the trouble. These books are an offshoot of the Mr Men world launched in 1981, 10 years after Mr Tickle first extended his “extraordinarily long arms”.

I’ve written before about the Little Miss books – how they’re endlessly repetitive and suffer from a plague of exclamation marks – so I’m rather pleased to have another reason for relegating them to the sidelines.

According to the study, “female characters were more passive, had less direct speech and relied on being saved more than male characters” – a finding that chimes with my less scientific survey. Opening our collection at random, I find Doctor Makeyouwell (male) and Mr Small plotting about how to bring down (the admittedly vile) Little Miss Trouble: “I think … that something should be done about that little lady.”

But the Little Miss books are just one chapter in the long history of children’s books that reinforce sexist stereotypes. Take Dorothy Edwards’s My Naughty Little Sister books. When a father is asked to “mind my naughty little sister for the day”, she is predictably annoying, while he is “being a busy man”. When she has a tantrum, his answer is to shut himself away inside and forgets all about her, while she runs away. His response, when she’s found, is to breathe a sigh of relief: “Thank goodness I can work again without having to concentrate on a disagreeable baby.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG doesn’t want to step into a gender wars discussion, but unless the protagonists in children’s books are going to have siblings instead of brothers and sisters, those child characters will have character traits and (mirroring life) those character traits will include positive and negative elements.

The idea that the creators of fictitious child characters are obligated to produce stereotypically virtuous characters of one gender or another seems contrary to some of the fundamental building blocks of fiction – viewpoint and conflict.

If a male viewpoint character comes into conflict with a female character, is the protagonist permitted to have negative feelings towards his sister? Must all female characters be virtuous and brave or can they be thoroughly nasty or paralytically frightened by something trivial? Is a male character permitted to observe those characteristics for what they either are or appear to be in his eyes?

PG is committed to the idea that a fiction writer is and ought to be the dictator in the world the author creates. If the author wishes to strike a blow for gender equity with the characters and story and writes a book readers enjoy, that’s terrific. If the author wishes to set a story in Post World War II America and populate it with characters typical of that day and age, PG thinks it’s a silly criticism of the resulting book that it doesn’t comport with the social opinions of readers that appear seventy years later.

Norman Rockwell, The Saturday Evening Post, May 26, 1945 See for more

For more Norman Rockwell Post covers from the 1940’s, click here. And for covers from the 1950’s click here.

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