School of Education News

CCBC’s Horning helps the Isthmus examine ‘Little House’ controversy

August 16, 2018

The Isthmus newspaper recently reported that the Middleton-Cross Plains School District is taking a look at whether or not Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are appropriate for elementary students after the Wisconsin author’s name was removed from a national children’s award due to racist stereotypes in her books.

The Isthmus utilizes the expertise of UW-Madison’s Kathleen Horning in helping to put this hot-button topic in perspective. Horning directs the School of Education's Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC), which is a non-circulating examination, study and research library for those interested in children's and young adult literature.

The Isthmus reports that in June, the American Library Association’s Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) changed the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. In explaining the decision, the group stated that Wilder’s work about homesteading settlers moving West “includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”

Several passages in Ingalls Wilder’s books show characters expressing bias toward Native Americans and African Americans, the Isthmus notes.

“Little House in the Big Woods,” the first of the nine-book series, originally published in 1932, begins in Pepin, Wisconsin, where the Ingalls’ family cabin is now a museum and still hosts an annual festival. In “Little House on the Prairie,” Laura’s father talks of his dreams of moving West, to a place where “... there were no people. Only Indians lived there.” The publishers changed “people” to “settlers” in editions published after 1953.

At one point, the Ingalls’ neighbor, Mr. Scott, says, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” This passage, read aloud in class by a teacher on the Upper Sioux Reservation in Granite Falls, Minnesota, in 1998, caused an 8-year-old girl to go home crying. Her mother unsuccessfully petitioned to ban the book from the curriculum. In another passage in the “Little House” series, a group of male settlers dons blackface to perform a minstrel show.

“There are people who say that’s a reflection of the time, but children who are reading it today aren’t reading it in that past time,” Horning tells the Isthmus. Horning is also active in ALSC and a member of its parent organization, the ALA.

Check out the entire report for free on this Isthmus web page.

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