Lessons Learned While Reading Little House on the Prairie with my Daughter
Problematic books can be okay as long as we situate them in structural context, have good discussions, and learn valuable lessons about systems of oppression and privilege that we can use to create meaningful change now
In 2018, the American Association for Library Services for Children (ALSC) removed Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from one of their literary awards. They made this decision because somehow it took this long to take note of the “anti-Black and anti-Native American” language and sentiment in her classic works about pioneer life in the 1870s-1880s.
In 2019, I decided to read Little House on the Prairie to my ten year old daughter.
I have always had an intense dislike for anything having to do with pilgrims or pioneers. I just could not get into it as a kid, as a white kid. I had this aversion to books, TV shows, plays, whatever predominantly white schools want to teach predominantly white kids about these extremely problematic white people. I knew, in other words, that something about all of this just was not right.
I remember my grandma gave me a copy of Little House on the Prairie to read when I was about ten. And I remember telling her I hated it. And then, thanks trauma, I remember she died a few months later (suicide, not my fault but try to tell a ten year old girl that, right?). I felt pretty bad. But I never was able to pick up that book and get into it.
I like to think that even as a child, a white child, I knew something was seriously wrong with a lot of the things in books, history class, a lot of what we were taught and a lot of what was left out. All it took was one look around my classroom to see how difference was valued, treated, and not really existent at all in most cases.
Fast forward to probably 2017. My daughter’s friend was reading Little House in the Big Woods. She wanted to read it too. So, being a book nerd, and yes, thinking of my grandmother, I got the boxed set of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.
And we really enjoyed the Big Woods. Primarily because of the slow, sweet, focus on the daily life of the family. The description of cooking meals, building homes, and for my daughter, the amazement of the simple joy the Ingalls girls had playing with a blown up pig bladder as a ball. I tell you, it was memorable for her, and delightful for me to see her thinking about what it might be like to be a kid at this time, tossing around a blown up pig bladder.
So about a month ago we picked up the third book in the collection (we skipped the second because it truly sounded boring and also there were parts about corporal punishment and being beat that were just too harsh for me to read aloud to my kid before bed — yikes!). The Little House on the Prairie has a lot of calm, peaceful, educational, sweet moments. And it has a minefield of white ignorance, racism, and exists as a perfect period piece of both the time of the events (1870s-1880s) and the time of its writing by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1935).
I value reading. I value education. I value the accurate and full learning about events in history that have impacted and shaped events of today. So, I value reading this book to my daughter. However, this being said, I cannot let it stand alone. I am not going to recount the multiple problematic sentences, events, descriptions, etc. Because I think reading it for yourself is important, or reading it with your child. And also, who wants to read a listing of “here’s where Laura Ingalls Wilder was pretty racist” in her accounts of telling the story of her, oh, let’s face it, pretty racist life. Because what other way to say this is there: pioneers and settlers were the beneficiaries of profound, deep, structural, government racism in policy and in agenda.
It’s this telling, this context, that is important to share with kids. So, how can we do this?
Let’s try some of these things:
1). Read it.
Pick it up, library or bookstore, enjoy the time reading with your child.
2). Talk about it as you read it.
This is important. I have skipped parts, I admit it. But only because we are reading this together before bed and I just do not know how to make some of the things in this book into pleasant bedtime reading.
My daughter and I have talked about so much in this book. She enjoyed listening to how the family traveled by covered wagon, what foods they ate, and also we have talked about the day to day life of the little girls who watched animals all day, helped with chores, and were overjoyed to get a tin cup for Christmas. Things like this really have an impact on kids today.
We have also talked about why Laura might be describing something in this way, what she might not have known at the time, and why Ma seems to be so afraid of and also super racist about Indians and Pa seems to be a bit less afraid and somewhat more cool about understanding the plight of Indians at this time.
3). Plan Next Steps
This book cannot be read and then left alone. It cannot stand on its own. I have to explain to my child about the phrase and also explicit intentional phase of US Government policy of “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” for one thing. I have to explain to her about the policies of Indian Removal, about the actions of the US towards the buffalo, about some of the basics of “treaties” and the consistent breaking of them.
Our next steps include, directly based upon incidents from this book:
Reading books about and if possible, by American Indians about this time period, such as: Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown, but maybe an abridged version, or perhaps just using it to talk with your child about the time period, feelings, and horrific events in ways that can give your child age-appropriate context. Seek out accurate, American Indian created, run, and endorsed resources online that might also provide more context for your child.
Listen to traditional Native American tribal songs, look up information and examples on the diversity of indigenous language, and look up historical images of the tribes native to the areas of “the Prairie” to help give more context to the really problematic descriptions Laura has of tribal language, songs, culture, and dress.
Look at timelines that illustrate what was happening during this time period to help connect it to the bigger picture, and also, somehow bring issues and incidents to the present time by talking with your child about issues of race, racism, and the realities of “Indian Country” today via contemporary resources.
If anything, reading the Little House books provides children and adults with actual insight into the minds, thoughts, feelings, of people taking other peoples’ land and finding ways to be okay with that. It provides detailed descriptions of white supremacy thinking and actions. And this is valuable. Not to set it in the past, like many wish to, and say yes this used to be how white people thought and felt about people who were not like them, etc. But to bring it forward to now. How might this level of thinking be happening now? How might white people of 2019 be able to allow for certain things to happen to non-white people and not attempt to stop it, make changes, wake up, or in all other ways change their hearts and minds when it comes to race, racism, and oppression in America.
Learning about history via memoir and autobiography is important for all of us at any age. The thing to do is to always ensure we set it in context. Wider things were happening at the time, structural roots were taking shape in terms of setting up systems of white supremacy, and these things are vital to understand, both then and now.
My daughter has a deeper understanding of both what life was like for some white people in the 1880s and also what life was like for most American Indians in the 1880s because of the conversations sparked by reading this classic, yet problematic, book. And that makes it worth it.
Jenny Justice is a mom, Sociology instructor, and writer. You can follow her on Medium and at Jenny Justice, Writer. She has been recognized as a Top Writer on Medium in Poetry, Parenting, Reading, Education, Books, Racism, and Climate Change, so far.
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