Little House on the Prairie

Interesting article last week (I think- the sedimentary record of incoming magazines is fallible) in the New Yorker on Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was a drunk, a divorcee, a rotten but prolific journalist, and a hardcore founding libertarian. She is thought by some scholars to have written all the Little House books, and she definitely helped shape the writing of the series.

I haven’t read the books since I was a little girl, but they remain very popular- and I was naively surprised to find out that Little House is a contentious title for its portrayal of Native Americans.  I hadn’t given the books any serious thought since third grade.

The Hidden Adult by Perry Nodelman is a new book that attempts to tease apart the agenda and messages embedded in writing in English for children.  Why do people write books for children?  What kinds of things are children allowed/encouraged/forced to read about?  Authors are part of their culture and they tend to reinforce the values of that culture, especially when they are writing for kids.

Children’s book authors HATE this idea.  A lot of them have the most preposterous reasons why they write for kids and they seem to believe in some magical muse that comes and generates characters and story lines for children that are too pure for the kind of academic and psychological scrutiny Nodelman pursues.  There are also plenty of “scholars” that engage in criticism of texts they have not read based on the presumed bias of the author, policing the shelves for what is appropriate for children.  I imagine this goes on with adult literature as well.

I like finding out the foibles and motivations of authors- but after six and a half years I still have no idea what to tell parents when they ask me what is appropriate for their child of a certain age.  I see these shelves of books seething with adult psychology, fictionalized biography to put James Frey to shame, hagiography, religion, hate, daddy and mommy issues, gender minefields, beautiful artwork, prose by committee and market forces and ask the child, “Well, what sort of things do you like to read about?”

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Author: Emily

Writer/ Librarian

7 thoughts on “Little House on the Prairie”

  1. Wow, I just read the bit about Little House. Makes me look at those books differently I guess. I read all of them as a kid, particularly liking Farmer Boy (and being jealous of the whip he makes) but I never really thought about how stylized the descriptions of the lifestyle were. Interesting.

    That said, I read some horrible books as a kid, books that were full of violence and blood. One in particular I remember (but not the title) involved a a group of kids who were told not to sleep in this one building because “the cats will get them” and of course, they ignored this warning and they did sleep there. One kid hid in a cupboard or something and awoke in the morning to all his friends missing and the walls and floor covered in bloody paw prints. Crazy.

    1. Can kids be trained as critical readers? I guess… I remember writing a whole book report on The Princess Bride, the book, which I believed to be a true history. I’ll look for the freaky murdering cats book. I like how vivid misremembered stories can be and how important in your life. That’s why everyone is going to fucking hate Where the Wild Things Are- good luck suckers!

  2. I just read The Princess Bride a few years ago (along with a few other classic children’s books I had never read as a kid- some held up, some did not). I was impressed that all the humour from the movie actually originated in the book!

    One of my favorite books as a kid was Caddie Woodlawn. She is a tomboy frontier girl and I remember she is friendly towards the “Indians” but I would like to go back and re-read with a more critical eye, towards the author etc. Don’t even know what year it was written, but as a kid certainly didn’t cast an eye toward what political philosophies or otherwise were influencing the author! I think I just thought it was an accurate, possible story. Don’t recall ever being taught to think critically outside the story at a young age…

    1. I don’t think it is a good idea to teach kids too critically- force them into dissections of their private readings at the dinner table? Maybe that is something you have to subtly model- they see other people liking/hating/questioning books and start to do it too. I’ll take a look at Caddie Woodlawn and report back.

  3. Young readers can’t be responsible for the prejudices, bias and violence in the society around them, or in the books that are put into their hands. I also always think it is interesting how we misremember stories (movies, too) and wonder how what our brains made of it reflect an emotional need or bring forth a particular emotional response. Your response, to ask a child (or anyone) what they enjoy reading is the way to start – but it is also good to have lots of other kinds of books around. Isn’t it wonderful that we have well stocked libraries and book and child loving librarians?

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