Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Reading the Little House Books

I have been reading aloud to Lucia the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I loved them as a child, and reread them many times. While I recoiled at the racist depictions of Native American Indians and African-Americans (the minstrel show in Little Town on the Prairie) and was able to filter them out, it never occurred to me until I was an adult how these books might affect American Indian and African-American children. Why not? I certainly was affected by reading a lot of classics and contemporary books that were demeaning to women and girls.

Lucia first learned about the Little House books when one of her classmates dressed up as Mary, Laura's older sister. When my father sent out my dolls that had been stored in his attic for over 20 years, I gave Lucia the dolls that I had named Laura and Mary (Fisher Price My Friend dolls from the 1970's). She asked again about the books. I told her that the stories were good, but that there were certain things I objected to. I decided to read them aloud to her with some editing involved plus age-appropriate discussion about those sections.

"Laura" and "Mary" in their little bed

A couple of years ago, I brought up the issue of the Little House books with an online community, and my qualms about reading aloud a beloved series that I nonetheless had problems with. No one came out and directly accused me of censorship, but the term was bandied about. I didn't think that was fair. I didn't say others shouldn't read the books or that they should be removed from the shelves. I talked about my misgivings about giving the books to my own daughter, for whom I am supposed to be a responsible, conscientious parent. When I decided to read the books to Lucia, it was with the idea that this would be her introduction to the stories. Later, when she was older and had more critical thinking skills in place, she could read the books in their entirety.

It's almost two months since Lucia and I started reading the Little House books together. We're on These Happy Golden Years with no plans to continue on to the dreary The First Four Years, published after the deaths of both Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. We've talked about the issues mentioned above, plus the settlers' sense of entitlement to the land, and I think Lucia understands them as much as a 6 1/2 year old can understand.

While she enjoys the stories, Lucia is most fascinated with the clothes described. Last night, she interrupted my reading aloud to ask "What's a polonaise?"

"I think it's a bodice like a basque," I replied.

Please feel welcome to share in the comments or your own blog posts your experiences of being alienated by books beloved to others or your struggles with "problem books" you enjoyed as children.


tanita davis said...

Wow -- here's the thing. If you're allegedly censoring your child's reading of the story, you're not doing it for her school or her classroom, you're doing it for HER. And she may go back and read those books herself when she can read. End of story, you're PARENTING -- I know it's hard to identify for some people, but that's what it is: making choices for your kid 'cause they're too young to do so, YOU want them to learn from a certain point of view, and then, when they're able, you let them go on their own.

Good grief: I can figure that out, and I have no kids.

I had a book called Singing Tree & Laughing Water read to me when I was a kid. It was about a Caucasian family who adopted two Native American children. Egads, would I not want to read that to a child now. It was dreadful, condescending, allegedly missionary crap. It was written by people who meant well but didn't understand that they had no particular White Person's Burden to shoulder. I would think it would be the right thing to try to filter some of that out if I *had* to read that book to a kid.

I think it's nice that you're allowing Lu the experience of the Laura books, without the racism. Like many parents don't read the swear words when they're reading books to their kids (and then the kids use the Merriam-Webster in their classroom and look them all up anyway), I truly believe it's just one of those things parents do early on. Later - well, they'll learn that people are different from Mom and Dad. But why too much of that at six?

Charlotte said...

I am too brain dead for serious thought, so I will say instead that I clicked through the polonaise link and feel better informed...thanks!

Lone Star Ma said...

I read the books to my eldest when she was four and am currently reading them to my youngest who is five. I take out all the racist language,etc. You can't really read the books if you take out everything about the conflicts between the Native Americans and the white settlers, though, so I soften the language and talk about that era with my kids - Manifest Destiny and the meanness, without too many age-inappropriate gory details. I have no qualms about censoring what I'm reading to my own kids. I frequently remove references to Santa not being real, etc. in things I read, so why would I not protect them from hate and violence? I generally have a no violence in media before 7 rule, although I allow for Pa's hunting for food, etc. No Narnia even.

It sucks to me to go back as an adult and notice offensive things in well-loved books from my childhood, but I'm white and of course had not thought about the totally different experience that Native children, and even African- Americans would have had reading most of those books. I hate it when I'm stupid like that.

Anonymous said...

You can't really read the books if you take out everything about the conflicts between the Native Americans and the white settlers, though, so I soften the language and talk about that era with my kids - Manifest Destiny and the meanness, without too many age-inappropriate gory details

Except some of the details - like the fact that, when on the prairie, Pa was *illegally* on the Osage reservation. (And he can't have been the one honest man - everybody else was threatening and stealing from and killing and robbing the graves of the Osage in the area, and we know what Mrs. Wilder thought of them (nothing good), so who knows what Pa got up to in the meantime?

Oyate.org suggests The Birchbark House as a different look at that time period.

Lone Star Ma said...

I think it is appropriate to tell kids of whatever age that it was wrong for the white settlers to be pushing the Native peoples off their lands and wrong for the white settlers to think they had a right to that land or that they were better than anyone else. I think kids need to be a little older than 4, 5, 6 before they are exposed to anything much more explicit, because the explicit details are too horrible. Unfortunately, far too many children have had no choice but to face horrors beyond their years.

Wendy said...

I have no doubt that when your daughter is ready for the "rest" of the books, you will be there with her. Waiting isn't censorship.

Conuly, the book is explicit about the fact that the Ingallses are on their land illegally, though they didn't believe it at the time. And I don't think Pa was portrayed as the only honest man (Mr. Edwards? Dr. Tann?), but why shouldn't he be? Pa is often portrayed as the voice of reason among men throughout the series. He is religious, moral, well-educated, respected. (I mean, I do have my own issues with him, but I think he's believably all of those things.)

Saints and Spinners said...

Thank you for what you have all brought to this discussion thus far. (And by the way, conuly, Birchbark House will be the next book we read, so thank you.) I had dug up some good essays earler, but now I've lost the link. Oyate.org has some good book recommendations, and I recommend reading the "Living Stories" section of their website.

Schelle said...

I devoured the Little House series when I was about 13 and have not revisited them since, though I remember mixed feelings of love and confusion about them. I had no guidance in reading them, and I think it would have been very helpful. As an Australian, we have our own indigenous issues, and I also have native american ancestry (way back when a Scottish missionary married a Canadian Cree). But then, I think a lot more guidance and filtered reading aloud in my early childhood would have been a VERY good thing. I was omnivorous and undiscerning and largely left to my own devices. For example, I read '1984' in 1984 (I was 11). Not a good idea! I think you are doing a wonderful thing by introducing Lucia to well-loved literature in a way that equips her to revist such texts with emotional intelligence once she is old enough to choose to do so :D I'm off to have a look at that website!
PS. Yay for Lucia - I think much of my early love for sewing and fabric came from reading... I still remember the poplins in Alcott's Little Women (which I had to untangle in my mind from poplars...)

Wickle said...

Tanita Davis nailed it ... You made a choice for your kids. Not someone else's kids. Your kids.

That isn't censorship. Censorship is when I decide that because I didn't like something, I want to deny it to everyone. You're letting everyone else make their own decisions.

And I think that you made a good one.

There is an appeal in the Little House books that is timeless. There are parts, though, that are dated. Depending on the age of the kids, though, it might be best to put off dealing with some of those issues.