Classic Remarks: Laura Ingles Wilder in School

This week Krysta and Briana at Pages Unbound are hosting the discussion: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie has been criticized for its depiction of Native Americans as “primitive.” Should students continue to read this book in school?

I want to start by saying that, as a teacher-librarian, I think kids would better served reading fewer classics and more books they are going to be able to relate to and without old-fashioned language to decode. I don’t want to throw the classics out, but for elementary schoolers there’s not really a reason to read Little House in the Big Wood AND Sarah Plain and Tall AND Charlotte’s Web. If there’s nothing in your curriculum for kids under the age of 13 written since 2010, in my opinion your curriculum needs to be adjusted.

There’s a lot of reasons for this that aren’t the point of this post, but I’ll summarize by saying that the major points of doing a novel study in elementary school are 1) improving kids’ reading level by challenging them without challenging them so much they can’t get it, 2) teaching them to love reading, and 3) make connections with literary elements they’re learning about and see them in the wild. If the book has antique language, that can be an added element of difficulty that can prevent them from enjoying and understanding a book, which interferes with all three goals. AND if they aren’t being presented with books they love, kids won’t learn to love reading. It’s not that kids won’t love classics, but they may be able to connect more with some of the FANTSTIC kids’ lit being written today.

I also want to preface by saying that I loved the Little House books, especially the later novels, as a young person and read them more than once. While I now understand that it’s a pretty ethnocentric look at the past, I credit Wilder with starting my interest in Historical Fiction and history in general.

Moving on to the discussion.

No, there’s not a reason for teachers to be teaching Laura Ingles Wilder in 2020. While I don’t necessarily have *as* big of a problem with Little House in the Big Woods, and can understand why teachers would use it as an example of Historical Fiction, I think the problems with the series don’t outweigh the benefits of an actual first-person account of pioneer life.

Aside from the fact that Laura Ingles Wilder’s family was living on stolen land (even in Big Woods) and she never acknowledges it, openly racist and and fearful representations of American Indians are presented on-the-page, especially in Little House on the Prairie. While a good teacher can use this as a teaching moment about racism and poor treatment of the Native peoples (Laura seems to be watching them on a forced march out of their territories in Prairie), in my experience most teachers don’t. While you could partner Prairie with a book written from the Native perspective, in my experience most teachers won’t.

In addition, if you remove the problems with the book, Little House is still not an ideal novel study for the average elementary classroom. Common Core requires so many standards for even the youngest students, that novel studies can be hard to “fit in” to instructional time. Wilder’s books are long, and will likely be too time consuming to teach without requiring homework. And don’t even get me started on the inequities of homework. The reading level may be too difficult for reluctant readers, but the Laura’s age makes this book hard to move up to older grades.

Of course we should leave the books in libraries. Of course we could use scenes or individual chapters to help students learn about pioneer life. And OF COURSE I will never tell a kid “you shouldn’t read that book.” But for a teacher-organized novel study, consider The Birchbark House or Our Only May Amelia. Of if you really need a classic, Sarah Plain and Tall aged much better (and bonus is super short).

4 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Laura Ingles Wilder in School

  1. That’s a great point about the goal of reading instruction in younger grades. I’m a huge fan of keeping classics in the classroom in general, but there’s definitely a difference between approaching literature as a distinct field of study with important works (which makes more sense in high school) and teaching students generally how to read, to love reading, etc. (which makes more sense early on). Like, no one’s literary studies careers has been stunted because they didn’t read Sarah Plain and Tall or Charlotte’s Web.

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    1. And I think kids these days (especially boys) are so reluctant to read at all, if they’re not interested in a book by looking at the cover then they won’t read it at all, even if their teacher tells them they have to. I wouldn’t suggest throwing the classics out all together, but I *would* suggest having a mix of old and new in the curriculum.

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  2. I definitely think teachers should be offering a selection of books both old and new! Older books can be wonderful–they’re what made me love to read when I was young–but there are great new books, too, and I think some teachers just aren’t following the book market or reading children’s books to see what’s out there.

    And I think the recommended books schools should put out will really be determined by their school population, geographic location, etc. I think some schools may be more drawn to Wilder’s books, for instance. Maybe she’s a “local” author for them or they otherwise feel some interest or connection. I think that’s going to be a different situation from another school where the students don’t care about Wilder and have never even heard of her. In both cases, I think the teachers really need to consider what they’re going to teach and WHY.

    You make a good point that not all teachers are presenting the books in historical context or pairing them with another perspective. I’m hopeful that recent conversations about children’s literature and classics will help provide these teachers with another way of looking at things. You don’t have to teach a book just because your teacher taught it. And, if you are going to teach a certain book, are you going to teach it the same way? Or can you find a way to bring it into conversation with other books and our contemporary perspectives? I’ve been seeing a lot of teaching resources offered by publishers for teachers to address issues like racism and I would like to believe teachers will actually take advantage of them…..

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    1. That’s a good point, folks from Minnesota are more likely to be drawn to Little House in the Big Woods because it’s about their history. A lot of her books take place in Kansas, so I could see why they would want to read them.

      I agree, any time a teacher picks a book (regardless of what book it is) they NEED to ask why. I hope that teachers spend a good amount of reflection on which books they pick for literature study or read aloud, but I know practically that they are *so* busy and have *so* much to plan that often not as much thought/planning goes into those decisions as we might hope. For example, I once read Treasure Island to my class literally without planning it at all, I walked over to my bookshelf and thought, they’ll like pirates, right? and immediately started reading chapter one.

      That’s not to say there aren’t teachers out there that don’t take this planning all the way, because there TOTALLY are. But the average teacher tends to go with trends. Which is why I really want to get a committee together with my school district that has literature selections for the district for teachers to choose from. That committee could take the time to do that thinking/planning so the teachers don’t have to (but the conversations like the one we’re having still happen).

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