Reading to Kids about Little House Racism

Response to Huffington Post, Claire Fallon “Our Favorite Classic Children’s Books are Super Problematic,” published 2/5/2016.

In her piece, Fallon makes the point that because the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder offer some problematic portrayals of Native Americans in particular, she wouldn’t read it to her hypothetical kids.  I disagree.

77767Perhaps Fallon and I differ in opinion because my kids are real and corporeal.  We’re not quite ready for Little House on the Prairie, but avoiding it seems like it misses out on the biggest things that a parent can offer their children, teaching about the world and how to think for themselves despite the ‘authority’ of the written word.  

I first read Little House on the Prairie with my mom and brother when I was about 7 or so, and probably haven’t read them since I was about 10.  When Stuff You Missed in History Class talked about the problematic way the series talks about Native Americans, and the problematic way the Ingalls parents behave toward Native Americans,  I was horrified at the truth. To me, this series was about hard work and simple pleasures, and held special memories as being the last books my mom read aloud to us before I decided she read too slowly, yet it actually embodied hate-filled racism toward a group of people.

And, actually, I have come to be glad that someone has pointed this out.  At 7, I didn’t understand about the way white American settlers got the land they pioneered to in their wagons.  I didn’t know about the genocide and misery and outright cruelty dished out to Native Americans because Europeans were desperate for their land and dehumanized them because of their skin color and different cultures.  Even after I did learn about all of this, I didn’t think about Little House on the Prairie enough to put it together with my new understanding of history.  So, I am grateful that someone removed the scales from my eyes, and that as a society we are talking about problems we see in classics.  I recently re-read Anne of Green Gables and got a bit of icky listening to Matthew and Marilla talk about hiring on French Canadians.  Why is it that L.M. Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder were published with their stories about girls in the simple old days?  Why is it that their books were wildly popular?  Where are the Native American women equivalents to these authors, writing about the time from their perspective?

One thing I can do is talk about it with my children when we read Little House on the Prairie.  By hiding away the ugly sides of history, we do a disservice to our children, who won’t understand the world, and we do a disservice to the communities still dealing with the repercussions of these events.  I think that Little House on the Prairie offers a great chance to talk with kids about racism and unfair treatment of Native Americans, without having to drop a 7-year-old into the Massacre at Wounded Knee or the Dakota War of 1862. Racism doesn’t make a book inappropriate, but unquestioning acceptance of racism or any form of prejudice is not ok.

Read Little House on the Prairie and talk about why Pa’s actions in Indian Territory are not ok, why Ma’s behavior toward Native American men is not ok, how this carried on into modern Native American reservations, the ways we still see Native peoples depicted in books and movies, etc.  And then, pick up a book by Cynthia Leitich Smith or Louise Erdrich to read with your kids and talk about Native American lives today and how different stories are when told by voices from their community.

Links I like about this topic:

“How to Read Really Racist Books to Your Kids” by Jeremy Adam Smith, Greater Good Science Center, June 22, 2012.

“Are Some Classics Unsuitable for Kids?” by Kavitha Rao, The Guardian, July 23, 2009.

American Indians in Children’s Literature, website run by Debbie Reese

“Surprise!  It’s Racist!  Unwanted Children’s Book Surprises.” by Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal, September 25, 2014.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s