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Legal Learning: Laura Ingalls Wilder is out

James Manahan

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award no longer exists. It used to be given by the Association for Library Service to Children — a division of the American Library Association — to a living author whose books have made "a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children."

Laura Ingalls Wilder was the first recipient of the award, in 1954. Theodor S. Geisel (Dr. Seuss) received it in 1980, and this year, Jacqueline Woodson won.

The American Library Association named the award after the author of "Little House in the Big Woods," "Little House on the Prairie" and 25 other books for children. I loved those books. My children loved those books. My grandchildren loved those books.

The eight "Little House" books tell the story of the Wilder family's pioneering life in the 1880s on the American frontier. They have been continuously in print since they were published in the 1930s, and have been translated into 40 other languages.

But part of the story of being settlers in Indian Territory was hostility to Native Americans. In a word: racism. Ma Ingalls, according to the author, said that the "only good Indian is a dead Indian."

So this year, the award was renamed to drop the name "Laura Ingalls Wilder."

Reporting racism does not mean that the author or the book is racist. Laura Ingalls Wilder deserves to be honored for writing her spellbinding (and mostly true) stories of pioneer American life. As stated by Tina Palmer of Eden Prairie, Minn., in a letter to the Star Tribune: "Wilder was an incredible hero to many of us — especially to women. In reality, she was an incredible feminist ... Instead of obliterating her works, parents and educators should use her words as an opportunity to teach the next generation."

Another letter writer, Jessica Mork of Edina, responded that "Kids don't need to read a book written more than 80 years ago" to learn about racism. "Indigenous students and students of color should not have to suffer the indignities of reading second-rate, racially charged novels so that their peers can experience 'teachable moments' in the classroom."

I'm reminded of the brouhaha in Duluth, where the school board decided that "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" will no longer be required reading due to the books' use of the word "n----r." The superintendent said that the books "are making some students feel uncomfortable."

It seems to me that the test should be whether a book has educational value, not whether it is comfortable.

It was suggested by one letter writer that children should read actual history books, not novels, to learn about racism in America. She suggested "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies," by Jared Diamond.

That is, indeed, an excellent book, but I confess that it took a lot of effort for me to get through it. I suspect that middle-school children will be much more likely to learn, and will enjoy doing so, by reading the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate. He handles family law, wills and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer. He can be reached at jimmanahan@gmail.com.

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