Friday, August 13, 2010

Little House on the Prairie: another look

I haven't thought about this one in a while... since Library School days, actually.  In one of my Children's Lit classes, we discussed some of the classics, and how the books of our childhood, however endearing, actually act to perpetuate stereotypes and racial discrimination.  You might recognize a few of these titles: The Five Chinese Brothers,  The Indian in the Cupboard,  Little Black Sambo, The Matchlock Gun, The Courage of Sarah Noble... the the list goes on and on.  But the Little House on the Prairie series, because it is so adored, tends to get a free pass regardless of the racist remarks present throughout several of the books.  Most people are willing to overlook the descriptions of the "savages" because they feel it is a historically accurate representation of life on the frontier (actually it is a very one-sided representation), and simply a portrayal of the fear the Ingalls family lived with.  But when we hand those books over to our kids today, what are we telling them? 

While there are many in my field who are staunchly anti-Little House, I'd like to take the middle path.  Truly, these books are a slice of Americana.  They are certainly a part of the American social lexicon, and an excellent introduction to chapter books for budding elementary readers.  Girls, especially, get hooked on the series and before they know it, they've read 8 chapter books and are building fluency to boot.  They take us back to a simpler time and place, where a piece of candy in a Christmas stocking was a marvel, and a hand-sewn doll was treasured and adored.  That's nice.

So, what's my recommendation for taking this middle path?  Read the Little House books, but talk about them with your kids.  Talk about racism.  Talk about westward expansion, and what that meant to the native peoples that were displaced.  And while you're at it, read some books from the Native American perspective.   My favorite?  The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich.

In The Birchbark House, we get to see the same slice of time (1840's) through the eyes of a 7-year old Ojibwa girl named Omakayas.  Many of the same themes are present: family life, living off the land, harsh winters, and a brave little girl facing it all.  The Porcupine Year is the follow-up. 

Happy reading!

1 comment:

  1. Hi! I wanted to let you know of a really good website that keeps people informed about bias in children's literature about Native Americans. I was bummed to find Little House on their list. Please visit their website. I keep it bookmarked because I want authors who are "authentic."

    "Oyate is a Native organization working to see that our lives and histories are portrayed honestly, and so that all people will know our stories belong to us. For Indian children, it is as important as it has ever been for them to know who they are and what they come from. For all children, it is time to know and acknowledge the truths of history. Only then will they come to have the understanding and respect for each other that now, more than ever, will be necessary for life to continue.
    The great Lakota leader, Tatanka Iotanka—Sitting Bull—said, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we will make for our children.” Our work is to nurture in our children a sense of self and community. Our hope is that they will grow up healthy and whole.
    Our work includes critical evaluation of books and curricula with Indian themes, conducting of “Teaching Respect for Native Peoples” workshops and institutes; administration of a small resource center and reference library; and distribution of children’s, young adult, and teacher books and materials, with an emphasis on writing and illustration by Native people."