Sunday, July 8, 2018

William Shatner, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Me

There has been a brouhaha on Twitter (and other places) about the American Library Association's recent decision to rename their award for American authors who have made an ongoing contribution to children's literature. The award, called the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award from 1954 until this year, is now going to be called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

This has thrown many people, William Shatner among them, into a tizzy. It is clear that people who aren't very familiar with children's literature or the ALA are conflating and confusing several issues.

Renaming the award isn't censorship or erasure. The books are still out there, still well known, still sold and read and, well THERE. The name of an award has changed. The books pre-date the award and are in no way affected by the name of the award. I mean, seriously, how many people actually knew there even was a Laura Ingalls Wilder Award? 

The most recent winner of the award is Jacqueline Woodson, an African American author who has written picture books, novels in verse, memoir, MG, and YA novels. What kind of honor is it to give her an award named after an author who wrote a scene in which neighbors in blackface are presented as good clean family fun?  Is it really more important to honor the legacy of a dead white woman than to respect the humanity of a live black one?

"But it's better to keep the past alive so we can talk about how we've changed," they cry. Sure. Fine. Let's keep the Little House books, and To Kill a Mockingbird, and Huckleberry Finn. If you read them to your [white] children, you can talk to them about how and why attitudes and language have changed since the books were written.

But are you really going to expect a Native kid to enjoy reading lines about "The only good Indian is a dead Indian"? Is explaining that Wilder was a product of her times, and didn't actually endorse that statement, going to make that kid feel less singled out, less attacked, less marginalized and reviled and hurt?  Are William Shatner's feelings really more important than that kid's feelings?  

All of which is NOT EVEN THE REAL POINT. The point is that an institution took an award which they created in the first place, discussed whether or not they felt the name fully represented what they wanted the award to be, spent time discussing ideas, and came up with a name that more clearly represents their goal. It is completely irrelevant what the rest of us think. There's a whole side argument about some children's lit professors telling Shatner to "stay in his lane," and I rather imagine this is what they were trying to say. If you are not a voting member of the American Library Association, it really doesn't matter what you think about how they choose to name their awards. If it's that important to you, I don't know, go get your Masters in Library Science and then weigh in? 

Little House in the Big Woods is the first chapter book I read to myself. I will always have a soft spot for the series and Garth Williams's illustrations. But part of growing up is being able to take a critical look at what you overlooked in childhood. I was always proud of my status as a fifth generation Oregonian on one side, proud of my pioneer forbearers. When the white settlers moved to this continent and then across it, it took toughness beyond imagining, courage and grit and a spirit of adventure. It's only recently that I've come to accept that it also involved a genocidal land grab. 

Thomas Jefferson kept slaves. William Shakespeare was anti-Semetic. JFK and MLK were womanizers, Kevin Spacey is a creep, and so is Sherman Alexie. I buy cheap clothes at Target and try not to think about who makes them and what their living conditions are; I throw away plastic bags and weep crocodile tears over the islands of garbage in the ocean. We are all products of our time. We all make excuses for our questionable decisions.  I think the ALA is onto something with their decision to name the award for what it represents, not for a person. People are fallible. Ideals remain. 

Further reading:


  1. Well said. The ALA created this award and kept it running for 64 years. If they want to change the name, they can do it. If someone doesn’t like the change, that person can get the education and join the ALA.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. I'm sure you have seen the PASSIONATE defenses of LIW on a variety of blogs, etc. I can't help but think that a big, big, big part of this is valuing a certain kind of narrative about westward expansion and holding on to this narrative desperately.

  3. I get it, I do--like I said, great-granddaughter of Oregon Trail pioneers here. But c'mon, people. Also, the whole weirdness to me is reading"We're changing the name of an award" as "everything LIW ever did or said was evil." Kind of a big leap.

  4. I'd heard the hubbub over renaming this award, but I honestly didn't pay too much attention to it. I agree that it's ALA's right to rename it if they want (and, like you said, I didn't know it existed before!).

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction


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