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Editorial: The Right to Read by Yourself

In choosing to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the Association for Library Service to Children did the right thing. The new name is bland but accurate, describing exactly what the award is for: to honor an author or illustrator whose books over the years have made, to quote the charge of the Wilder Award, “a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.” Laura Ingalls Wilder certainly deserves that. But in addition to renaming the award originally named in her honor (Wilder was the first recipient, in 1954), ALSC has also added a clause to the award criteria, continuing the sentence I quote above with “…through books that demonstrate integrity and respect for all children’s lives and experiences.”

That’s a tall order, and I’m not here to argue that Wilder can fulfill it. (But I do wonder if any writer can. “All children?) Her stereotypic depictions of American Indians, not to mention Pa’s appearance in blackface, are clearly offensive to many and just as clearly are no demonstration of “respect for all children’s lives and experiences” without several caveats. Despite the Twitter ravings of a certain retired Starfleet captain, ALSC has every right, perhaps even the obligation, to align its awards with its stated core values, which have among them “inclusiveness, integrity, and respect.” What inaugural Legacy winner Jacqueline Woodson says in her acceptance speech about writing applies equally to the awards any organization gives: “[They show] the world who we are, how we think, what we want.”

But in its announcement of the name and criteria changes, I do wish ALSC could have at least thrown a bone in Wilder’s direction. To change the name and terms of the award is one thing, but surely ALSC could have shown more respect to its own history and its contemporary membership to say, “Yes, there are some great things about the Little House books: their attentiveness to an authentically childlike viewpoint, their simply but evocatively sketched settings, their presentation of history lived. There was a reason we named the award for her.” A joint statement by then ALA President Jim Neal and ALSC President Nina Lindsay acknowledges that Wilder’s books “have been and will continue to be deeply meaningful to many readers,” but it offers no praise for Wilder at all, instead suggesting that “adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.” I’m all for discussion about books, any books, but here the word reads like a euphemism, suggesting that people, adults or children, who enjoy the Little House books are in need of corrective instruction.

Luckily, ALSC isn’t planning to do more here than query your reading tastes, and indeed Neal and Lindsay’s statement contains strong support for another of the Association’s core values, intellectual freedom: “Updating the award should not be construed as censorship, as we are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children.” That is exactly right. I’m glad that ALSC acknowledges that children should be free to read what they like.

And how they like. I feel that Daniel Pennac, in his otherwise liberating and comprehensive “Rights of the Reader,” left one out: the right to read by yourself. We cannot make young people’s reading conditional, advising that an adult be on hand to make sure the child reads a book that we label problematic the “correct” way. Trusting a child alone with a book is possibly the most radical — and essential — part of the work we do.

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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  1. Sam Juliano says:

    “But in its announcement of the name and criteria changes, I do wish ALSC could have at least thrown a bone in Wilder’s direction. To change the name and terms of the award is one thing, but surely ALSC could have shown more respect to its own history and its contemporary membership to say, “Yes, there are some great things about the Little House books: their attentiveness to an authentically childlike viewpoint, their simply but evocatively sketched settings, their presentation of history lived. There was a reason we named the award for her.”

    I am in complete and passionate agreement with this passage and indeed with just about this entire post. But Wilder is a children’s literature icon, one who has moved fountains in classrooms for many decades and she deserves every bit of consideration voices so eloquently here.

  2. Thank you for your editorial about a very divisive issue. I am more ambivalent about the award’s name change, specifically about the decision to make it effectively retroactive, rather than creating a new award. I, too, wish that the ALSC had made a statement about the value of Wilder’s work, but, as the saying goes, the decision to remove her name from the award was a feature, not a bug. Although the ALA did not advocate censorship, many of the strongest proponents of the name change explicitly called for replacing Wilder’s work, which they see as irredeemable. They advocated for the need to eliminate Wilder’s works in articles, blogs, and comments, from The New York Times to School Library Journal. You have pointed out here, and in past blogs, that conviction about which books will hurt which readers are sometimes misplaced. I would add that historical context always matters. If it did not, we could not enjoy almost any work of literature written before the twenty-first century, because most are riddled with prejudice: racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia. We have to read critically and grapple with those painful realities. I have been rereading all Wilder’s works and I am struck by their complexity. There is ignorance and repugnant racism, but also poetry, incredible historical detail, and a window into the mind of a child. Sometimes Laura subverts the beliefs of the adults around her, even questioning their hatred of Indians. At one point, when she persists in asking her parents why Indians would not be angry at the appropriation of their land, Pa silences her with a stern “No more questions…Go to sleep.” Finally, I am very concerned that the next time a local library or school district confronts demands to remove books about immigrants, gay teens, or religious minorities, they will find a model in the argument that the books are hurtful or irrelevant to their community.

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