FROM YOUR EDITOR Legacy Children's Literature

Words & Pictures Editor, Claire Watts, has been thinking about the children's books we choose to pass on to our children.

A couple of weeks ago, the board of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), part of the American Library Association, voted unanimously to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for children’s literature to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Born in 1867, Wilder’s best-known works are the eight books of the Little House series, published between 1932 and 1943. The stories are based around her upbringing as a settler in the American West. According to the ALSC, Wilder’s work ‘includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values.’ Wilder is acknowledged as one of the classic writers of American children’s literature, but her legacy has been tainted by her portrayal of other races in the books. One line in particular that has been called into question originally read that Kansas has ‘no people, only Indians.’ Wilder herself apologised for the line and amended it to ‘no settlers, only Indians.’ You can read more about why the ALSC made the decision to rename the award here.

My own Wilder collection (photo: Claire Watts)

There has been controversy over the announcement. While people troubled by aspects of Wilder’s work which are unacceptable today see this as a positive step, to some Wilder fans, it’s a slur on the legacy of a beloved childhood favourite.

It’s not likely that the Little House books are going to disappear from bookshop shelves any time soon, though. They’re an established classic, and Wilder’s strong, direct voice paints a portrait of the past that’s easy for modern children to understand. Even if some people choose to turn their backs on the books, others will keep buying them and passing them on.

The legacy of the children’s books

This story set me thinking about the legacy of the children’s books we pass onto future generations. Many of us have a handful – or more – of precious books from our own childhood that we desperately want to share with our children and grandchildren. And of course there are the ‘classics’ that people buy for children as presents because they’ve heard of them and 'they must be good if they’ve been around so long'. But there’s an awful lot in some of the classics that’s hard for children to understand in terms of content and language and background and there are things that are just plain wrong by modern standards.

I loved Russell Hoban's Frances books as a child, but when I shared them with my own children I was surprised to discover that naughty Frances eventually stays in bed when her father threatens to spank her. It didn't stop me reading the book but it didn't become a favourite like Bread and Jam for Frances which has no dodgy messages.

Is there room for the classics? 

Should we keep books from children if they contain outdated ways of thinking or harmful messages? Should we consign such books to the dusty shelves of historical curiosities to be read by adults only and stick to reading children modern books? What about editing popular books from the past to make them more acceptable? Is that a way forward? Or can coming across traces of the past in old books and recognising them as unacceptable today lead children to think about how and why such things have changed and what more can be done to make a better world?

It’s a hard call. Such a wealth of children’s literature would be lost by setting aside books with content and attitudes we find unsettling or unacceptable – Laura Ingalls Wilder’s wonderful voice for one. And yet, and yet… don’t we owe it to children to present them with all that is best and most admirable?

What do you think?
Header image: Coral Walker

Claire Watts is Editor of Words & Pictures. You can contact her at

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