By: James LaRue, Director, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom
Readers’ relationships with famous authors can be deeply personal and complicated.
Take that sly and subversive Mr. Clemens. One of the most challenged books in library history has been The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Challenges usually focus on the book’s so-called coarse language and uncouth characters.
In one recent case, a woman’s son was almost the only person of color in his middle school English class, and found it deeply painful to listen to his fellow students read the N-word aloud. His mother demanded the removal of the book from the curriculum.
A reporter asked me, “Don’t you think that the mother had a point?” I did. Even if the book were required reading, it was insensitive to make those students read it out loud. Huck Finn is a classic; it’s not the last book written about race in America. It could be paired with a modern book by a black author. The answer isn’t fewer books; it’s more books. Opposition to censorship isn’t an endorsement of public humiliation.
On the other hand, having these awkward and painful encounters with books is how we learn to read critically, to recognize that mores and social attitudes change over time, that authors are from and reflect their eras. That’s a good reason to keep their books around, even beyond their intrinsic literary merit.
Moreover, it would be a profound misrepresentation to summarize Twain’s works as pervasively racist. That tactic — diminishing a work to a few passages and a false narrative — is used too often by would-be censors. Beloved has too much sex in it! The Hate U Give is all about swearing. Works need to be taken in their entirety, and in context.
And that brings us to Laura Ingalls Wilder (LIW).
The works of Laura Ingalls Wilder were and continue to be much loved. I’ve even spoken with a Native American woman who treasured the Little House books as a child, if only because they reflected her own natural environment. But then she ran across “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and similar statements. Those scenes make modern readers wince. But some folks wince more than others. Many of Wilder’s readers were not offended by those passages, mostly because these scenes simply weren’t about them. (For an eye-opening read about the real background of Wilder’s times and works, see the Pulitzer Prize-winning Prairie Fires: the American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Caroline Fraser.)
When the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) created a book award named after Laura Ingalls Wilder, it was intended to honor a contemporary and highly respected author. Wilder, then in her 90s, was deeply appreciative — and was the first person to receive it.
Since the creation of the award, there have been many disturbing and moving works of scholarship about settlers and indigenous people. The period of the Little House books was a time of broken treaties and deliberate genocide. Imagine, now, that a Native American were to win the Laura Ingalls Wilder award. The name of the award would raise issues that distract from, rather than honor, the author winning it.
So ALSC, at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Annual Conference in New Orleans, decided to rename its award. Before June 2018, few people in the general public even knew the award existed. Wilder’s reputation didn’t and doesn’t depend on it.
ALSC and ALA explicitly state that their action was not a call to censorship. But I do see the intellectual freedom issue. ALA called attention to Wilder’s “dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.” On the basis of this statement, will some librarians therefore consider it right to purge her works from library collections? I hope not. ALSC has the clear right to change the name of its own award. It’s not censorship when librarians point out evidence of bias, or even that historic literature does not comport with modern values.
It’s censorship when we make that issue the sole standard by which a work or author is judged, and remove books because of it.
Literature is complicated and nuanced. America doesn’t do nuance very well. But here’s the perspective of intellectual freedom: Classics endure in part because they challenge us. Libraries should keep Huck Finn. They should keep the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder. People should read them. They should think and talk about them.
But don’t take any of them as the last word. And remember: Adding new books doesn’t make the old ones disappear.
Wilder told stories about the settling of the American plains from her perspective. I’m curious to hear the rest of the story. Aren’t you?
James LaRue is the Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the Executive Director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. Author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges, he has given countless keynotes, webinars, and workshops on intellectual freedom, advocacy, building community engagement, and other topics. Prior to his work for OIF, Jamie was a public library director for many years in Douglas County, Colorado. Find him on Twitter @jaslar.