It’s been big news that the ALSC Laura Ingalls Wilder Award will be renamed in reputation of Laura’s works and her life. The basic story has been an international sensation from the United Kingdom to Denmark to all around the world.
Based on a couple of comments a few people have made to me online they expect this post to include a discussion of whether their complaints are valid or not. That is worth debating, but frankly, in this context I don’t think it matters. What is being debated right now is NOT whether there are there negative elements to the books, but if the large positive impact they have had on people and the culture as a whole should be ignored and denigrated.
The removal of the name is a slap in the face, not only for Laura herself, but also to a large part of American pop culture. Laura Ingalls Wilder is one of the biggest archetypes in our culture. Don’t believe me? Try to find anything pop culture that doesn’t include references to Laura. Major snow storm/power outage – it’s like we’re Laura Ingalls Wilder. Modest dress – it’s like I’m Laura Ingalls Wilder, Literally anything about social history in any location and any time period – hey, it’s just like Laura Ingalls Wilder, anything at all having to do with picnics or camping – it’s just like Little House on the Prairie!
So why focus on this now? Don’t librarians have real problems like dropping budgets, raising numbers of visitors (yes raising), and training necessities? Of course they do! But a very real problem is that so many people today can’t find themselves in children’s books. It truly is ridiculous that in an age of so much political correctness that the children’s books industry and product are less than diverse. (Frankly looking at some of the books from today versus the 1970s I’m not sure it isn’t getting worse instead of better.) That is worth a blog post on its own and more. This is an issue that needs addressed with what the ALA normally does – recommends more books, more voices. Instead they decided the best thing they could do was something symbolic that would do nothing to make children’s literature more diverse – they can repudiate Laura.
What is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award?
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award – also referred to as the Wilder Medal – was given as a lifetime achievement award by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA). The American Library Association is the BIG, national professional organization for librarians. (Think of the ALA as the librarian equivalent of American Medical Association without nearly as many teeth.) Among other things the ALA organization, either as a whole or as a division, gives awards mostly for authors and books. The two you have probably heard of before are the Caldecott Award for picture book illustration and the Newbery Award for chapter books.
1954 was a big year for Laura as the books came out under an entirely different redesign (by Helen Gentry) using the illustrations of Garth Williams. The ALSC joined the applause by creating a lifetime achievement award, making Laura the first recipient and having Williams design the medal that went with the award. (ALA awards tend to come with literal medals that can then also be used as a design element or sticker on further editions of the book.) From then until now the award has been given out to a wide range of children’s books authors.
Why Aren’t I As Upset As I Thought I’d Be?
So last February out of nowhere the ALSC announced they were going to start a “discussion” about changing the award’s name. I knew right then that the discussion would consist of them requesting input and then changing the name. That’s just how things go in the ALA (disclosure I’ve been a member on and off since library school). It’s a very top down organization and if the top had announced that changing it was a possibility it was going to be changed.
However, when I heard the news I wasn’t as upset as I thought I should be. I asked myself, “Why?” and I realized it didn’t really matter. Frankly, they had already diluted the original intent to the point that who cares about it? It was originally designed to be the equivalent of the special Oscar that Walt Disney was awarded for Snow White (specially made that has the one large Oscar and then 7 little Oscars scaled down to represent the dwarfs) – complete to the special and uniquely designed award dedicated to its first recipient. However, this hasn’t been the case for a long, long time. To go back to the Oscar reference there are sometimes amazing actors, actresses, and directors who never received one despite their storied status. A lot of things can prevent that recognition with an award, who they were up against, temper of the times, performing in comedies or work that as a whole isn’t deemed Oscar worthy, etc. So they have a lifetime achievement award, now called an “Honorary Oscar,” to correct such oversights. That was supposed to be the same type of thing — but for children’s book authors and/or illustrators.
The Wilder Award was supposed to carry weight because of its rareness, but that didn’t last long. Between 1960 and 1980 it was only given out once every 5 years, between 1980 and 2001 every 3 years, between 2002 and 2015 every other year, and since 2016 every single year. In fact one of the reasons given that they had to rename the current award instead of closing this and starting a new one was to ensure the status of next year’s award because you couldn’t possibly have a year without one. Now instead of being the province of the rarest of the rare it’s just another annual book award. The requirement has always been that a lasting legacy has been made by that author for their body of work with the expectation that this would be an end of career kind of award. Now it’s mostly just another award to pick up when you are prominent. (Scroll to the bottom for an archived version of requirements as I believe they will be changed as part of the rename.) Here is the information the website for the award before it was updated by this decision. At this point the medal already was not longer the tribute it was intended to be, so who really cares?
Irony Number 1 – Taking Back An Apology
This really has come 360 degrees. One reason Laura was never allowed to win the top ALSC award for chapter books, the Newbery medal, was that she only wrote series books. And that was considered beneath the DIGNITY and IMPORTANCE of serious children’s fiction. That smacked of trade and was something to be looked down on. She was just a Midwestern farm wife, what did she know about LITERATURE. She did have a fairly regular seat in the honor books (the runner ups) for the last part of her series – after the public let the ALA know about the impact she had, but never a win. So a big part of why Laura, why then was a mea culpa on the organization’s part. So they are not only changing the award, they are taking back the apology, pushing the books back into the realm of the unacceptable. (I do want to be clear that although some of those comments might sound like they were quotes from the time period they are not, they are just summing up the attitudes I’ve found documented in terms of Laura and children’s literature and librarianship of the time in general.) Once again the leaders of the organization are pointing out that she’s just a Midwestern farm wife who isn’t “with it” “out there” or “woke” that just describes her own time and place in her writing and isn’t worthy of reading.
Irony Number 2 – Award Only Known For Wilder Connection
The ALA is the organization that focuses on defending books. An entire division is dedicated to Banned Books Week. It reports attempts – both successful and not – to remove books with nothing short of derision. The fact that you have a problem with a book does not mean it’s not the right book for some reader. You don’t get to decide what someone else gets to read. Not this time.
They actually saw this criticism coming. Scroll down to rationale. They say “Additionally, changing the name of the award, or ending the award and establishing a new award, does not prohibit access to Wilder’s works or suppress discussion about them.” To some extent they are right in that frankly the name of the award will have very little impact on whether someone will read Laura’s books or not. In fact this fanfare of publicity might actually encourage some people to who haven’t read them yet to do so. However, by changing this name they are doing the most in their power – short of actually erasing the history of the award off their website all together – to make sure people don’t read them. They are saying these books aren’t something that should be read and respected. That the most in their power is so weak should not be an excuse for exercising it.
(As a side note, only legal agreements kept them from also repudiating the Geisel Award at this time. Watch out Dr. Seuss! They’re coming for you too! Honestly did any of these papers do more than read the press release? This was surely worth a paragraph in any story about the name change.)
Irony Number 3 – Mainly a Problem Because Laura is Still Read
While this was a slap in the face to Laura, it was also a kind of backhanded complement. The whole reason they’re doing this is because people still read Laura’s books and know who she is. The other two ALSC awards you might know about are the Caldecott Medal for picture books (named for famed nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph J. Caldecott who happened to die in America) the Newbery Medal (named for and eighteenth-century English bookseller John Newbery). They and other named awards are relatively safe from attack because when was the last time you read something of theirs? Did you have any idea who Caldecott or Newbery were before I just told you? But Laura you know, Dr. Seuss you know so they come under scrutiny.
If you won the Wilder award, you got a lovely medal and you presented a speech at the ALA conference that was recorded and sold by the ALA store (I have a collection of them) and reprinted in library magazines. After that future articles about you might include the phrase Wilder Medal winner…… That’s pretty much it. I follow the story of this medal with interest, but I fully believe that the small percentage of the general population who knows or cares anything about this award is because it’s named for Laura. It was a tribute to them to be associated with Laura’s name and if they don’t realize it, then they don’t deserve it.
Once this flurry has calmed down I feel I can safely say this will be the last time you ever hear a full sentence about this award ever again in any publication or news article outside of library or publishing industry journals. Expect to hear, “…and the Children’s Literature Legacy Award went to so and so” as part of a longer sentence. It never did have any impact on sales, on reading, on anything related except for people maybe taking notice when they heard Laura’s name to hear who won it. Outside the people who gave it and those who received it, no one cares about this award.
So What Can You Do?
Absolutely nothing. The ALA is a professional organization, which political actions aside, provides the normal professional organization status. There definitely reasons not to be a member, but if you can afford it there are professional benefits to belonging. This is not going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. You’re not going to see people rushing to quit or join the ALSC or its parent the ALA based on this.
The only pressure that could be brought to bear is that of public opinion and hearing that the general public disapproves will only convince them they are right. Petitions, etc will only cause people with the power to change it to become more convinced that they are making a courageous stand to get the truth about these books out there. They aren’t trying to sell a product to the general public so what the general public thinks about their actions has no direct effect on them. Back when this first came out as a possibility I contacted the person listed as contact person on the award page. I asked them how ALA members not part of the children’s literature division or the general public could comment as part of the input. He didn’t know anything about it, but would get back with me. Still waiting. Complain online, write them letters, call the office. Feel free to let them know how you feel, but understand this going in. They don’t care.
And If Anybody Cares….
The newly renamed award is the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Be very confident that you will never, ever hear of it again.
And for the record I contacted them (see above) because I thought I’d get questions about it online or at my programs – I didn’t – because nobody knows about this award and if not for the insult, nobody would care.
From the ALA
UPDATED July 10 2018: Also, check out Visit the Original Wilder Medal. Also note that Document 25 which was the committees recommendation that I refer to several times and link to has been removed. Sadly it also is not available through the Internet Archive.
Sarah S. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many times at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. She is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic, and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. How can you help? Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, look at her photos, and find her on Facebook , Twitter , Google+, LinkedIn , SlideShare, and Academia.edu . Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and former director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.