On June 23rd, 2018, the boardroom at the Association for Library Service to Children was the seat of a historic decision. An audience in attendance at the meeting waited patiently through the lengthy agenda of business, until the moment they had come to witness finally arrived. The last decision to be made during the meeting was thus: whether to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the well-known Little House series, from the award named after her. A task force comprised of ALSC members gave their report on the topic to the board in what was reportedly a well-thought out and excellently prepared series of points (Chow). After some deliberation, the time for the board to vote came.
Their decision was unanimous; not one person disagreed: What was previously the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Award” would now be known as the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award.” The audience actually stood and cheered, some remarking on their pride to be part of an organization making such changes (Voors). It was, to many, a landmark day for children’s literature. But why was this action taken by the board in the first place, and what could have provoked such a response from onlookers?
The controversy surrounding Miss Wilder’s classic children’s series is just one of the many hot-button issues that arise in an environment where awards can decide the future of a novelist’s career, whether good or bad. By examining these situations, a deeper insight can be had into the American public, its shifting tolerance for politically incorrect topics, and how award-winning books that once curried favor can later be banned. Let this project serve as an exposé on the various conflicts in the world of children’s literature awards, and an opportunity to learn from them.
The permanent nature of literature often leads to it being read in an entirely different context to which it was written. This discrepancy can lead to situations where, although the author may have had only pure intentions, attitudes of the public shift so that what was once acceptable is now irredeemably not so. This is the case for even award-winning books, sometimes to a greater degree. The more exposure a piece receives, the more opportunity for praise and criticism it gets.
Two significant examples of this phenomenon lie in The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. Patron’s novel tells the tale of Lucky, a 10-year-old girl living in a small town in the California desert. Thinking her guardian is going to abandon her, she discovers what she thinks are three “signs” from a higher power to run away from her town during a sandstorm. After doing so, she is found by the townsfolk, and discovers the papers she thought her guardian was using to leave the country were actually legal adoption papers, and that Lucky had a loving safe home after all. A seemingly innocuous tale about small town values, this novel received a Newbery award in 2007 (Maddie). Then, almost immediately, it was banned in several schools and libraries, gaining national attention and coverage by The New York Times, NPR, and of course, the internet.
Bridge to Terabithia, Paterson’s work, focuses on two fifth grade students, Jess and Leslie. They have a rivalry between them, both trying to be the fastest runner in their class. Over time, they become good friends and create a world they call Terabithia, where they can pretend and play as royalty of a forest kingdom. Jess sees Leslie as a role model, in both her unwavering confidence and her imagination when it comes to their world. Getting to Terabithia is dangerous though, and Leslie suffers an accident, leading to her death. Jess must come to terms with his best friend’s death as a child, and the story focuses heavily on their friendship and the world they lived in. Paterson’s novel also won a Newbery award, in 1978. Again, controversy surrounds the book, appearing in the top ten of the American Library Association’s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000 (Maddie). It was and still is banned in many places.
Why were these two Newbery award winning novels treated the way they were by the public? For The Higher Power of Lucky, the reason why was a single word on the first page: “scrotum.” This is where Lucky’s dog was bit by a rattlesnake, and the event serves as a strong opening moment for her story; a moment of drama in the girl’s life which the reader becomes a part of. Patron was accused of trying to shock readers, and that the word was there to cause controversy. Patron defends her choice, saying that the event is based off her personal knowledge of a similar situation in real life. Bridge to Terabithia is challenged not for its subject matter concerning a child’s death, but for the perceived promotion of secular humanism. Jess uses the word “Lord” frequently outside of prayer, which garnered the initial upset by some devout Christians for using the Lord’s name in vain. Then, the idea that an imaginary kingdom was somehow promoting secular humanism formed, and the book has remained controversial to this day. Initial critics said, “We believe this material is satanic, a danger to our children, is being studied excessively and has no place in our schools.” (Weir).
Both of these novels’ criticisms do carry some legitimate points. Parents may not be ready to explain to their children the intricacies of the reproductive process (Patron’s novel later also includes a line hinting at the nature of what a scrotum does, which goes a bit beyond just using the word). They also have a right to teach their children whatever beliefs they see fit, and if they feel that this is threatened by a novel, can prevent their children from reading it. But the outright banning of award-winning books across large parts of the education system because of a small issue seems to be more of a knee-jerk reaction than a thought-out response to literature that challenges one’s view of the world.
It seems, more often, that these outcries over the content in well-publicized children’s novels serve more as a way for individuals or groups to publicize their views by creating controversy. Often, these challenges are met with a defense from the author on a public platform, bringing more attention to the issues raised than they might have gotten otherwise. This is especially true for The Higher Power of Lucky and Bridge to Terabithia, both recipients of the Newbery Award. The publicity granted to these books by winning what many consider the most coveted children’s novel prize no doubt made them more of a target for scorn than if they had maintained their relative obscurity. It seems likely, though not certain, that had Bridge to Terabithia not received the attention it did, Jess’s use of “Lord” outside of prayer may have been met with only a mild annoyance by the most devout of its readers. To go so far as to say it contains satanic material feels like a claim meant to spur unrest and dissent among both those who take issue with the subject and those who do not. In any case, these two novels serve as examples of the kinds of sensitive subjects that can be brought to light when books that contain them are given prestigious awards and brought to the public’s attention.
While it’s unfortunate that The Higher Power of Lucky and Bridge to Terabithia received such criticism, they remain award winning novels. This isn’t entirely the case for Laura Ingalls Wilder, who arguably had it worse with her Little House series leading to the dramatic scenario previously described. The reason for this stemmed from the controversial content in some of her writing. Her 1935 Little House on the Prairie, the first book in the series, described one setting as “a place where ‘there were no people. Only Indians lived there,” with multiple characters reciting that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” (Chow). These are obviously phrases and attitudes that are unacceptable today, and can be very upsetting to read and to see widely publicized. However, it’s important to consider the medium that was being used to communicate such ideas. The Little House books are autobiographical. They are based on Ingalls’s own life, and describe events her and her family went through during the 19th century. She was a child in the stories, and likely is recounting the things she heard and thought during the time. This, sadly, was the way of the world back then. People of color and native Americans were not treated with any respect, and that was normal to many people. Some of the more modern printings of her series have had such sections altered, as if they were never part of the story to begin with.
Ingalls was representing the experiences she had as a child, positive and negative. It’s important to view such events in a frame of mind that allows for the understanding of a shifting culture. Of course, it feels somewhat wrong to keep awarding new works with a prize tied to beliefs not held today. But the award created in her name – and for which she was the first recipient – was stripped of all reference to her while onlookers cheered. The motivation behind this action is one that’s difficult to disagree with, yet the result leaves one with a melancholy feeling. There are long-standing ramifications to such choices, with even good-intentioned changes having large effects on how we’ll view literature like this years from now. Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House books serve as an excellent example of how attitudes change, and how past decisions on what should be celebrated become distasteful.
This change, this public declaration that her name was not worthy to bear an award, might cause a parent or teacher to hesitate to choose the Little House books when considering which literature to bring home or use in the classroom. For those who have never read the series but have heard of the controversy, it seems likely that they would read the books in an entirely different light, knowing that the author’s legacy had been altered so dramatically.