This week, the award named after Laura Ingalls Wilder was renamed because of the racist undertones in her work.
I read Wilder’s books as a preteen.
I can not tell you that there was one critical ah-ha moment that I had.
There was no epiphany triggered by the racial injustice of some scenes in the text.
So why does it even matter?
‘I am sure she did not intend harm.’
The intent does not matter. It is the impact.
These books were used to set the scene and lay a realistic foundation for American exceptionalism and Westward Expansion via the subjugation of native cultures and customs. This explicit worldview steeped in privilege has been lauded and heralded because as a people we have neglected being reflective of why.
The why is key. It is the reason that some educators and stakeholders cannot understand the need for this decision.
Teachers, we need to be critically reflecting on all of the historical fiction we present to kids. In books where the bias is explicit, most kids will pick that up. In texts where the bias is subversive, we actually have to critically question students in order to see if they are actually seeing a narrative for what it is.
The removal of Wilder’s name from the children’s literature award is timely and appropriate. As scholars and leaders, we guard history.
No longer are we willing to look at the world through one view that benefits the few at the expense of many.
No longer are we willing to whitewash our historic and current issues with race.
If you are a social justice minded educator, you would not be reading Wilder without reading a counter balanced perspective. I highly suggest reading a few books by Joseph Bruchac, or the Death of the Iron Horse by Paul Goble.
So, let’s shift our perspectives, shall we?
As we look at familiar historical fiction texts that we share with our students, ask yourself these questions as you prepare the lesson.
1. Whose voice is represented?
Is there a dominant cultural view point? Are the perspectives representing one unique viewpoint? Who does is amplify?
2. Whose voice is missing?
Who should we be hearing from here? What was the impact on the other group?
3. How would the circumstances be changed if the ‘missing’ had a voice?
When our historical actions bring about success, it is usually through the marginalization of another group. What were there perspectives? How could we find out if it is not in the text? Why is it important to understand the voice of the voiceless?
4. How will I know that my students ‘see it’?
What are you looking for from students? Inspect what you expect. Are you expecting them to call out racism? Are you expecting them to notice bias? Then you work backwards from that goal and scaffold up. Be intentional in your expectations for your students’ critical thinking.
How will you approach Wilder’s books in the future with your students?