One of the most fun things for me as a parent is introducing my girls to the books I loved when I was a kid. I hadn’t read anything by Laura Ingalls Wilder in years but when Pearl turned four last year and we started reading chapter books with her at bedtime, I thought we’d try introducing the series to her.
My girls – who are now five and two – loved these sweet, old-fashioned stories. I think it helped a lot that at the centre of the stories are sister relationships that Pearl and Rose (especially Pearl) could relate to. Pearl quickly began calling them the “Laura and Mary” books and even in the later books when Mary goes away to college, Pearl grew excited at every mention of the sisters being together.
While of course there is plenty in the stories that my kids are too young to understand, they definitely enjoyed them. Re-reading them as an adult, I too enjoyed the gentle and funny family dynamics and the descriptions of what life was like for the Ingalls. At the heart of these books is Laura and her family and their devotion to each other. While some descriptions around dresses and laying of rails definitely felt like they dragged on, I also really enjoyed the details around skills that are far less common today, like making cheese or candles. And honestly, having read The Long Winter recently in which the Ingalls family and their town are basically housebound for 7+ months as they slowly starve and freeze has given me a better attitude toward our current circumstances. “If the Ingalls family can survive that winter,” I think to myself, “I can survive a quarantine in 2020.”
I’d be remiss to talk about these books though, without mentioning the obvious problems. The attitude toward the Indigenous peoples of the land is terrible and difficult to read in times. Aside from the outdated language, the behaviour of the U.S. government, the pioneers, and quite often the Ingalls family themselves is pretty bad. It is accurate to the time and clearly even when Laura wrote the books later in the life she saw no problem with it. As parents, Peter and I had to decide how to approach these parts of the books with our kids. Since our kids are young, we largely opted to simply edit them out. When necessary, we replaced the terms used with more appropriate ones. If my kids were older, I would probably have talked with them more about how peoples’ attitudes and understanding has changed and why we don’t use certain words anymore.
The books we read are illustrated by Garth Williams, the same set of books that I once read along with when I wasn’t much older than Pearl. I didn’t realize until years later that Williams’ simple drawings weren’t an original part of the series but it would seem incomplete to me without them and it helped for my little kids to have visuals along the way.
Have you ever read these books by Laura Ingalls Wilder? If you have and if you have or work with children, I’m curious to hear other opinions or approaches for introducing them to children today, along with their cultural flaws.