Laura Ingalls and Social Class

On the Banks of Plum Creek – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2008 (reprint of 1937 edition)

Plum creek

There is an awful lot of controversy and poetry in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books (see my previous writing on Wilder here and here and here).  There is Manifest Destiny, hateful as well as romanticized views of Native Americans, and historical detail about the life of nineteenth century pioneers in the western United States.  There are conflicting views of the appropriate roles and character traits for girls and women. There are alternating views of child rearing. There is incomparable poetic language.  On the Banks of Plum Creek features a great deal of hardship, but also a relatively idyllic part of Laura’s childhood, as she is briefly able to attend both school and church and to live in a Minnesota home with relatively comfortable features.  By the next book in the series, tragedy has stricken her family, and Pa has, once again, uprooted the family, a decision met by his wife’s unwavering acceptance.

Laura and her older sister Mary walk to school, where they experience both acceptance and derision. Boys call them “snipes,” because they had long outgrown their dresses, making their exposed legs look long and thin, like wading birds’. Many of the girls are kind and friendly, while Nellie Oleson, the daughter of a prosperous shopkeeper, dismisses the Ingalls sisters as “country girls.” Laura’s reaction to Nellie’s appearance can be summarized in one phrase: “…she wore shoes.”

The self-centered Nellie holds a party at her home, one that is filled with what Laura calls “boughten” objects.  Laura may as well be entering a foreign country:

“The whole floor was covered with some kind of heavy cloth that felt rough under  Laura’s bare feet. It was brown and green, with red and yellow scrolls all over it…The table and chairs were of a yellow wood that shone like glass, and their legs were perfectly round.  There were colored pictures on the walls.”

Everything in the Oleson home is oddly contradictory.  Brown and green are earth colors, but the floor covering is artificial.  The dining set is of wood, but wood so smooth that it seems to be another substance entirely, glass.  The human interaction at the party is also compromised, since Nellie has no interest in sharing her toys; she rather wants to exhibit them. When her mother serves cake, Nellie shouts, “I got the biggest piece.”


german noah's ark
Noah’s Ark Toy, circa 1850, Wikimedia Commons

Laura and the other girls are intrigued by a beautiful Noah’s Ark set, which belongs to Nellie’s brother.   It was “…the most wonderful thing that Laura had ever seen.” The girls “…knelt down and squealed and laughed over it.  There were zebras and elephants and tigers and horses; all kinds of animals, just as if the picture had come out of the paper- covered Bible at home.”  Again, the fact that something man-made could so convincingly bring both nature and the Bible to life is overwhelming to Laura.

Then Laura’s mother decides that the Ingalls family must reciprocate the Oleson’s hospitality, rather than just leaving well enough alone!  So, the chapter “Town Party” is followed by “Country Party,” in which nature itself takes its revenge on Nellie, with only a little prompting from Laura.  Nellie is disgusted by everything in the Ingalls home: the fried flour “vanity cakes,” the gravel path to the ford where the girls go to play, and Jack, the family dog.  Laura slyly leads Nellie towards the old crab who lives in the water, and then warns Nellie to run away from it, straight into the muddy creek filled with “bloodsuckers,” leeches that attach themselves to her skin.  Laura herself had accidentally fallen victim to them, but her father had matter-of-factly responded, “Then stay out of the water…If you don’t want trouble, don’t go looking for it.”  Nellie has no ability to cope with one small example of the threatening natural environment that has challenged Laura and her family everywhere they lived.  Nellie’s “dance,” as “she stood kicking as hard as she could, first one foot and then the other, screaming all the time,” is a source of satisfaction to Laura. She is kinder and more competent than Nellie, who, for all her “boughten” things and indulgent parents, is helpless. That’s what happens to mean girls on the prairie.



To the Lighthouse

Hello Lighthouse – Sophie Blackall, Little, Brown and Company, 2018

Lighthouse cover


I wasn’t sure what I could add to the praise for this outstanding book.  Recently, The New York Times ran an article about the retirement of a lighthouse keeper on Long Island.  Although the subject of that story never lived in the Montauk Lighthouse with a family, and Sophie Blackall’s fictional lighthouse is home to parents and a child, both the book and the article described a kind of modest conviction about their special homes.  Blackall’s book, of course, is different from the article, in that it is crowded with visual beauty, from the beginning endpapers reproducing a journal, to the back ones full of background information and mussel shells on a hook!



The book is engrossing and stunning. Blackall is both author and illustrator. She also credits editor Susan Rich, designers David Caplan and Nicole Brown, production supervisor Erika Schwartz, and production editor Jen Graham.  I want to mention them here, since the experience of reading the book owes so much to the orchestration of different talents. Here are just a few of the highlights of the experience that they have created.  The lighthouse itself is sometimes engulfed in fog, a pale figure against a light grey background. In other pictures, Blackall pays homage to Japanese artists of the ukiyo-e genre, with massive waves approaching the building.

The cross section of the interior, viewed from outside, reduces the lighthouse to the scale of a dollhouse; the room on each floor becomes narrower, leading to the light at the top.  In fact, the scale of the lighthouse constantly alternates from relatively large to miniature.  We watch the lighthouse keeper not only controlling the lamp, but writing in his logbook, and even sewing:

 “Throughout the night, he winds the clockwork
that keeps the lamp in motion.
During the day, he gives the round rooms a fresh
coat of sea-green paint.
He writes in the logbook and threads his needle
and listens to the gathering wind.”

The poetry of the text is as evocative as the pictures.


This lighthouse is inhabited by people, and they are as important as the geography and technology of the story.  When the lighthouse keeper becomes ill, we see his wife care for him by his bedside, and watch her descending the very long spiral staircase to bring him whatever he needs. When she gives birth, her husband supports her through labor, which seeming like it will never end, is illustrated in a circle. She walks in slightly different positions, he boils water on the stove, he holds her to offer comfort. On the next two pages we see her, exhausted and smiling under a colorful quilt. The lighthouse keeper holds the baby on his lap while recording the event in his logbook.

Technology changes, and the family moves on.  Unlike Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne, there is no compromise and no looking back.

 “They pack their belongings
into the boat
and wave farewell
to the gulls.

Beyond the breakers, they all look up,
               Good-bye, Lighthouse!

The ambitious nature of this book may be missed because it develops and concludes so naturally.  Children will enjoy the story of the lighthouse, its keeper, and his family. Adults will marvel.

Inventive Author, Inventive Subject

Spic-And-Span! Lillian Gilbreth’s Wonder Kitchen – Monica Kulling and David Parkins, Tundra Books, 2014


The Great Ideas series from Tundra Books presents the lives of inventors, some overlooked, and asks readers to think about their persistence, courage, and creativity. Written by Monica Kulling and illustrated by several different gifted artists, they are also notable for their colorful and exciting approach to technology in the eras before STEM was a buzzword.  In Spic-And-Spam! Kulling and illustrator David Parkins approach the life of efficiency manager and homemaker Lillian Gilbreth, best known as the heroine of Cheaper by the Dozen. Kulling and Parkins take her aside from the shadow of her husband and chronicle the life she sought and achieved, one “of adventure and challenge.”

Lillian Moller Gilbreth gradually came to defy convention as the circumstances of her life changed.  She married Frank Gilbreth in 1904, and they eventually had twelve children. She earned a doctorate in applied psychology, and was a pioneer in the field of industrial engineering, a field that was just emerging at the time. Early on, Lillian and Frank had used principals of time management (learned from Frederick Winslow Taylor, although he is not mentioned in this book) to ensure structure and efficiency in their home. After Frank died in 1924, Lillian actively sought professional opportunities to support her family.


She was employed by Macy’s department store, where she redesigned their cash management system.  She worked for the Brooklyn Borough Gas Company, and used information from interviews with thousands of women to radically redesign the kitchens where women spent so much of their time.  Given that this is a children’s book, some consequences of the Gilbreth’s time management systems are simplified. While Kulling emphasizes the concerns that they had for workers’ safety and comfort, many industrial laborers felts oppressed by what they experienced as a harsh and impersonal approach to production:

“The Gilbreths used a new invention – the motion picture camera – to film a worker on the job.  Then they studied the film to see if the worker was making unnecessary movements.  They discovered that cutting out wasteful actions was the way to get more done and be less tired.”


This passage omits the perspective of the worker, perhaps reduced from an autonomous human being to a cog in a machine, as Charlie Chaplin famously portrayed him in the movie, Modern Times. 

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Tomie dePaola: Scared and Brave, for the Duration

Books discussed:
I’m Still Scared – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2006
For the Duration – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009


Each volume in Tomie dePaola’s series has a moving dedication to family members, friends, and other significant people in the author’s life. The dedication to I’m Still Scared reads: “For all those who also remember/the terrifying weeks right after, December 7, 1941.” The author emphasizes the gravity of the events he describes by appending President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “Day of Infamy” speech of December 8, 1941, as well as “A Note from the Author” explaining the intensity of his memories, and noting their relevance to the current state of the world. Tomie is scared by air raid drills, by his uncle’s enlistment in the army, and by the suspicions that some Americans have of those of Italian descent. But he also reassured by parents, grandparents, and other compassionate adults, who try their best to explain the changes in the context of their normal, daily lives: “See, all I have to do is ask my dad or mom or Tom (his grandfather). They always tell me the whole truth!  Still, Tomie is “still scared.”

Miss Leah’s dancing school remains a joyful haven for Tomie, and family Christmas celebrations still allow him to pick out presents for everyone. This time he chooses stockings, rather than the traditional Tweed perfume for his mother, since his father points out that nylon will be restricted as it was used to manufacture parachutes.  Every historical detail is refracted through the lens of childhood: “Well, even though we were at war, Christmas was great. We had a beautiful tree.” But Tomie is sensitive and aware. When he watches a newsreel of the London blitz for a few minutes, before his mother takes him out to the theater lobby, he understands that this is real, that he had actually seen “…WAR, even though it was only in the movies.”


In For the Duration, Tomie is surprised by the way in which grief can gain control at unexpected moments. He is excited to participate in his school’s Memorial Day assembly, which this year includes a medley of armed services songs.  By the time the children begin to rehearse the Army Air Corps’ “Off we go into the wild blue yonder,” Tomie becomes overwhelmed by its association with his beloved cousin Blackie’s death.  Tomie’s teachers and the school nurse allow him to talk about his feelings and to leave school early.  He is escorted home by his brother Buddy, who has been one of the few unsympathetic characters in the series.  He taunts Tomie for crying. Their mother’s attempt to instill empathy in Buddy by reminding him of how much Tomie had loved their cousin only provokes more selfishness: “He always does stuff so everyone pays attention to him…It embarrasses me! He’s a big sissy. Everyone thinks so.”

Tomie’s differences from some of the other boys are noted throughout the series, but almost always in a positive way. He is musically talented, intelligent, artistic, and literate.  The character of Buddy is a reminder that childhood has not always been easy for children who do not conform to gender stereotypes. In one of the most painful episodes from all the books, a group of boys harasses and bullies Tomie for carrying his tap shoes to school. When he begs his older brother for help, “Buddy turned his back as if nothing was going on.”  He also steals and defaces Tomie’s diary, the emblem of his future authorhood, and threatens to hurt him if he reveals the truth to their parents. This was one point in the series when I felt that Tomie’s parents revealed some weakness. How could his mother, who knew how concerned Tomie was about the missing diary, not have suspected that her older son had taken it?  There are no recriminations. But Tomie’s rationalization has a tinge of bitterness: “Why is my brother so mean?  I wondered. I guess it’s just like a war.  I guess I’ll have to put up with him for the duration.”

These eight books are all we have so far in this odyssey of Tomie dePaola’s young life.  We know that he grew up to be a brilliant artist and author.  We know that he had some adversity but lots of support. We want to know more!


Why Will Things Never Be the Same? Tomie dePaola’s War Years

Books discussed:
Things Will Never Be the Same – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, 2003
Why?  – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s and Sons, 2007

things samewhy

The cover to each of these volumes in Tomie dePaola’s autobiographical series (see here and here) features a picture of young Tomie looking out a window.  For Things Will Never Be the Same, he leans on the windowsill with his hands on his cheeks.  On the cover of Why? Tomie rests on his crossed arms in the same window, but a picture of his cousin Blackie in uniform, the frame covered with a red, white, and blue ribbon, looks out from the background.  Blackie is smiling, but it is clear from the both the title and the previous book that Tomie is frustrated and uncomprehending.  Why do bad things happen? The author doesn’t attempt to offer children any definitive answers, only to share his own experiences and to reassure them that feeling anger and grief are a part of children’s lives.

The year 1941 starts out for Tomie on a promising note. The new sled he got for Christmas prompts his mother to tell some stories about her own childhood, and Tomie is always an avid listener and imaginative participant in tales of the past, whether true or fictional. He becomes involved in collecting money for the March of Dimes, the personal cause of his revered president, Franklin Roosevelt.  Tomie understands that FDR has personally confronted polio, the dreaded disease which parents and children feared.  Readers will learn that, in this era, it was considered appropriate and even compassionate to Tomie’s favorite radio program to broadcast “The Little Lame Prince in honor of the president’s birthday.” As always, the historical details in the series are presented from the perspective of the time; they offer a great opportunity for discussion with kids.

Several of the episodes in this series are ones which dePaola also covers in picture books, including The Art Lesson, where Tomie famously benefits by compromise when the art teacher is more flexible than Tomie’s classroom teacher, allowing him to use his box of sixty-four Crayola crayons and to draw an additional picture after completing the rote assignment.  So we get to meet the understanding Mrs. Bowers, with her funky jewelry and exotic combs.  Tomie narrates significant events in his special diary, the one with the lock and key. But by the end of the year and the end of the book, things will never be the same.  When the adults hear the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor over the radio, Tomie and his friends are confused and panicked.  How did this event insert itself into their lives, right in the middle of reading the funnies and listening to the “Horn & Hardardt (sic) Children’s Hour?” Tomie takes time out to explain to readers that “Horn & Hardardt’s was a chain of restaurants called AUTOMATS…You put a dime in a slot and the little glass door opened. You took out whatever food you had picked. It sounded neat.” To children, this detail is essential to the chain of events.

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Tomie on His Way

Books discussed
On My Way – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001
What a Year – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2002

on my way

In my last post, I wrote about the first and second volumes of Tomie dePaola’s unforgettable autobiographical series.  In the third and fourth volumes, the new decade of the 1940s brings changes to Tomie’s family, but, so far, they are positive, or at least ones that Tomie is able to assimilate with relative ease.  When his beloved baby sister is hospitalized with pneumonia, Tomie has to confront not only his own fear but also that of his parents. The new availability of sulfa drugs to treat infections ensures Maureen’s recovery; this is the kind of historical detail that the author introduces to his young readers.  A family visit to the World’s Fair in Queens, New York City, captures its futuristic wonder, even as the world is about to be engulfed in a war which seems to negate this vision of possibilities:

“We stood in line until it was our turn.  We went inside and there was the world and the cities the way they might be in the future, with automatic highways and big, tall buildings with places on top for helicopters to land.  I loved it.”

Tomie continues to feel pride and affirmation in his dance class with Miss Leah, another adult in the series who recognizes his gifts and validates him.  Tomie also participates in the fun of a “Tiny Tot Wedding,” an idea that may seem not to have aged well.  (His mother got the idea from a Little Rascals movie, an idea that definitely has not aged well.) But that’s not the point.  Tomie was thrilled to play the bride to his tall female friend Carol Crane’s groom. Every time Tomie asserts his identity without seemingly trying to do so, we cheer for him.


In What a Year, Tomie cooks with a little help from his parents, sees Walt Disney’s new release, Pinocchio, and continues to enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts with his family.  His letter to Santa Claus is pure Tomie, gracious and accommodating, requesting a doll for his sister.  Meanwhile, even an isolating bout of chicken pox does not prevent a recovered Tomie from acting in the school play because he had memorized all his lines. Children reading the book, unlike adults, will not have the sense of foreboding that tragic events will soon transform everyone’s life.  The final chapter does foreshadow what will come next.

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Tomie (Tommy) dePaola

Books discussed:
26 Fairmount Avenue – Tomie dePaola,  G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 1999
Here We All Are – Tomie dePaola, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2000



If you know Tomie dePaola’s work exclusively from his picture books, (I don’t want to write “only know,” as if the incredible quality of those works of art and narrative were not enough to support his reputation), you need to read his series of chapter book autobiographies, beginning with Newbery Honor winner 26 Fairmount Avenue. There are eight books so far, each one chronicling around one year in the life of the young Tomie as he experiences the joys and sorrows, mainly joys, of a close-knit family and a supportive community in Meriden, Connecticut. The series begins when Tomie in 1938, shortly before Tomie begins kindergarten, and right as he confronts the excitement of the hurricane that hit the east coast that year.  Tomie narrates his story from the perspective of a young child without a hint of condescension or sentimentality.


The remarkable nature of these books, aside from the signature dePaola pictures of family and friends, this time in black and white, is that they are both sophisticated and innocent at the same time.

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Emily Brontë: Children Who Live in Glass Houses

Book discussed:  Glass Town: The Secret World of the Brontë Children – Michael Bedard and Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1997


Today, July 30, 2018, is the bicentennial of Emily Brontë’s birth. There have been surprisingly few articles in the American press commemorating the birth of one of the greatest Romantic poets and novelists, as well as an icon of mysterious and stubborn independence to women authors.


There have been more recent books for children about Emily and her siblings, including Mick Manning and Brita Granström’s The Brontës: Children of the Moors, from 2016.  Today, in the spirit of recognizing the half-hidden, I would like to bring attention to an older book about the secret literary creations, as well as the psychological defiance, of the three children of Haworth parsonage.  Narrated by Charlotte, the sometimes gloomy text and deeply expressive oil paintings of Glass Town chronicle how the wildly imaginative Brontë siblings devised their own parallel world of freedom in the midst of their repressive home. Children who live in glass houses “…seek delight in secrecy.”

Emily is portrayed, as she often is, as a brooding, exotic, spirit of nature:

 “Emily, too, is a solitary thing. She looks long, says little.  Now she is looking at the sky. She reads  the clouds as others read a book. She says a storm is on the way.”

Indeed, a storm is on the way, as Emily will grow up to become the (secretly) female author, Ellis Bell, of Wuthering Heights, as well as of outstanding examples of Romantic poetry.  As a child, she and her sisters and brother wrote about Glass Town, its utopian structures places where “…the vast remains of a vanished world…stood in silent grandeur, rising above the clouds, seeking the acquaintance of the skies.” The real world of their father’s home was structured and prosaic, although a certain level of neglect at least left the children on their own to experience both nature and their inner lives:

“Emily ran on ahead, hair flying in the wind…She dwells within these walls with us, and yet her home lies there. She is a child of the moors, a friend of all things wild and free. She feeds on clouds and drinks the wind.”

Fernandez and Jacobson’s images capture both the enclosed domestic world of the children, and the unlimited natural environment, as well as the world of Glass Town.  Their father ominously sets the hands of a grandfather clock, as the dark shadow of his arm looms against the staircase leading up to the children’s rooms. Emily and Charlotte lie in bed together in from of a large window looking out on the night.

If the image of Emily Brontë in this beautiful book seems stereotypical and lacking in critical distance, that is surely deliberate. Here are Emily’s own words, from her poem, “Come hither, child:”

 “When I was hardly six years old
I stole away from crowds and light
And sought a chamber dark and cold
I had no one to love me there”

Irrepressibly brilliant and maybe unknowable Emily Brontë will fascinate children in this poet and richly illustrated book.  There could be no better time to revisit it, and Emily’s poetry and fiction.

“If we replaced every copy of Little House…”: Censorship is Bad

The excitement, in both the positive and negative senses, over the change in name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, has not died down completely.  I have already written about my ambivalence about the Little House books, which I feel have a great deal of value in spite of their undeniable racism.  I believe they should ideally be read in conjunction with other novels, poems, and primary sources which give a more accurate and complete account of the experience of Native Americans (as I have discussed here and here and here and here and here).

However, I want to make one further point, specifically about the frequently repeated qualifier that changing the name of the award is not censorship or book banning, actions which the ALA and the ALSC are on the record as opposing.

In fact, many of the most vocal and committed proponents of the name change have clearly stated their preference that Wilder’s work be essentially eliminated.  Debbie Reese, whose blog is dedicated to the mission of supporting a more truthful portrayal of Native Americans in children’s literature, has explicitly stated that she hopes that Wilder’s books are no longer read, at least by young children, their target audience. She has stated this to a reporter for The New York Times, in School Library Journal (Volume 54, Issue 11, Pages 53-60; apparently no longer available on line), and on her own blog.

Note that in the blog entry, in which Reese compares Wilder’s books unfavorably with the work of the brilliant contemporary novelist Louise Erdrich, Reese declares that “the world might be a better place if we replaced every copy of Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie with Erdrich’s series.”  This alarming suggestion fails to take note of the fact that Erdrich, in an interview in The Horn Book, recommended that her work be read along with that of Wilder.

Reese is not the only advocate of the award change to promote the idea that Wilder’s work is irredeemably toxic.  In James LaRue’s thoughtful consideration of the issue on his ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom Blog, he considers some of the change’s implications. In a lengthy comment to that post, Megan Schliesman argues in favor of the award name change from the perspective of local control, which is a tactic generally used by the right to eliminate works they deem offensive from schools and public libraries.  We don’t actually legally ban books through government action in our country, at least not yet.  When people pressure libraries and school boards to suppress or include specific books, they argue in favor of community standards. So the next time some library in a red state decides that the Harry Potter books advocate witchcraft, that science and health materials are threatening, or books about gay or transgender teens are immoral, we may all have a more difficult time fighting against their outrageous threats to everyone’s intellectual freedom.


Small Dolls, Big Decisions

Book reviewed:  Ship of Dolls – Shirley Parenteau, Candlewick Press, 2014


It’s tough to be a young child caught in a web of moral decisions. You’re lucky if you have a silent but persuasive doll to help you.  In Kirby Larson’s The Friendship Doll, that message was explicit. In Ship of Dolls, the first in Shirly Parenteau’s trilogy about the same Japanese-American doll exchange which was the setting for Larson’s novel, eleven-year old Lexie Lewis is confronted with the consequences of lying or even withholding the truth from her grandparent guardians.  She is also involved in the 1920s doll exchange, an eager, even desperate, participant in a contest to accompany an American doll, Emily Grace, to San Francisco, to be part of the send-off of these silent ambassadors to Japan.  Like most of the characters in Larson’s book, Lexie is a powerless child caught in a bad situation; her actions can either improve things or make them much worse.

The two authors’ moral and narrative style are somewhat similar, at least in the fact that their young heroines are treated really badly by adults.  Lexie’s father has been killed in a car accident. As the book begins she is living in Portland Oregon with her paternal grandparents. Her mother is a flapper, making this book rather different from Larson’s.  There is a focus on Lexie’s incompetent mom as a hedonistic if well-intentioned “new woman,” who dresses stylishly, sings in nightclubs, and seems to be inconsistent in her feelings about different men in her life.  She remarries a musician after he husband’s untimely death, but, by the end of the book, a ship’s captain has offered her “free” passage to Japan in exchange for entertaining the passengers.

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