More on Little House

Book referenced:  Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2008 (reprint of 1935 edition)

In my last blog entry, I attempted to look at Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books from a different perspective.  It is undeniable that they employ many racist stereotypes about Native Americans, and that their characters embody the value of Manifest Destiny, the doctrine that European- Americans had an unquestioned right to take over the Indian lands.  At the same time, some characters in the books admit, if only momentarily, that the process of displacing Indians from their land will naturally cause anger and conflict.  One of the most frequently cited and toxic phrases from the book is “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” spoken by the Ingalls’ family’s neighbor, Mr. Scott. Mr. Scott and his wife are uninterested in Pa’s qualifiers, including his suggestion that “Indians would be as peaceable as anyone else if they were left alone.”


Pa responds to what he believes to be the bravery and leadership of the Osage leader, Soldat du Chêne, with the rather patronizing phrase, “That’s one good Indian!” Yet Laura hears this admiration as a validation of her own doubts about the treatment of Indians by white settlers: “No matter what Mr. Scott said, Pa did not believe that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.”  Nevertheless, when Laura expresses confusion to her father about the possible right of Indians to feel anger at the loss of their own land, he tells her to stop asking questions.

If the Little House books are so problematic and include so much biased material, why read them?  My answer would be…

Continue reading “More on Little House”

A Few Thoughts about Little House

Books referenced:

Little House in the Big Woods – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2004 (reprint of 1932 edition)

Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garth Williams, HarperCollins, 2008 (reprint of 1935 edition)

As educators and readers pay increased attention to the depiction of Native Americans in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work, the American Library Association is considering changing the name of the award named in her honor.  Considering that characters voice such sentiments as “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” and that the entire premise of the series is that white settlers have the right, even the obligation, to take over Indian land, the movement to remove Wilder’s name from the award is not surprising.  I am concerned about several issues at stake here and I have been rereading the books and considering the options available to those who admire Wilder’s work yet also recognize the need to give children books with accurate portrayals of Native American peoples, and of American history in general.


First, it should be clear that removing Wilder’s name from the award is not the same as removing her books from libraries and bookstores.  There are people who would like to do both.  While I respect their opinion, I strongly maintain that reading the books in context, accompanied by other works by Native American authors, such as Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series, is more appropriate than eliminating them.  There are also hundreds of primary sources available about Manifest Destiny and the violent displacement of Native peoples from their lands; some of these may be excerpted and explained for use with elementary age readers (for example here, here, here, here, and here).   In fact, the explicit nature of Wilder’s statements about her family’s beliefs and their role in appropriating Indian land makes the books an ideal starting point for discussions about what really took place in our country.

Little House in the Big Woods has only a few references to Indians; in fact, they are conspicuous by their absence.  The book has many references to other widely accepted practices and inevitable parts of life on the frontier that would require a great deal of explaining today.  The first fifty plus pages include casual descriptions of animal slaughter. Laura and Mary are happy to play a balloon made of a pig’s bladder. Laura sometimes expresses sadness at the need to kill animals if she has become attached to them.  Much more challenging is Laura’s description of corporal punishment.  During an argument with her sister Mary, Laura slaps Mary.  Children today will still identify with the cause: Laura’s jealousy has been provoked by her sister’s “golden hair,” when her own hair is brown.  Pa uses a strap to “whip” Laura, an act clearly identified today as abuse.  The most devastating part of this incident is that, after being beaten by her father, Laura sits on his lap “and everything was all right again.”

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We Need Dr. Seuss, Now More Than Ever

Book Referenced:  Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories – Dr. Seuss, Random House, 1986 (reprint of 1958 edition)

The ALSC, the children’s services arm of the American Library Association, is currently discussing the possibility of renaming some of their awards, which honor achievement in the field of children’s literature. Two of the awards under consideration are the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for “a substantial and lasting contribution” to books for children, and the Geisel Award, for an outstanding book for beginning readers. Aside from the larger issue of balancing the need for respect and cultural diversity with recognition of literary excellence, the two authors whose names are identified with these awards are quite different. While Wilder’s entire body of work is defined by her pioneer narratives, in which the displacement of Native Americans is an essential theme, Dr. Seuss was involved in many more different types of work over his long career. I have written on this blog before (here and here) about why I believe that calls for his removal from libraries, homes, or awards result from a lack of historical understanding.  It often seems that his critics fail to understand the political climate in the United States in the 1930s and early 1940s, when Geisel/Dr. Seuss was a courageous opponent of isolationism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.  I am aware that he also supported the internment of Japanese Americans, and I believe that is unforgivable. He later went on to support progressive causes, and he revolutionized beginning readers in a way which has benefited all children.

yertle cover

Everyone knows that Yertle the Turtle is a bully and a fascist.  Dr. Seuss’s cautionary and inspiring tale about the need to speak truth to power was published as a book with two other stories in 1958.  Let’s review what happens when an insignificant and insecure would-be dictator actually assumes power. Quotes that do not rhyme are from a Yertle today, one unknown to Dr. Seuss, yet repeatedly described and mocked in his work:

“I’m ruler,” said Yertle, “of all that I see.
But I don’t see enough. That’s the trouble with me….
If I could sit high, how much greater I’d be!
What a king! I’d be ruler of all I could see!”

 “I’m the most successful person ever to run for the presidency so far”
Des Moines Register, 2/06/15



“But that isn’t all.  I’ll do better than that!
I’m king of a house! And a bush! And a cat!
My throne shall be higher! His royal voice thundered,
“So pile up more turtles! I want ‘bout two hundred!”

“I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment and I live in the White House, too, which is really great.”
Phoenix rally, August, 2017


 “You shut up your mouth!” howled the mighty King Yertle.
“You’ve no right to talk to the world’s highest turtle.”

“I would never kill them (reporters), but I do hate them. And some of them are such lying, disgusting people. It’s true.”
Speech in Grand Rapids, Michigan, December, 2015


“You stay in your place while I sit here and rule.
I’m king of a cow! And I’m king of a mule!”

“Spend more time working – less time talking.”
Advice to United Steel Workers union in tweet, December, 2016

In the near future, we hope to see the ending of Yertle the Turtle repeated, applied today as it did to tyrants in Dr. Seuss’s era:


“I know, up on top you are seeing great sights,
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”
“And today the great Yertle, that Marvelous he,
Is King of the Mud. That is all he can see.
And the turtles, of course…all turtles are free
As turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”





Don Freeman’s Corduroy Turns Fifty

Books Referenced:
Corduroy – Don Freeman, Viking Books for Young Readers, 2008 (40th anniversary edition)
A Pocket for Corduroy – Don Freeman, Viking, 1978

I recently learned that the Museum of the City of New York will unveil a retrospective exhibit on the work of author and illustrator Don Freeman (1908-1978) in the fall of this year. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Corduroy’s debut in his eponymous book, as well as the fortieth of his sequel, A Pocket for Corduroy. Freeman, a respected illustrator of New York City life, was well known for including working people and the world of Broadway theater (his son maintains an extensive website of his legacy).  Yet he also wrote an illustrated children’s books and became most famous for his portrait of a bear who almost isn’t purchased from a toy store partly because he is missing a button.



Freeman was white; the story’s human characters are African-American. As with Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day, this choice is presented as unremarkable, although it was much remarked upon, since it was still unusual in 1968.  Corduroy’s story is about an affectionate little girl, Lisa, with a responsible if busy mother, and Lisa’s conviction that she really does want a slightly imperfect toy bear who really needs a parent figure himself.


Corduroy lives on the shelf in a department store, randomly housed between an oversized bunny and a cute doll. In the next picture, the doll has disappeared. Apparently, someone has taken her home. When Lisa identifies the bear as “the very bear I’ve always wanted,” her tired mother replies, not unreasonably, that she has already spent too much on their shopping trip, and that the bear is damaged goods.

They leave, and Corduroy then does what children suspect their toys do when their owners aren’t around. He boards an escalator and winds up in the bedroom furnishings. As a child might do if he is bored being dragged around a store, Corduroy uses his imagination: “This must be a palace…I guess I’ve always wanted to live in a palace.”  That “I guess” leaves room for the happy conclusion. Lisa finds some money in her piggy bank and she returns to the store to buy Corduroy. She does not bring him to a palace, but up four flights of stairs to her urban apartment, where she sews a button on his overalls. The important point about the button is that Corduroy doesn’t really need it: “I like you the way you are…but you’ll be more comfortable with your shoulder strap fastened.”


Freeman’s pictures are understated, with Corduroy’s different positions in different situations showing movement naturally.  His feet fly up in the air as he grasps a lamp to keep from falling; in the next page, his hands cover his ears as protection from the noise.  In a really memorable image of vulnerability, only Corduroy’s ears stick out from the blanket as a night watchman shines a flashlight on him; the watchman then pulls back the linens to reveal the misplaced toy.


In A Pocket for Corduroy, the bear has another close call, also resolved by some good luck and by Lisa’s protective love for him.  He winds up left in a sack at the local laundromat where, fortunately, a kindly bearded hipster (as we would call him today) rescues him until Lisa returns the next day.  She brings him home once again and makes him an ID card and a pocket to put it in. If you have ever spent hours looking for a child’s beloved toy, you will feel immense relief and gratitude for the kindness of strangers.

There are so many positive and reassuring moments in both these books, all of them natural and understated.  Children reading or listening to the book will identify both with Corduroy and with Lisa, and will feel drawn to a world where parents and other adults take care of children, and children learn to take care of other small and vulnerable beings.  That’s why we still appreciate Corduroy and can look forward to the upcoming exhibit.





The Legacy of Alice Provensen (1918-2018)

I was saddened to read in The New York Times this morning that Alice Provensen had died.   Along with her husband Martin (1916-1987), as well as in her independent career, Alice’s distinctive style found its subject in a wide range of subjects: history, poetry, and delightful original stories for children. They illustrated their own writing as well as the work of other authors.


The lush colors and fantastic swirling images of The Color Kittens, the information-packed parade of U.S. presidents in The Buck Stops Here, (updated  in 2013 to include President Obama), and the Provensen original interpretation of both Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and traditional  Mother Goose rhymes, are all unforgettable.  Much of her work is still in print, including the recent A Day in the Life of Murphy and Murphy in the City¸ but some of the most outstanding of the Provensens’ work can only be purchased on the secondary market: The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends Adapted from the World’s Great Classics by Anne Terry White, The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales, and Leonardo da Vinci. These are sophisticated works with high expectations of young readers.  Why must they disappear?


The Provensens won a Caldecott for The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot July 25, 1909, and a Caldecott Honor for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers, by the brilliantly inventive poet Nancy Willard (1936-2017). The latter is an incredible achievement, with Willard’s original poems and the Provensens’ artwork conjuring a fictional past rooted in Blake’s life.  The Provensens include primitivism, medieval imagery, and the architecture of 18th and 19th century London, as ingredients in their indelible vision of the poet and his imagined guests.  Tigers and cats sleep side by side, busy artisans work at their trades, and the Blake himself composes poetry undisturbed by all the activity.  The subjects this book encourages for discussion with children, as well as adults, include the Romantic Age, Blake’s work, architecture and art, and the creative process itself. A related work also by Nancy Willard and the Provensens, The Voyage of the Ludgate Hill: Travels with Robert Louis Stevenson, also opens a window to the past, with the Provensens’ Stevenson holding to the ship’s mast, his tie fluttering in the wind, and a copy of Treasure Island in his hand.


The world of children’s literature has lost an artist who embodied all the best qualities of her profession: genius, originality, continuity, breadth and range of work, and respect for the intelligence and imagination of children.

A Purse That Everyone Needs

Book Reviewed:  Grandma’s Purse – Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018

If you are a grandma, had a grandma, and whether or not you or your grandma carried a purse, this is the book for you.  Vanessa Brantley-Newman’s Grandma’s Purse is not so much about Grandma’s accessories as about the deep well of boundless love and approval that her purse symbolically holds.  Brantley-Newman is a prolific author and illustrator. Unfortunately, she received some negative publicity during the controversy over A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a book that Scholastic actually removed from production because of its unfortunate implication that Washington’s slave was happy and honored to serve him.


I cannot defend that book, but Vanessa Brantley-Newman is a gifted artist who has contributed so much more: Grandma’s Purse is one beautiful example. Brantley-Newton is described in the book’s cover copy as a “self-taught Illustrator, doll maker, and crafter,” and that modest list of her qualifications is evident in her portrayal of Grandma Mimi and the little girl who looks forward to her visits. Mimi looks old, in a really nice way! She has lovely grey curly hair,… Continue reading “A Purse That Everyone Needs”

Happy May Day!

Book Reviewed:  Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 – Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet, Balzer + Bray, 2013


Today is May Day, known internationally as the workers’ holiday, the day to acknowledge the contributions of labor, to honor the history of workers, and to stand up for the rights of working people. In the U.S., our Labor Day is in September; the decision to distance it from the more radical associations of Europe’s labor movement was a conscious one. Fortunately, there are many children’s books, both fiction and non-fiction, which introduce kids to the trade union movement and other social and political organizations that empower the people who produce what we all need or want (The Horn Book just posted a list here).

Even the youngest children can identify with the persistence of the animals refusing to be exploited in Click Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, also available as a beginning reader for beginning activists.  The Day the Crayons Quit shows as much conflict between the crayons as resentment against the people who exploit them, which may be more realistic, if less inspiring.

MY favorite non-fiction picture book (also on the Horn Book list) about a real leader of the labor movement is Brave Girl, the true story of Clara Lemlich, a Jewish immigrant who found her place in the early twentieth century garment workers’ crusade for safer working conditions and adequate pay (I previously wrote about Lemlich for Tablet Magazine.)

The book does not avoid the cruel reality of workers’ daily lives…

Continue reading “Happy May Day!”

Story of Hate, Not Hope

Book Reviewed:  At Jerusalem’s Gate: Poems of Easter – Nikki Grimes and David Frampton, Eerdmans’ Books for Young Readers, 2005


Recently, while writing about another book with illustrations by David Frampton, I came across his collaboration with the esteemed poet and Laura Ingalls Wilder Award recipient, Nikki Grimes.  I read some selections online, and then ordered the book.  I was deeply disappointed to read a work which is a disturbing repetition, even if its poetic language is sometimes beautiful, of some of the worst misrepresentations of Judaism and the life of Jesus I have read in a  modern children’s book.  At Jerusalem’s Gate was clearly not inspired by anti-Semitic rancor, but by Ms. Grimes’s deeply held Christian faith. However, I feel compelled to point out how insidious is her unquestioning acceptance of the Gospel narrative, especially those parts which depict Jesus’s fellow Jews in a way that led to centuries of brutal violence and oppression.

The Gospels were written between forty to sixty years after Jesus’s death, and the New Testament was not codified until around 140 C.E. By that time, early Christians were beginning to make inroads in proselytizing to Romans.  Eventually, Christianity’s origins as a Jewish sect would be denied, and the Church insisted on emphasizing the demonic nature of the people who had supposedly denied their own Messiah, the Jews.  An essential part of this myth, used to defend Christian persecution of the Jewish people, was the constant insistence that the Jews had killed Christ.  Frequent reenactments of the torture and execution of Jesus in the form of Passion Plays, popular lore, and Christian teaching, inculcated hatred of Jews very deeply in the peoples of Europe and their colonies. Ultimately, even the anti-religious Nazis were able to exploit this disease to circumvent opposition to their policy of annihilation.

I would like to quote from these poems and point out how several anti-Semitic tropes form the core of Ms. Grimes’s story, one that is meant to teach children about Easter.  Children will learn from this book that the Jewish people and their leaders were greedy and cruel, and deliberately sought the death of Jesus.

Continue reading “Story of Hate, Not Hope”

Owl Can’t Sleep, Writes Poems


Book reviewed:  Otto The Owl Who Loved Poetry – Vern Kousky, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2015

There is whole category of children’s books about owls with a kind of sleep disorder; they want to stay awake in the daytime, when nocturnal animals should be fast asleep.  There are obvious challenges to socializing when most other species are not awake.  Some of the most endearing examples of these stories are the Little Owl books by Divya Srinivasen, and Brian Won’s Hooray for Today!


In Otto the Owl who Loved Poetry, Vern Kousky has created a more anxious and insecure creature, one whose circadian rhythm problem is exacerbated, but finally resolved, by his literary creativity.  Kousky is both author and illustrator of Otto’s tale. His portrait of a sleepless owl who finds both himself and friends by writing poems, may speak to parents more than to children.

We meet Otto perched on a branch, enclosed in a crescent moon against a very dark sky. He looks upset.  No wonder, because “Otto is not like the other owls of the forest.”  When others are sleeping, he prefers to read books, although even this activity doesn’t seem to make him happy, judging by the picture of him immersed in a volume of Keats.  Worse, he doesn’t want to hunt mice, but to make friends with them.  Otto’s peaceful nature makes him a literary heir to Ferdinand, but without the bull’s rejection of fame.

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Israel’s 70th Birthday

Book reviewed:  Jerusalem, Shining Still – Karla Kuskin and David Frampton, Harper and Row, 1987

On April 19 of this year many of us celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, the birthday of the state of Israel. There are a number of children’s books about contemporary Israel, its history, and sometimes, controversies surrounding the social and political problems which continue to challenge, or plague, the country, depending on your perspective. I am a proud supporter of the Jewish state, as well as a critic of some of its policies, and I am always concerned about ways to present Israel to children with both loyalty and realism. One of my favorites is still Leslie Kimmelman and Talitha Shipman’s Everybody Says Shalom, though others are more problematic).


In 1987, which seems like such a long time ago, poet Karla Kuskin (1932-2009) and artist David Frampton collaborated on Jerusalem, Shining Still, a visually stunning and literarily ambitious tribute to the ancient and modern city of Jerusalem.  Although it is out of print, because this book takes so unusual an approach, I believe it is worth the effort to find and to share with children.

Kuskin has written a brief history of Jerusalem, interspersed with lines of poetry, although all the language of the book is suffused with poetic imagery.  She begins with an introduction which asks children to imagine Jerusalem in the context of time.  First, she suggests, picture one day, then “three hundred and sixty-five sunrises,” and then try to understand the four thousand years of Jerusalem’s existence.  Beginning with an acknowledgement of Jerusalem’s incredible diversity, symbolized by the fact that “Every morning sixty-four kinds of bread are baked here.” (Obviously, many more today!)

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