By Cindy Schuchardt, Reference Department
“The ‘Little House’ books are stories of long ago. Today our way of living and our schools are much different; so many things have made living and learning easier. But the real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with the simple pleasures; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.”
—Laura Ingalls Wilder
On February 7, 2017, Laura Ingalls Wilder would have been 150 years old. Though she died in 1957, she lives on through her beloved Little House on the Prairie books. This enduring children’s fiction series gives readers a glimpse of life in another time, based on Wilder’s experiences from her birth in Pepin, Wisconsin, to her childhood as a pioneer girl traveling through the upper Midwest, to her life as a young teacher and wife in De Smet, South Dakota.
I was in fourth grade when I first discovered the Little House books. I was in a new school – with a new library – and I remember seeing the books on a shelf to my right as I walked into the room. The cover illustrations by Garth Williams first drew me in, but it was the colorful word pictures created by Wilder that kept me transfixed. I kept returning to the library, reading each book in the series until I had completed them all. We didn’t have American Girl dolls or books in those days, but I think that many from my generation thought of Laura and her sisters Mary, Carrie and Grace as our American girls.
As fictionalized autobiographic material, the books don’t give us an entire or entirely accurate picture of history. This was a limited picture of America (an approach that took on a largely hushed tone about Native American and black history) but one that many still find valuable and enjoyable. I know that Wilder’s words helped me to travel to another time and place, to experience things that I would never experience in my lifetime – from traveling in a covered wagon and living in a log cabin, to churning butter, harvesting maple syrup, and smoking meat. I felt as though I knew the Ingalls family and was right there with Laura (a.k.a. Half-Pint) as she experienced each new task, trial or tribulation.
The story of how Wilder came to write the books is in itself an interesting one. In midlife, Wilder wrote a biweekly column for the Missouri Ruralist, which featured her opinions on country life, housekeeping, and marriage. Her adult daughter, Rose, a reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin and already a published fiction writer, encouraged Wilder to write about her childhood. That autobiography, Pioneer Girl, was rejected by several publishers at the time.
The tide turned when an editor at Harper & Brothers asked Wilder to reframe the autobiographical material into a fictionalized children’s book. With help from Rose, Wilder did exactly that. The editor liked the revised manuscript for Little House in the Big Woods and published it. It was 1932, and Wilder was 65 years old. (For adults who are aspiring fiction writers, this is an especially encouraging fact!)
Wilder’s first book was quickly successful, and she was asked to write more. Rose helped her mother, although the extent to which she served as editor or ghostwriter is a subject of debate among literary experts. By 1943, the core eight novels of the series had been published: Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, Farmer Boy, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years. The final book in the series, The First Four Years, was published in 1971, almost 15 years after Wilder’s death.
The Little House series opened the doors of history to girls and boys across the country – and later, around the world. Wilder died on February 10, 1957, three days after her 90th birthday, on her farm in Mansfield, Missouri. Yet she lives on today through her literary legacy. About 60 million copies have been sold of Little House in the Big Woods alone, and her books have been published in 30 languages.
In 2014, the South Dakota Historical Society Press published a hardcover edition of Pioneer Girl, the autobiography first refused by Wilder’s contemporary publishers. The text, annotated by Wilder biographer Pamela Smith Hill, has sold more than 140,000 copies. For 2017, Harper Collins is releasing new, anniversary-themed editions of the books – a testament to their enduring popularity and appeal.
Want to Know More?
The library is a great way to learn more Laura Ingalls Wilder and get acquainted (or reacquainted) with her Little House books. Ask one of our children’s librarians for the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Bibliography,” which lists titles and locations of the original books, as well as non-fiction companion books, and books by other authors based on the lives of Wilder’s female relatives.
Upstairs, in the nonfiction area, we have a variety of writings by Wilder, as well as books about her by other authors. Stop by the reference desk and ask about them. We’ll be glad to help you!