Monday, February 17, 2014
February 17, 2014: YA Lit: Little House on the Prairie
[Recently the boys and I have moved into chapter books, including the wonderful John Bellairs series. So in honor of that next stage of reading, a series on AmericanStudying chapter books and Young Adult lit. Please add your favorites, memories, and ideas for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On what YA stories can teach us—and what they can’t.
Some of my strongest memories of my young adulthood involve trips to the public library to play educational games on the one computer in the kids’ area (I still remember vividly the thrill of seeing that there was a half-hour time slot available to sign up for). Sometimes I played Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, about which more another time perhaps. And there may have been another game or two I’m forgetting. But often my game of choice—and this will come as no surprise, either to anyone who grew up in the 80s or to anyone who knows AmericanStudier-friendly computer games—was The Oregon Trail. It’s fair to say that I learned more about the rigors of frontier life—fording those rivers, trying to shoot those squirrels, struggling with that damn dysentery—from those half hour sessions than I did from any other source.
Similarly, I’m willing to bet that more American children have learned about westward migration and settlement from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books (and of course from the subsequent TV show) than from all the textbooks on the subject put together. And like Oregon Trail, but of course in far greater length and depth, Wilder’s books certainly immerse readers in the world of the frontier, its threats and challenges, the new worlds always waiting across the next river, the experience of navigating and surviving and even prospering in them as a family. Indeed, the game and books parallel and complement each other very interestingly: the game offering kids the chance to connect their own identities and perpectives to the same kind of frontier world in which young Laura and her siblings develop their own such connections throughout the books. I think there’s great value in helping kids make such empathetic links to distant, past experiences, and Wilder’s books offer wonderful opportunities for doing so.
On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that my position on both the game and Wilder’s books creating such empathy is a classic example of what has come to be called “white privilege.” That is, for so many American communities, each with their own histories and stories of the 19th century west, those narratives bear precious little resemblance to the past. That’s most obviously true for Native Americans, but would be equally applicable to African American slaves (or even freedmen), Mexican American landowners, Chinese American immigrant laborers, and other groups who helped constitute and shape the frontier. I’m not saying that Wilder’s books should have engaged with all those communities—she wrote what she knew—but instead that it’d be vital for any young reader to complement and supplement those books with other stories, ones that can help him or her learn about, and perhaps even empathize with, those other frontier lives and worlds.
Next YA favorite tomorrow,
BenPS. What YA lit favorites and memories would you share?