Although change may be the only constant in life, that doesn’t make coping with it any easier. Combine a Western cultural inclination toward binary thinking and the loss of nuance in a sound-bite world, and you have the perfect ingredients for the sort of storm that periodically crosses over from the youth literature world into mainstream awareness. The decision at the recent American Library Association’s Annual Conference to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (an achievement award that most outside this world hitherto barely noticed) to the Children's Literature Legacy Award has caused quite a stir.
One aspect of the ensuing deluge of commentary that has particularly intrigued me, as someone with a background in history, is the “product of their times” argument that is always produced—and just as quickly shot down—when we critique anything from the past. Of course we are all shaped by the times (and cultures and families) we live in. Our beliefs and assumptions, our taste buds, our values, our cognitive frameworks—none of these spring fully formed from the womb.
But influence is not destiny. Is there any universal failure of compassion we would be willing to excuse away in one of our contemporaries because they are a product of this time? If we don’t expect to share every opinion with everyone of the same age alive today, why should we offer that up as an explanation for every opinion held by our forebears?
In every age there have been people who crossed boundaries with open hearts and minds. The fact that we rarely hear of them doesn’t mean they didn’t exist; it more likely means they did not have access to the means of making their voices heard. Or they did, but we prefer comfortable, familiar narratives rather than digging around in the dusty byways of history (where I think the most exciting stories lie hidden).
Which is not to say that we should pillory every past voice for not embracing modern mindsets. And which is equally not to say that we shouldn’t periodically cast a critical eye over traditions and ask whether they are still working or perhaps could benefit from adjustment. Margaret Mead’s daughter, herself an anthropologist, told her mother that she shared her parenting goals but was at times taking a different path to achieving them. That seems to me to apply here.
We can take “the times” into account without patronizing past generations by excusing away everything they said and did as if they were hapless individuals who merely lacked access to the enlightenment of our modern selves.* We can be people who work toward improving access to great literature for all children today and have fond memories of loving books that nevertheless contain deeply disturbing content. We can keep all the classics and include books, such as the ones pictured here, that present other stories. We can change the name of an award to help it better fit the intended goal of the honor, because if the loss of a single word in the name of an award is so powerful that it moves rational adults to deep distress and ire, imagine how powerful the impact of the many hateful words contained in the books themselves might be to children who read them. We can still love all the good parts of the Little House series and use the series to talk with children about difficult topics from the past—problems that are in fact very much a part of our present.
*I highly recommend the adult nonfiction title Family Secrets: Living With Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day by Deborah Cohen (2013), which offers insights into Victorian attitudes around race, disability, sexual orientation, and more and perfectly demonstrates culturally competent ways to approach the “of their times” argument. Laura Simeon is the young adult editor.