Predictably, the novel was thought provoking. After all of these years, I had forgotten few events, but some of the descriptions of the events stood out for me anew. After spending her first full week at home after a dismal experience boarding with the head of the school board and his wife during her first teaching job, Laura reflects on the contrast between her own home and the Brewsters’:
But best of all were the mornings and the evenings at home. Laura realized that she had never appreciated them until now. There were no sullen silences, no smoldering quarrels, no ugly outbursts of anger.
It was with a shock that I realized that this was precisely the difference between the home my husband and I have made, and the one in which I grew up. These sentences may mean nothing to my children when they read them, or else they will sympathize with Laura without knowing exactly what she has experienced. To me, they summarized a contrast I have felt within my own life, and for which I am grateful. My mother has not yet escaped that past, and I fear that there is little I can do to help her. Similarly, in Little Town on the Prairie, the “ordinary” (stereotypically Irish, perhaps) quarreling of the Clancys, by whom Laura is employed as a seamstress, disturbs her because the behavior is so foreign to her: Laura was so upset that she could not eat, she wanted only to get away.
A meditation followed:
So much of children’s literature these days is intended as self-help, of the pop-psychology variety, intended to make children recognize, and perhaps wallow in, the short-comings of the world around them. Rather than displaying personal strength and the ability to meet challenges, they portray children who “need help” in order that the “actual” child reader will know what it means to “need help.” I welcome an assessment of this by someone with experience helping troubled children professionally; I venture to assert that having similar experiences in which to wallow would compound rather than alleviate one’s own problems, and that stories that show magical solutions to real world problems are still more damaging. I did not need a story to tell me that my family was dysfunctional, and I did not need a story to validate that being dysfunctional was O.K.—it was not O.K., and acknowledging that may have given me the ability to change my own life accordingly. Though I never thought of the stories in this way, the Little House Books, by holding up an ideal, may have allowed me an escape from our family situation, and shown me what could be possible through mutual respect between husband and wife, parent and child.
I agree. Children need books that give them heroes and ideals, that help them set their sights upon the heights, that lead them closer to God. They do not need to wallow in pain and misery. Which is not to say that children’s literature should be all happy-clappy sunshiny Pollyanna, refusing to acknowledge the darker things in life. But I don’t think most children yearn to read about people who are “just like me with problems just like mine”. They might be satisfied with that if it’s all they have (maybe). But a parent or a teacher can and should do better for them. We should fill their minds with what is noble and beautiful and good, the best we have to offer.