Laura Ingalls Wilder

Pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the autobiographical ‘Little House’ kids’ book series, the basis of the popular television show ‘Little House on the Prairie.’

Who Was Laura Ingalls Wilder?

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867, near Pepin, Wisconsin. She was a teacher in South Dakota from 1882 to 1885, when she married Almanzo Wilder. In 1932, she published Little House in the Big Woods, the first of her well-known Little House series that eventually spawned the hit TV program Little House on the Prairie. Wilder finished the last book in 1943. On February 10, 1957, she died at age 90, on her farm in Mansfield, Missouri.

Early Life

Laura Ingalls Wilder was born on February 7, 1867, to Charles and Caroline Ingalls in their log cabin just outside of Pepin, Wisconsin. In her books, Wilder would later come to call the cabin "The Little House in the Big Woods." Two years after her birth, in 1869, her family moved to Kansas, which would become the setting for her book Little House on the Prairie. She was one of five children. She had an older sister named Mary; two younger sisters, Carrie and Grace; and a younger brother named Charles, who died at nine months old.

Wilder described her early years as "full of sunshine and shadow." When she was growing up, she and her pioneer family repeatedly moved from one Midwestern town to the next. In 1874, they moved from Wisconsin to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Although the Ingalls family initially stayed in Walnut Grove for only two years before a failed crop forced them to move to Burr Oak, Iowa, Walnut Grove became the setting of Little House on the Prairie (1974–1982), a television show based on Laura Wilder's life.

In the autumn of 1878, the Ingalls family returned to Walnut Grove. In 1879, they moved yet again, becoming homesteaders in the Dakota Territory, and eventually settling in De Smet, South Dakota.

Teaching Career

Because they had moved so often, Wilder and her siblings mainly taught themselves and each other. They attended local schools whenever they could. Her decision to become a teacher herself was largely an economic one. Her family needed the additional income, especially with Wilder's older sister Mary away at a school for the blind. In 1882, Wilder passed the test to obtain her teaching certificate.

Just 15 years old, she signed on to teach at a one-room country schoolhouse 12 miles from her parents' home, the first of several teaching jobs. During her time teaching at Bouchie School, her parents often sent a family friend named Almanzo Wilder to pick her up and bring her home for weekend visits. 

Marriage and Children

Over the course of their wagon rides home, Laura and Almanzo fell in love. On August 25, 1885, the two were married at a congregational church in South Dakota. Afterward, Laura quit teaching to raise children and help Almanzo work the farm. In the winter of 1886, Laura gave birth to a daughter, Rose. In August of 1889 she had a son who tragically died within a month of his birth. Not long after, Almanzo contracted diphtheria and was partially paralyzed. To make matters worse, in 1890, the Wilders' home burned to the ground.

After four years of drifting from place to place, in 1894 the Wilders bought a 200-acre farm in the Ozarks of Mansfield, Missouri. On Rocky Ridge Farm, as they came to call it, the Wilders built a farmhouse, raised livestock and did all their own farm work.

The 'Little House' Series

In the 1910s Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, by then grown up and a reporter for the San Francisco Bulletin, encouraged her mother to write about her childhood. In the 1920s, Wilder's first attempt at writing an autobiography, called Pioneer Girl, was uniformly rejected by publishers. Determined to succeed, Wilder spent the next several years reworking her writing, including switching the title and changing the story to be told from the third-person perspective.

In 1932, Laura Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in what would become an autobiographical series of children's books, collectively called the Little House books. Just as Little House in the Big Woods recounts her life in Pepin, Wisconsin, each of her books focuses on one of the more memorable places she lived. With Wilder and daughter Rose working together on the manuscripts, other books in the Little House series include 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. Wilder completed the last book in the series in 1943, when she was 76 years old.

Later Life and Death

In 1949, when Almanzo died, Wilder stayed at Rocky Ridge, reading and responding to her readers' fan mail. On February 10, 1957, she died on the farm in Mansfield, Missouri. Following Wilder's death, Rose edited and published several posthumous works based on her mother's diary and incomplete manuscripts.

Little House on the Prairie, a television show based on Laura Wilder's life, aired in 1974 and ran until 1982. Children and adults across the country followed Laura's tragedies and triumphs, watching as actress Melissa Gilbert, in her spunky yet earnest portrayal, grew up on the screen. The show generated further interest in Wilder, and helped spawn new generations of Little House readers.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Award Controversy

Beginning in 1954, when the Association for Library Service to Children presented Wilder with a medal, the ALSC honored an author for his or her contributions to children's literature with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. However, in June 2018 the organization announced it was changing the name to the Children's Literature Legacy Award due to the author's portrayals of Native Americans in her books.

"This decision was made in consideration of the fact that Wilder's legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC's core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness," the organization said in a statement.

"Changing the name of the award, or ending the award and establishing a new award, does not prohibit access to Wilder's works or suppress discussion about them," the statement continued. "Neither option asks or demands that anyone stop reading Wilder's books, talking about them, or making them available to children. These recommendations do not amount to censorship, nor do they undermine intellectual freedom."

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