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Volume 3 Issue 7

Sharing the Little House Books With Grandchildren

by Ann Weller Dah

Recently, as the speaker at the annual meeting of the Friends of the Goucher College Library, I shared my enthusiasm for the writings of the late Laura Ingalls Wilder. In particular, I noted the timeless philosophy of life she expressed not only in her writing for children in the classic "Little House" series but also in her writing for adults. She wrote for adults long before she penned the children's books, but the pieces were mainly for newspapers and magazines.

At the conclusion of my talk, a lady immediately stepped forward, her sprightly manner and brisk speech belying her advancing years. "I want to buy your Reading Guides for the Little House Books," she announced. "You see, my granddaughter and I read together all the time and these books would be perfect." Off she went with an order form, and over lunch the following week, I delivered not only this course to her, but also another in Calvert School's "Classics for Children" series, Beatrix Potter: Her Life and Her Little Books.

For many people, one of life's joys is entertaining and expanding the horizons of grandchildren, but sometimes the creative well runs dry and we start thinking, "what shall we do while they're here". You may recall fondly what you enjoyed at their ages, but what do kids today like to do? Even more to the point, what would you and the grandchildren enjoy doing together, especially when the visits are short but regular or perhaps long term, as during a summer vacation.

For you, the solution may be as near as your bookshelf or your neighborhood library. READ WITH THEM. To be even more specific, read the classic "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Although these books were first published between 1932 (when Mrs. Wilder was a mere 65 years old!) and 1943, they are as loved today as they were six decades ago. The Little House Books have been translated into over fifty languages and read in the United States and around the world by people who enjoy the history of the American frontier told in story form. It is interesting to note that the first translations into German and Japanese were suggested by General MacArther just following World War II.

With so many excellent children's books on the market today, why choose the "Little House" books to read with grandchildren? Consider these reasons:

1. The Little House books contain descriptive passages so skillfully written that the reader's imagination is constantly stimulated. Many of these serve as excellent teaching tools. One exercise you might try after reading these picturesque paragraphs is to describe a local scene that is familiar to your family. "Listen" to how Laura Ingalls Wilder used language in THE LONG WINTER to bring landscapes to life.

"The sky was high and quivering with heat over the shimmering prairie. Halfway down to sunset, the sun blazed as hotly as at noon. The wind was scorching hot." (p. 1)

"At the edge of the pool stood the muskrats' house. It was taller than Laura, and far larger than her arms could reach around. Its rounded sides and top were rough, hard gray. The muskrats had gnawed dry grass to bits and mixed the bits well with mud to make a good plaster for their house, and they had built it up solidly and smoothly and rounded the top carefully to shed rain.

The house had no door. No path led to it anywhere. …Inside those thick, still walls, Pa said, the muskrats were sleeping now, each family curled in its own little room lined softly with grass. Each room had a small round doorway that opened onto a sloping hall. The hallway curved down through the house from top to bottom and ended in dark water. That was the muskrats' front door.

After the sun had gone, the muskrats woke and went pattering down the smooth mud-floor of their hallway. They plunged into the black water and came up through the pool to the wide, wild night under the sky." (p. 11)

Closely related to the wonderful descriptions are the figures of speech sprinkled generously throughout the series. They are fun to spot as well as imitate. Laura Ingalls Wilder used similes, metaphors, hyperbole, and alliteration, but here's one you probably would have to look up in a dictionary: synecdoche. It means using a part to represent the whole, as in asking for a lady's hand in marriage. Surely the groom wants more than just her hand!

And while you have the dictionary out, you and your grandchildren might enjoy delving into the meanings and especially the word origins of some of the excellent vocabulary used by Mrs. Wilder. Such a study of words will stand the children in good stead in the future, as well as enhance their immediate understanding of the stories. Who knows, we might even produce a future scholar of Latin or Greek!

2. The Little House books offer a "course" in wholesome living. In this day and age when many wonder where our values have gone, consider these prominent themes that run throughout the series:

a. There is love, strength, and security in the family unit.
b. It is important to have and practice religious beliefs.
c. It is also important to get as much education as possible.
d. A person must learn to survive as an individual, showing perseverance, courage, creativity, and ingenuity, rather than dependence on others.
e. There is joy in sharing, cooperating, and giving, especially in one's self.
f. A person's needs can be happily and simply fulfilled. He should be thankful for what he has, not wish for what he doesn't have. Things will be better soon even if they are not good now.

3. The Little House Books reflect the culture of the day (1867-1889). Laura Ingalls Wilder's detailed writing style encompasses many aspects of home life from song lyrics to meal preparation. Woven into the stories are steps for constructing various items from houses to railroads to dolls and candles. The illustrations reflect the clothing and decorative styles of that period.

For an in-depth look at songs and cooking of the pioneer days, you may want to look at The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook and The Little House Cookbook. These offer some of the music and recipes mentioned in the series. You might surprise your family if you served Rye 'n Injun bread or vinegar pie or vanity cakes. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Songbook includes familiar musical favorites such as Yankee Doodle and When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and more obscure tunes like Paddle Your Own Canoe and Merry, Merry Christmas (a particular favorite of mine, at any time of year)

4. As you read these books, consider a cross-generational exchange of ideas. Especially when events, customs, and family rules differ from today's. The "Little House" series provides excellent opportunities for family discussions and perhaps even a disagreement or two! These books were written in the days of "Children should be seen but not heard." What is your opinion about that dictum? Sometimes Laura disobeys a family rule, but unless she confesses, no one would ever know of the infraction. Should she confess? At one point Ma makes Laura lend her beloved doll to another child. This hurts Laura. Should Ma have insisted?

Although well over a century separates today's readers from the Ingalls' children, there are many events and feelings shared by both the pioneer and the current generation. For example, think of Laura's all-consuming love for her new rag doll when she was just a tot, or her overwhelming grief when the family's dog is washed downstream, or her adolescent desire to cut bangs, as her friends had done. (Have you or your grandchild had similar experiences? No doubt you have.)

5. These historical novels for children record a period of American history seen through the eyes of one pioneer family, but relating events, feelings, and values common to most who went west. Since the Ingalls/Wilder families moved so often, the books also present marvelous opportunities for frequent lessons in United States geography. After reading the series, the best geography lesson would be to visit to each of the real book sites. The Big Woods of Wisconsin, the Prairie of Kansas, and Plum Creek in Minnesota to De Smet, South Dakota, are visited yearly by thousands of Laura fans.

One question may remain in your mind: How old should a child be to enjoy these books? If you are planning to read aloud to the child, he or she can be five or six years old; if you are taking turns reading aloud with your children, they should be seven or eight -- old enough to read the words easily. In either case, begin Little House in the Big Woods.

You'll probably want to read the Little House series in order, saving the last three books until the child is at least ten or eleven years old. You may wish to read no more than two (or perhaps three) books in a row before taking a breather. That way, you'll have something to look forward to a few weeks or months down the road.

Several words of advice, however. Take your time, enjoy the discussions that automatically arise, and perhaps even recall stories from your own family's history. Move to the piano bench and sing the songs together, you'll remember the tunes in an instant! Try out some of the recipes or make a sunbonnet or apron like Laura would have worn. Make the simple lessons taught in the stories come alive by pointing out the similarities in children's lives throughout history. We are still connected to the ideals and values expressed by Mrs. Wilder, just as the children in your life are connected to you.

And now, relax and enjoy together Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series, the lightly fictionalized account of her pioneer childhood, youth, and early marriage.

Ann Weller Dahl has made a significant amount of research on the subject of Laura Ingalls Wilder. As part of her research, she has made several trips to the sites of the original little houses as well as Mrs. Wilder's permanent home in Missouri. Mrs. Dahl, Calvert School Day school teacher for 26 years is the author of Little House "Reading Guides." To learn more about Ann Dahl or her "Reading Guides", please contact Calvert School at 105 Tuscany Road, Baltimore, MD 21210 or e-mail brooks@calvertschool.org.

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