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The Five Best Children’s Book Series (#2) The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder

July 5, 2013

9155Frankly, it irritates me that when most people think of “Little House on the Prairie” they think of the beloved (and sometimes not so beloved) television show.  The Little House books encompass such a wider breadth of experience, not to mention covering a bigger range of actual mileage!  How can I explain what a profound effect these books had on me as a child?  First of all, when I stopped being engrossed in the story long enough to focus, I would realize that these books, although they are classified as historical fiction, are based on real memories from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood.  While it is true that the books are not straight autobiography, and despite Ingalls Wilder having written them in the third person, the descriptions are so vivid and the emotions are so real that the child reader truly feels that they are a part of the Ingalls family. The Little House books totally beat out any of the historical fiction the teachers at school tried to shove down our throats.  (Now, I am not ragging on historical fiction.  Books like Across Five Aprils, The Slave Dancer, The Sign of the Beaver, and Captive are all amazing examples of children’s historical fiction.  However, the ones given to us at school seemed designed to make us detest history!)  What the Little House books capture that most works of historical fiction cannot is the sense of innocence and the normality of the experience of the child characters This was their lives.  They didn’t get caught up in a historically significant event and witness first hand important things that were outside the normal experience of everyday children.  No, they were a living, breathing part of history.  Perhaps more importantly, the Little House books capture the fierce love of a family trying to carve a life for themselves on various frontiers.

The first three books about the Ingalls family were my absolute favorites.  I read Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, and On the Banks of Plum Creek over and over and over again.

9780064400039(Farmer Boy is the second book in the series, but it is about the childhood of Laura’s future husband Almanzo Wilder.  Now, I was a very stubborn child and because this book was not about Laura Ingalls and her family I was absolutely not interested and refused to read it.  I wish I had read it though, and as of the time of this blog post, Farmer Boy is sitting in my stack of “books to read.” Perhaps I will do a post later on reading Farmer Boy as an adult, eh?)

Starting with the fifth book, On the Shores of Silver Lake, and even more apparent in The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie, the series starts to take a dark turn.  The Ingalls family deals with illness, near-starvation during the harsh winter of 1890-91, and severe poverty.  Perhaps more distancing is the fact that Laura is growing older in these books, entering adolescence and then teenage-hood.  My nine year old self didn’t quite know what to do with these darker, less nostalgic books.  I could no longer identify with Laura as a child protagonist, so, as an adult now looking back at this experience, I wish I had waited until I was a little older to read these books.  Yes, I would have been impatient to read the later ones, but the warm, safe world of the first few books would not have been compromised.  In my opinion, like some of the other series on this list, parents should wait until their children are a little older to introduce them to the last four books of the series:  The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years But don’t worry!  The first five books of the series should provide many happy hours of reading for your children!

The Little House books are set on the western American frontier during the late nineteenth century.  The first book, Little House in the Big Woods, begins in 1871 and the series continues into the 1890s as they cover Laura Ingalls Wilder’s entire childhood and young adulthood.  What children do not realize however, is the context of these “pioneers.”  In 1862 the Homestead Act took lands that were given to the Native American tribes after they were pushed out of the East (most notably on the Trail of Tears) and reduced them significantly.  The “excess” land was opened up to white settlers who wanted to make a homestead “claim.”  This is the land that the Ingalls family was heading out across the prairie to farm.  While an extremely detailed history of the relationship between white settlers and Native American tribes would obviously be way too much for a young child to understand, these books might give parents a good opportunity to introduce their children to the idea that Native Americans were not “savages” like they are portrayed in so many books and movies, and furthermore that they were treated unfairly by the government and white settlers. (Obviously we should stay away from the genocide aspect until much much later…)  In the Little House books the Ingalls family does encounter “Indians,” and their interactions with them are friendly, but the “Indians” are portrayed as people that the Ingalls family should be cautious of and that they should fear at times.  While this is certainly true considering the state of relationships between Native American tribes and white settlers at that time, it might be helpful to give your child a little bit of context to go on.  My hope is that these books will not give your children the impression that Native Americans were anything like the appalling images of them in other children’s works (like Disney’s racist portrayal of “Indians” in the film Peter Pan.)  You know what your child can understand and handle emotionally, so I leave it up to you if you want to give your child a “real” history lesson to go with these wonderful stories.

Now I cannot do a post on the Little House books without mentioning another childhood staple of mine:  Little House on Rocky Ridge.  854252

(I did not realize until I was doing research for this post, just how many Little House book series had been written in addition to the original series!  Written by various authors, these Little House books chronicle the lives of Laura’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother!  I was already familiar with the series chronicling the life of Laura’s daughter, Rose, which I discovered was written by Rose’s adopted grandson and heir, Roger Lea MacBride (who was quite a character himself!).  I highly recommend that you research the history of the Little House franchise, as it is actually quite a fascinating story.)

Despite not being written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the first book of the Rocky Ridge series about Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder–Little House on Rocky Ridge–I remember just as fondly as the original Little House books.  MacBride manages to evoke the same warm prose and loving sense of family as Ingalls Wilder did in her books, and Rose is as captivating a character as her mother was.  There are seven more books in the Rocky Ridge series, and while I cannot personally recommend them, I can vouch for the excellent writing skills of Roger Lea MacBride as demonstrated in Little House on Rocky RidgeAlso, the first few Rocky Ridge books should make a good addition to the original Little House books because Rose is the same age as her mother was and therefore the books will appeal to the same children as the (original) first five books of the series.

My Fave Book in the Series: #4 On the Banks of Plum Creek
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