Little House Series

Book review by
Carrie Kingsley, Common Sense Media
Little House Series Book Poster Image
Engrossing frontier tales have dated racial attitudes.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The historical lessons in these books are constant, but one-sided: The dark side of American westward expansion is left out, but the series creates an emotional connection to the Ingalls family unlike any other in American historical fiction. This connection gives readers a chance to understand life on the frontier; readers learn geography, history, and get a glimpse at the social and racial realities of that era.

Positive Messages

Family, integrity, and hard work are of utmost importance in these books. No matter the situation, Ma, Pa, and the kids try to do the right thing, even when it makes things harder for themselves. But, the overt racism toward Native Americans and the idea that land was there to be taken are both common for the time these books were written (starting in 1932) and jarring to read in a children’s book.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Everyone has a good heart and a tremendous work ethic, and throughout the series, the adults model kindness and empathy. There are, however, racist and sexist moments in these books that can’t be ignored. They’re a product of the time these books were written, but calling Native Americans “savages” and seeing Pa in blackface are things to discuss with young readers.

Violence & Scariness

Sometimes the children are hit or whipped as punishment for bad behavior, and in almost every book there are several near-death situations on the homestead. 

Language

The terms for Native Americans, and the way they’re treated as not quite human, are a product of both the the era in which the stories are set and when they were written, but that doesn’t make the words any less jarring, or any easier for parents to discuss with young readers.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series is an engrossing saga for young readers -- and their parents. Beginning with Little House in the Big Woods, it charts the Ingalls family’s migration across the American frontier and vividly describes the homes and towns on the frontier, the natural landscape, and the challenges settlers faced just to make it through four seasons. Amid the everyday adventures of framing a house and sowing crops, however, are hurtful, dated racial attitudes -- Pa performs in blackface, for example, and Ma is terrified of the Native Americans -- and there's no mention of who is already on the land where Pa and Ma are homesteading. That said, these are well-crafted stories that go beyond typical historical fiction; reading them has become a rite of passage for readers across the country. Having frank discussions about the differences in the attitudes of Ingalls' day and ours offers a chance for important conversations and teachable moments.

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What's the story?

In the LITTLE HOUSE series, Ma and Pa Ingalls make their way across the American frontier with their growing family, including Mary, Laura, Carrie and Grace, moving from a tiny cabin in the deep woods, across prairies and creeks and small towns, trying to survive. The frontier is unforgiving, and the family faces lost crops and frozen winters, and nearly starves several times. But the joy of these books is in the look at life in the late 1800s, at the way boys and girls behaved, at how much work goes into making a loaf of bread, and at the wide-open spaces that are both beautiful and treacherous.

Is it any good?

These books are are classics for good reason. The Little House series takes readers on a journey back in time, when living in a house meant first finding wood and building it, when horse and buggy were the only way to travel, and when candy was a rare treat from town. These stories are engrossing, filled with charming conversations and plotlines that, for the most part, end happily. But it's worth spending time discussing the unhappy and uncomfortable parts. Young readers might not know how to parse the moments that are racist against Native Americans and African Americans, or sexist regarding gender roles, and might not understand that this writing is a product of its time. It also reveals the roots of attitudes that persist today, providing an opportunity for meaty discussions with an adult. That said, the series tells a wonderful, long story about family, perseverance, and the value of an adventurous heart.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how hard the Ingalls family works in the Little House series. It takes days to get to town, they live in such cramped quarters, sharing beds and a tiny cabin, they grow or raise all their own food and their neighbors are miles away. What do you think you would like most and least about living on the frontier? 

  • Was anyone already living on the land where Pa was homesteading? Who decides the rightful owner?

  • What other books show life on a frontier?

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