By Ann Weller Dahl
Four generations of children and adults have enjoyed the classic novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957) known collectively as the Little House books. Wilder was 65 years old when the first of the nine books about her family and her husband’s boyhood was published in 1932. Before that, beginning at age 44, she had spent 15 years as a journalist for a regional paper, The Missouri Ruralist. In her bi-weekly articles she expressed an upbeat, wholesome philosophy of life:
Life is often called a journey... Usually when referred to in these terms, it is also understood that it is a “weary pilgrimage.” Why not call it a voyage of discovery and take it in the spirit of
—"Life is an Adventure." March, 1916
A feeling of pleasure in a task seems to shorten it wonderfully, and it makes a great difference with the day’s work if we get enjoyment from it instead of looking for our pleasure all together apart from it.
—"The Man of the Place." January, 1920
Learning things is most fascinating, and I think it adds joy to life to be continually learning things so that we may be able to go on with it creditably.
—"Learn Something New." April, 1924
Read more of Wilder’s articles in Little House in the Ozarks, edited by Stephen W. Hines.
Wilder lived most of her married life in Mansfield, MO, where she shared the responsibilities of Rocky Ridge Farm with her husband, Almanzo. Already an active member of her community and a published journalist, she was encouraged to write the family history by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, herself a famous author whose novels were often serialized in such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post.
Wilder described her inspiration for the Little House books in several ways: she wished to preserve her father’s famous family stories, and she wanted children to understand life during the late nineteenth century. Being pragmatic, she also realized that royalties from the books would provide much-needed income, and she wanted to demonstrate that people could live without assistance from the government, something FDR’s New Deal offered but which she and Rose disliked.
Here are my favorite reasons why the Little House books became instantly popular and have remained a touchstone of American children's literature:
- They are stories about real people living in real places that anyone can visit today.
- Wilder described people, places, and things extremely well through the use of literary devices.
- The positive values reflected in the books are as timely today as in the late nineteenth century.
- The books get harder and longer as the children in the books grow and as the readers mature.
- The popular television show by the same name, produced in the 1970s and 1980s, introduced the books to a new audience.
Whether you’re reading Wilder's Little House books and her other writing for the first time, or returning to them for a second or third time, consider the messages they invoke that continue to resonate with contemporary American life.
Ann Dahl taught for 31 years in the Day School of Calvert School in Baltimore and wrote very detailed literary curricula for the School’s home school (and now also charter school) division. She is now a professional speaker, presenting around the state on beloved authors Laura Ingalls Wilder, Robert McCloskey, and A.A. Milne.