Little Horrors on the Prairie

by Jason Toon

When we started reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books to our five-year-old daughter, I thought I knew what to expect. Homespun anecdotes of pioneer life? Sure, she can handle that. As a kid who always dismissed the TV show and related phenomenon as girls' stuff, I was looking forward to gentle, sun-dappled bedtime reading.

And there's a lot of that in the books. There are also wolf attacks, Indian massacres, Biblically-proportioned insect infestations, floods, fires, detailed descriptions of butchering animals, and of course big sister Mary's famous blindness. These books are much more intense than I thought they'd be - and, not coincidentally, much better, too. This is no idealized Holly Hobbie picture of country living. Laura Ingalls Wilder is hardcore, man.

Which is great, but a lot for a kindergartener to handle. When we're reading, we gloss right past the harshest parts - the chapter about chopping up a hog called for a lot of improvised editing from the readers (me and my wife). The intense stuff that's integral to the story, like Mary going blind, we try to explain so our little girl doesn't worry too much about suddenly losing her sight. "This happened a long time ago when they didn't have the doctors and medicines we do now" - that kind of thing.

Obviously, the closer these realities are to your everyday life, the less shocking it is to see them in kids' literature. Even in the 1930s and 1940s, when Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing about an already long-gone way of life, American children were still much more familiar with hardship and death than most are today. The classic fairy tales of Europe contain a lot of gory and disturbing stuff - but for kids growing up amidst plagues and poverty and pogroms, they were light entertainment.

It takes some effort to preserve the essence of classics like Little House without giving your kid nightmares, but I think it's worth it. I certainly wouldn't want to deny my kids the joys of Bugs Bunny just because he does some things that kids shouldn't imitate, or because some of the WWII cartoons were racist (we don't watch those specific ones). Are there any classics you loved as a kid that require some careful editing and explanation when you share them with your kids?

Photo: Trail House by Flickr user bwhistler, used under a Creative Commons License.