Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
Culture Children's Books
The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder
McDowell writes with lush description about the landscapes and historical developments of each season of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), author of the Little House stories. Replete with illustrations, the book tracks the different climates, plants, and animals that Wilder encountered on her travels, from the Big Woods of Wisconsin to the prairies and towns of her later books. McDowell dedicates many pages to ferreting out the botanical details of Wilder’s multiple gardens. Her book includes a guide to visiting the locations featured in Wilder’s stories, as well as instructions for planting your own Wilder-inspired garden. (Ages 10 & up)
The World of Little House
Carolyn Strom Collins & Christina Wyss Eriksson
With recipes, games, crafts, and other activities related to the Little House stories, The World of Little House is an ideal resource for history lessons to elementary-school children. The pages feature colorful illustrations, diagrams of Wilder’s houses, and simple recipes for the foods described in her novels (including molasses-on-snow candy). The book also includes historical context for each installment of Wilder’s series, with asides about the Homestead Act, the Pony Express, and general stores. Avid Little House readers will find this a worthy companion text for children. (Ages 8 & up)
Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography
Anderson provides a thorough and engaging biography of Wilder’s life without sounding repetitive to those already familiar with her (autobiographical) novels. The book is easy to read, filling in gaps between Wilder’s stories and providing historical context. In cases where Wilder’s stories differed from her real life, the biography points out differences without conveying disenchantment. It is clear Anderson loves the original series, and his approach to documenting Wilder’s life—especially her later years—is warm and optimistic. The biography serves as a satisfying conclusion for those who want to know what happens after The First Four Years. (Ages 10 & up)
Like the other biographical books, Laura’s Album moves through the stages of Wilder’s life one chapter at a time. This one, though, includes copious illustrations featuring old photographs, letters she wrote, and pictures of artifacts from her life. It brings Wilder’s stories to life in a new way and is probably best read alongside the original series. It’s especially fun to see photographs of items that played key roles in her stories, like the name card she gave to Almanzo, the china box she won in a competition as a child, and, perhaps best of all, Pa’s fiddle. (Ages 8 & up)
A certain tension comes along with reading anything about Laura but not by Laura. To the extent the biographical details are the same, the companion texts seem unnecessary since Laura’s observations are the more enjoyable read. And to the extent they are different—her books are historical fiction, after all—it is almost always a disappointment.
Wendy McClure captures this tension of the Little House books in her memoir The Wilder Life (Riverhead Books, 2011), which chronicles McClure’s journeys from Wisconsin to the Dakotas and beyond looking for the “Laura World” that entranced her as a child. Her liberal worldview shines through at times, and she makes some snide comments about Laura’s conservative fan base, but overall the book is funny, good-natured, and a nostalgic read for young adults and adults who read the Little House books as children. (Cautions: some swearing and adult humor) —R.L.A.