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Top 100 Children’s Novels #84: The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

#84 The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940)
23 points

Cold! Hunger! Suffering! My mother read the Little House books to us children in a constant loop, starting with Big Woods, cycling up through Golden Years, and then back to the Woods again. Then when my mother was dying, I read the Little House books to her. – Anne Nesbet

I came this close to calling it something awful like “The original Hunger Games”.  Slap me if I ever get close to doing that again.  So here is what I find so interesting.  The last time I conducted this poll three Little House books ended up on the list.  The Long Winter?  Not one of them.  Clearly those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mistaken in their assumptions that there would be no new Wilders.

The summary from the Little House Books website reads, “The adventures of Laura Ingalls and her family continue as Pa, Ma, Laura, Mary, Carrie, and little Grace bravely face the hard winter of 1880-81 in their little house in the Dakota Territory. Blizzards cover the little town with snow, cutting off all supplies from the outside. Soon there is almost no food left, so young Almanzo Wilder and a friend make a dangerous trip across the prairie to find some wheat. Finally a joyous Christmas is celebrated in a very unusual way in this most exciting of all the Little House books.”

Truth be told this was always sort of my favorite Wilder as well.  The claustrophobia mixed in with the survival is hugely compelling.  I do remember being disturbed by the Garth Williams cover, though.  Sure the girls were smiling but who the heck was that no-goodnik boy with the snowball?  I disapproved in the way only a nine-year-old can disapprove.  This was the sixth in the series and took place during the horrendous 1880-1881 winter.  It would be interesting to look at different books for children that handle the subject of this particular winter in books of both fiction and nonfiction.  Now when we consider the whole swath of the Wilder titles, The Long Winter is one of the most interesting and least offensive.  That is not to say that it doesn’t have anti-Indian sentiment in there.  But compared to some of the other books it’s quite mild.  Oyate has discontinued its Books To Avoid section but even a search of the backfiles reveals that it’s the other Wilder books that have the most problems.  In this book a single American Indian comes to warn the settlers of the upcoming blizzard.  That’s about it.

The honors it garnered included a Newbery Honor, a mention on the ALA Notable Children’s Book list, and a mention on the Horn Book Fanfare list.

  • You can hear an audio excerpt here.
  • Read the beginning of the book here.

Not a ton of different covers to speak of.  That’s probably a good thing.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. My favorite Wilder. Anyone else’s hands feel raw? All those corn husks.

  2. Glad there are more Long Winter fans (pssst — hay, not corn husks.) Also the book where Ma really shines. To a child, Ma is the spoilsport and Pa is the Master of Revels. Here, however, Pa actually has a mini-breakdown, leaping up to shout at a blizzard, while Ma sets a daily routine that acts as a splint to hobble everyone through till spring .Anyone looking for something to object to will have to settle for Almanzo rubbing snow on frostbite…

  3. I still remember reading this on the beach at my grandparents’ summer camp, in the middle of July, and shivering. The writing is so vivid!

    I agree, rams – Ma is definitely the heroine of this story.

  4. A relative gave my daughter The Long Winter a few years ago–except she gave the new edition, with that horrible cover and no Williams illustrations inside. I gave it away when we moved and bought her the real one.

    What were they thinking? That cover has nothing to do with the plot or mood of the book–and if you look closely, it looks like the girls are wearing cotton dresses, which they probably wouldn’t have been.

  5. Once I had a toddler and two infants in the house, I began dreading my own “long winters.” I’d always remember Ma and buckle down to the work at hand 🙂

  6. This was my husband’s favorite of the Wilder books as a kid (which I hadn’t read). He read them aloud to our son and talked about how Almanzo and Cap “save the town.” I was real disappointed to find out they just did it for money, and they could have used their own seed corn if they were going to save the town! But I still really enjoyed him reading it every night. That was one I couldn’t stand to miss.

  7. Oh, my goodness! These posts are making me want to reread these books (not just the Little House series, but the other books in the polls as well), and I really can’t do that right now.

  8. Genevieve says

    I don’t think it was as bad as that, Sondy – Almanzo didn’t want to use his own seed corn if he had another option, because without it to plant in the spring, he’d have nothing to farm. But he still went out with Cap to find food for people in town who were going without, and he didn’t have to do that, since he had enough to eat for the winter. I don’t think he did it for the money at all (in fact, I thought they didn’t end up taking any money for it?).

  9. Oh, it didn’t make the last list? It was one of my favorites of the series, too! (This and On the Banks of Plum Creek). I didn’t vote for any Wilders either time, but if I HAD, I would have given this one the boost!

  10. Genevieve says

    Always my favorite of the series, definitely.

  11. Helen Sewell did the illustration in the top edition. I like her stuff. She did illustrations for a lot of my favorite books.