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Top 100 Children’s Novels #19: Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

#19 Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932)
81 points

Again with the food – I always want a slice of pie, maple syrup on snow, or a stack of pancakes after reading Wilder. – Jessalynn Gale

My inclusion of this one even surprises me a bit. I admit to being bored out of my wits by Little House on the Prairie, but I also remember devouring Big Woods in a truly bonnet-head (see The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure) fashion, and being a bookseller taught me the unbridled love kids have for this series. They transport you. Curled up in a blanket reading this I fantasized what it would be like to be barricaded inside that little cabin, playing with corn husk dolls instead of Barbies. A story that will always be fascinating in the way it details a past way of life in America while at the same time being a sweet and funny tale of family life. There are few examples of historical fiction (or nonfiction) that have turned so many kids on. – Nicole Johnston Wroblewski

The standard story of the books’ creation is that when Laura was in her 60s her daughter Rose urged her to write down her stories of her youth. According to American Writers for Children, 1900-1960: “From 1924 to 1931, Rose Wilder Lane spent a good deal of time in Mansfield and probably offered her mother encouragement and editorial assistance. Rose first conducted negotiations with the children’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf for them to publish the manuscript ‘When Grandma was a Little Girl’.”

Be sure to check out Debbie Reese’s reaction to this book the last time it appeared on this poll, including a problematic section regarding American Indians in the book.  There is another piece following the book’s inclusion on the Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac.  The book is also mentioned in conjunction with the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts.

Anita Silvey’s 100 Best Books for Children picks it up from there.  “She [Rose] then prepared a twenty-page third-person narrative, ‘When Grandma Was a Little Girl,’ that she and her mother saw as picture-book text. They sent that book to a children’s editor at Knopf, Marian Fiery.  Fiery, however, wanted the book expanded to 25,000 words and filled with details of pioneer life.  Rose instructed her mother, ‘If you find it easier to write in the first person, write it that way.  I will change it into the third person later’.”

Said the August 10, 2009 New Yorker article Wilder Women, “The book business, hard hit by the Depression, was cutting back drastically, and a first draft of Wilder’s memoir, ‘Pioneer Girl,’ was passed over by several agents and publishers, who felt that it lacked drama. But she persisted—less interested, she later said, in the money than in the prestige of authorship—and when Virginia Kirkus, an editor of children’s books at Harper & Brothers, received a new version of the material, now recast as a novel aimed at readers between the ages of eight and twelve, she bought it.”

That same editor, Virginia Kirkus, when recalling the book said, “the depression was making its impress on our sales; people were thinking that new books for children were unnecessary, while the old ones could serve. And all of us were hoping for that miracle book that no depression could stop.” Ask and thou shalt receive.

Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon gives a rather good summary of what it was she loved so much about this and other Little House books growing up.  “Behind all the enterprising pioneer doings, and even the gleeful moments of tossing a pig’s bladder, is real suffering.  But the beauty of the books is that child readers don’t have to experience the upheaval on this level.  They can learn from Laura to marvel at the wonder of the ordinary.  That is the gift her parents’ hard life gave her, and she has passed it on.”

In 1993 the book A Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane came out by William Holtz. This cast quite a bit more light on what Holtz called Laura’s ghostwriter. Indeed in the aforementioned New Yorker article it says that, “Mother and daughter essentially divided that labor [of writing]. One has to suspect that the delicious minutiae of the books’ famous how-to chapters on molding bullets, pressing cheese, digging a well, making a rag doll, drying plums, framing a house, and smoking a ham, among dozens of daily activities, were mostly Laura’s contribution.” And later, “Rose had proved that she could romanticize whatever material she was given. She did some minor tinkering with ‘Pioneer Girl,’ but, once it was decided to fictionalize the memoir as a children’s story—the idea had come from an editor who rejected the memoir—she took a more aggressive role. It varied in intensity from book to book, but she dutifully typed up the manuscript pages, and, in the process, reshaped and heightened the dramatic structure. She also rewrote the prose so drastically that Laura sometimes felt usurped. ‘A good bit of the detail that I add to your copy is for pure sensory effect,’ Rose explained in a letter.”  Definitely read this New Yorker article for more information.

As of right now it has sold about sixty million copies in thirty-three languages.

The Junior Bookshelf said of the title at the time, “[Little House in the Big Woods] is an extremely good book, with an excellence which is so unobtrusive that it may well go unnoticed.”

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. In response to Jessalynn’s comment on the food: Sizzling pig tail, anyone? Yummmmm.

    The joys of a pig bladder!

    *A comment on the *

    I made a list of what I guessed would be the final 20 books. Although I knew, I knew this book would show up it just wouldn’t fit. Well, now I need to figure out which of my twenty didn’t make it? The first Nancy Drew? When you Reach Me (I hope not). The Lightening Thief (Too much to hope for?)?

  2. I know these are classics and children love them, but I recently re-read them and found them boring. I did love them as a kid, though. I remember reading them and then packing nearly everything in my bedroom into my sheets, pretending my bed was a wagon.

  3. Somehow the sizzling pig tail doesn’t stand out for me in quite the same way!