In our family, we frequently pose the question, “What would Laura say about…?”
Presently, we are wondering what Laura Ingalls Wilder’s reaction would be to various aspects of the Modern World. Recently, I have been contemplating what Laura would think if she heard phrases like this:
Come on, sweetie. Just read a few more books and you can earn a free pizza. Don’t forget to write all the titles down on your coupon.
If you want to watch a movie, you have to finish reading this chapter first.
Pick any book on the library shelf, honey. It doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you’re reading, because Reading is Good for You.
Laura has become a beloved friend to me through the pages of her Little House series, and I am fairly certain she would be mystified to see well-meaning parents of the future expending all kinds of effort in coaxing, bribing, forcing, and willing their children to read books. Any books. These dear parents hear the experts in education equating reading skills with future success and they are afraid of what will happen if their child does not like to read.
Reading in the Ingalls Home
The Long Winter is one of the many places where we see what reading meant to Laura as a child. In one scene, shortly before Christmas, the Ingalls family learns the happy news that, in between blizzards, someone has finally brought the mail to town.
The girls (including Ma) are giddy with excitement when Pa comes through the door with the much-anticipated mail. So many good things to read! Newspapers for Pa, church papers for Ma, and a gift from Reverend Alden for the girls: the children from his Sunday School sent them a bundle of Youth’s Companions.
The girls long to devour them right away, but work must be done first. All day, they look forward to reading their Youth’s Companions, while they boil, stir, rinse, starch, sort, sprinkle, and roll the laundry; wash dishes, scrub the floor, black the stove, and wash the windowpanes. When it gets too dark and late to read that day, they remember Ma’s adage, “Work comes before pleasure,” and hope to read their stories tomorrow, after the ironing is done, bedding is aired, and upstairs is thoroughly cleaned.
The next day, Ma tells the girls that because of all the terrible storms, there hasn’t been time or money for Christmas presents this year. But she has an idea: what if the girls save their Youth’s Companions to open on Christmas Day?
Mary agrees right away, saying, “It will help us to learn self-denial.” Laura reluctantly complies, and Carrie does, too. That way they’ll have something to look forward to for Christmas.
When Christmas finally comes—and after the Christmas dinner dishes are washed and put away—Ma spares some of their dwindling supply of kerosene to light the lamp for reading, Pa burns the last of the coal, and Laura opens the bundle of Youth’s Companions.
She and Carrie look “eagerly at the wealth of stories printed on the smooth white paper.” Cozy in the warm little house, the girls listen to Ma read, and the story takes them all “far away from the stormy cold and dark.” Ma reads three stories, and then they save the rest for other days. No library trips or bookstore excursions will furnish more reading material for them. The stack of Youth’s Companions is it. Oh, how they savor every word.
What Would Laura Say?
Can you imagine Laura’s face if someone told her that a day would come when parents would beg, bait, nag, and cajole children into reading? To the Ingalls family, reading was better than dessert. How could any child not want to read?
Maybe Laura would understand the phenomenon a little better if Ma and Pa had done things a little differently.
She might understand the way many children today feel, if Ma and Pa had not enjoyed reading themselves, but had encouraged her to read because of how “Important Reading Is.” It would make her smarter. It would boost her analytical and reasoning skills. The more she read, the better grades she would get, and the better she would perform on standardized tests. Yet if they had pressured her with these goals, would she have still appreciated books in the same way? Or would she have seen them instead as mere means to an end—a utilitarian end probably more important to her parents than to her?
If Ma had peppered Laura with comprehension questions and followed each read-aloud with a quiz to test how well she was listening, would Laura have looked so forward to the stories they read together?
If Pa had told Laura that she could earn a piece of candy for every chapter she finished, or a sticker on a chart for every book, would she have learned that reading is a treasure in itself? Or would she have learned that it is a chore upon completion of which she would be entitled to a treat?
In this manner, would not reading have become for Laura a “work” before the “pleasure” instead of the other way around—would it have not been a complete reversal of Ma’s traditional adage?
But Pa and Ma were simple folk. They employed no strategy to get Mary, Laura, and Carrie to be readers. They did not have to. Ma and Pa loved to read. They treated books with reverence. They read aloud to their children. And in their home, their daughters learned to love books. With that love, those memories, and a pen, Laura inspired countless other children to love books, too.
What, then, would Laura say to the dear parents in this generation who worry about that elusive goal of Getting Children to Read? (I don’t mean teaching children how to read, but getting them to choose to read, to desire it.) Although I cannot speak for her, I think The Long Winter gives us the answer: Cherish the written word as a gift, and read wonderful and wholesome things together as a family—not because “Children Should Read,” but because books are blessings. And reading is its own reward.