Tips & Advice

Little House on the Prairie:
The Next Generation

by Leigh Ann Henion

Photo credit: Adriana Varela Photography, Moment/Getty Images

My 5-year-old son just asked permission to text to a girl he’s interested in. He’s never done this before. Is it a sign we have too much technology in our lives? Maybe. But the situation is complicated by this: The little girl he’s hoping to connect with is Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Growing up, I loved the Little House series. I distinctly remember entire afternoons dedicated to figuring out how to best hold a book while eating grilled cheese sandwiches. Fascinated with Laura and Mary’s pioneer lifestyle, I’d ration my bread. Savor my soup. My food came from the grocery store, but the girls’ experiences with locusts, droughts, and fires made me realize how precious and hard-earned meals can be.

Lots of parenting books tell you that if your child is a picky eater, you should put rejected foods away and introduce them again later. Tastes change. In my parenting experience, I’ve found that this works in reference to both leafy greens and chapter books.

I first tried to read Little House on the Prairie to my son during a road trip to Wisconsin. I talked it up: “We’re on a journey just like the Ingalls!” It didn’t help. My son had little patience for nuanced descriptions of butter churning and cow herding. Still, rereading it as an adult, I was captivated by the book’s descriptive beauty. It was more Pilgrim at Tinker Creek than Captain Underpants.

But my son lost interest. So I put it down.

Six months later, compelled by my own yen for nature-based stories, I tried again. And something extraordinary happened: My son started devouring pages. He couldn’t read them himself, but he was hungry for them every night, crying out: “One more chapter, please!

Teaching a child to love reading means following their interests, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t introduce your own, feeding and nourishing whatever it was that made you love reading in the first place. Because there is something magical that occurs when interests align. And it doesn’t necessarily happen when expected.

After a fitful start, we’re now halfway through the full Little House series.

My son remains a fan of superheroes. But if you were to ask him about his favorite books, he’d probably veer toward the wild — into stories that are, in his media-saturated life, unexpectedly interesting. Through them, he learns that heroes do not always have superpowers. These are the narratives that enlarge his memories of playing outside and inspire him to ask difficult questions about the ethical treatment of animals.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books bring my son’s attention away from the abstractions of modern life and into the more visceral features of our reality. They inspire him to build things from scrap materials, and he’s suggested he might like to start chopping firewood. Because, even though our little house is located in a mountain valley rather than on the prairie, we have a woodstove. But, unlike Ma’s, ours is located near a plasma television.  When we’re finished with our box set, I might let him watch Nellie Olson’s curls bounce across the screen. But, for now, we’re reading, pioneer style — wood pulp rustling as we turn pages.

It’s a gift to watch my son take my childhood practices to another level, drawing me back — through decades of my life and a long stretch of history. His tastes will continue to change, but we’ve both developed what I believe to be an enduring fondness for Laura Ingalls Wilder. Her stories remind us to pause to hear the tinkle of creek water over stone, to watch for messages written by wind in tall, blowing grass.

Inspired by Laura’s can-do spirit, my text-savvy son recently realized that — with a buttered-up cast iron skillet — he can make grilled cheese sandwiches on our woodstove. “Like in the olden days,” he says. Without fail, he makes more than one sandwich at a time. Because it’s an experience he wants to savor with his entire family.