Yeah, Little House on the Prairie is probably not a paragon of tolerance in 2021.
2020 was a tough year, and like many others, I found myself craving the comfort of nostalgic childhood media. My sister and I made good use of our Disney+ subscription with several binge-watching sessions (shout out to Hannah Montana & Wizards of Waverly Place), and many Disney Channel Original Movies were watched. As for reading, I abandoned my usual gritty-memoirs-and-SciFi habit in favour of picking up some old childhood favourites that I’d all but forgotten about. Enabled by the stash of books I have stored at my parents’ house (where I stayed from the beginning of lockdown in March 2020 until classes started back in-person in August) and supplemented by the Libby app (free ebooks and audiobooks with an Auckland Libraries membership), I took a stroll down a literary memory lane.
First up on my list was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I didn’t actually read these a whole lot as a kid, but the 1970s TV series will forever be linked in my head to warm, fuzzy memories of childhood Saturday mornings piled in my mum’s bed with my sister and too many blankets, watching the DVD box set on a 20” CRT screen. The books proved to be, for the most part, just as cheesy and sickly sweet as what I remembered from the TV show.
One thing I wasn’t expecting (though, in hindsight, probably should have, considering that the books were published in the 1930s as recollections of life in the 1870s) was the obscene amount of racism. Reading the phrase “the only good Indian was a dead Indian” in a children’s book was a shock, to say the least. I hadn’t previously put two and two together and realised that the Ingalls’ journey to the prairie (“Indian Territory,” as they call it), was actually illegal settlement of the Osage Diminished Reserve – they were assuming that the government would soon force the Osage people off their land.
The other focus of my nostalgia-induced delve into my childhood reading habits was Jacqueline Wilson’s books. Tracy Beaker was a beloved part of my primary school days, and I even found my well-thumbed copy of The Bed And Breakfast Star in a box under the stairs. I even read some volumes that (probably for good reason) weren’t available in my intermediate school library – My Sister Jodie being one, which starts off as a fairly predictable boarding-school tale and then hits you with the horrific death (speculated to be a suicide) of the main character’s teen sister. Not quite the cozy comfort read I was hoping for.
On a more positive note, Tracy Beaker was just as fun as I had remembered. Also, since my last reading over a decade ago, several more books have been added to the series so I could further extend my enjoyment. Some realisations I made upon re-reading the books for the first time as a Proper Adult include:
- Cam, Tracy’s foster mum, is very queer-coded and is probably dating her “friend” (confirmed by the author in an interview).
- Tracy’s mum is definitely a porn star. She’s a “famous actress,” and there are a few other hints that I definitely didn’t pick up on as a kid.
Some of my favourite related discoveries from late-night Jacqueline-Wilson-adjacent web-surfing include:
- Jacqueline is gay, having publicly come out in April 2020 after being with her partner for nearly two decades, and released a book featuring a queer love story that I promptly added to my to-read list. This made my little queer heart very happy, and provided more evidence to support my All Your Faves Are Gay theory.
- The existence of @TracybBeaker on Twitter. I love a good novelty social media account, and niche tweets like “My mum said she could fly me out to Dubai first class but I said, no mum…I’m locking down in the dumping ground Cos I’m not a selfish bitch xx” are no exception.
- The existence of the Tracy Beaker TV show – somehow I entirely missed this cultural touchstone despite my obsession with the books. It, tragically, was never broadcast on New Zealand television and I’m a 90’s baby who grew up before the streaming era.
I have well and truly enjoyed my deep dive into my best-loved childhood reads. Middle-grade books bring a special kind of comfort, even without the nostalgia factor, but there’s a special kind of fun to be had from re-reading old favourites – akin to the first time you watched Shrek as an adult and realised what the grown-ups had been laughing at. It can be confronting at times, especially with older books that reflect the racism of the societies in which they were written, but well worth it.