When I was a child, I was obsessed with the Little House books, but I never read them to my sons. After reading the first chapter, my children were so disturbed by the whipping that we put it down and never picked it back up again. After reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books repeatedly as a child, I began to grow tired of the overriding theme of “rugged individualism” and “hard work can win all,” especially since the books are marketed as a fictionalized version of what happened, but are far from the truth. It’s okay if you like the Little House books if I say this (I also dislike Dr. Seuss, so clearly I can’t be trusted), but I think they’re excellent stories and it’s okay if you like them if I say this. In my opinion, the portrayal of pioneer life in this film has been overly idealized.
There are a number of books on this list that have similar settings and pioneer themes to Little House on the Prairie. For the same reason I curated my lists of books for kids who like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, I curated this book list. After reading Little House on the Prairie, it’s a great time to encourage your children to read other books! As an added bonus, I’ve selected a few books that don’t follow the canonical Anglo-American narrative. These books can be read aloud to your children, and you can then compare and contrast them with the Little House books.
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park
Prairie Lotus is the story of a 14-year-old half-Chinese girl named Hanna who aspires to be a dressmaker. It’s an excellent and thoughtful alternative to the Little House books. A new town in Dakota territory has welcomed her and her white father, who plans to open a clothing store. Hanna can’t wait to start school for the first time and earn her high school diploma, just as her mother hoped she would. Hanna has to deal with the town’s white people’s racism, but she’s not afraid. Hanna’s inner strength, the memory of her mother, and a few new friends all contribute to her ability to persevere and achieve her goals.
The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan
and will serve as a good reminder to children that life in the 19th century wasn’t all about pioneering! Nell, an 11-year-old girl, finds herself on the doorstep of her aunt, Kate. Aunt Kate would prefer to send Nell to an orphanage, but Nell’s aunt, who works for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, sees her as a valuable asset. Hannigan deftly handles multiple plot lines and incorporates a great deal of interesting historical information. Nell and Kate are investigating the Baltimore Plot (a real-life attempt to assassinate Abraham Lincoln), Nell is writing to an African-American friend named Jemma, who shares stories about the Underground Railroad and the mystery surrounding the deaths of her uncle and father. There is a lot going on in this story. Readers will be enthralled by the characters and the fast-paced action!
Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson.
This and its sequel, Hattie Ever After, were two of my favorite books. When Hattie, an orphan, is just 16 years old, she sets off from her family’s farm in Iowa to claim her recently deceased uncle’s Montana homestead as her own. Although to keep it as her own she must tame the land within one year. The narrative is interspersed with letters from Hattie to her friend Charlie, who is serving in France, as well as articles she contributes to a local newspaper. Some fellow homesteaders are less than supportive of Hattie, who relies heavily on the help of her neighbors. Definitely worth reading. Recommendation: (Adults only)
In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III
The first story concerns a young Lakota-Anglo boy named Jimmy McClean who joins his Lakota grandfather, Nyles High Eagle, on a visionary journey. The second is a story that Grandfather Nyles told Jimmy about Tasunke Witko, aka Crazy Horse. This book has been widely praised, but I must admit that I preferred the Crazy Horse story to the contemporary one. I was eager to get back to the historical action whenever the story turned to Jimmy and Nyles. However, one thing I really appreciated about the book was its emphasis on the fact that Native Americans are not simply a part of American history. Because of the way American history is taught in schools, students often get the wrong impression, and this book can help correct that misconception.
Bo at Ballard Creek by Kirkpatrick Hill
In order to make it on this list I’m including Bo at Ballard Creek. However, I am not one of them. Adopted by two Alaskan miners (African-American Jack and Swedish immigrant Arvid) when her mother, “a good time girl,” is too overwhelmed to care for her, the 5-year-old protagonist of this middle grade novel, Bo, remains cheerful and upbeat throughout the story. It takes place in a surprisingly welcoming and diverse Alaskan community of the 1920s. The story is told in short vignettes, and the book concludes with the family bringing home a new baby brother for Bo to play with. Fans of Little House on the Prairie will enjoy it, I’ll grant you that much is said about it. There were a few generalizations about “Eskimos” that bothered me, but that was about it. Even so, I believe it will be a hit with many families. Because the main character is so young, I believe it will be a better story to read aloud.
Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Betsy was right on the money. Dorothy Canfield Fisher was one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s ten most influential American women. For educators, she is the person who brought the Montessori method to the United States. Understood Betsy embodies that philosophy. Nine-year-old Elizabeth has “never found out a single thing for herself alone” until she moves in with her cousins on a rural homestead. She blossoms into a confident, capable woman in the country, where she learns with enthusiasm and pride.