How did I Happen to Write all Those Wilder-Related Books?
on Monday, 09 March 2015. Posted in Writers Notebook
In third grade, our teacher read Laura Ingalls Wilder's LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE to the class. She made that book extra-interesting; as we heard the story of a family heading west in a covered wagon, we enacted a lot of the topics the book described. Our class built a teepee in one corner of the room. We made butter/cornbread. We drew our own illustrations for the book. Next year, we were exposed to another Wilder book. I became fascinated with frontier/pioneer stories.
I finished the rest of the nine book series. Our teachers told us that the Ingalls-Wilders were real people, the stories really happened. I wanted to know what happened next to these book characters. There was no supplemental material at the time, except a small entry in WORLD BOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA. Later, we had an assignment: write a letter to an author. I realized that Laura and Almanzo Wilder were no longer around, so I wrote to their daughter, author Rose Wilder Lane. She counted; she had written many biographies, novels, and short stories. I asked Rose a lot of questions. She replied, and suggested that I visit her parents' home in Mansfield, Missouri, now a museum. I got there. Seeing artifacts described in the books, and the intact farmhouse was great. The curators, Mr. and Mrs. Lichty, were friends of the Wilders, so they told me many first hand stories about them.
Later, on a family trip, we passed through Malone, New York, the scene of FARMER BOY. Some of Almanzo Wilder's distant relatives still lived there. They filled me in on the Wilder family, and took us to the old farmhouse, still standing. I was gathering a lot of first hand information and answers to questions about these people. My parents were right: I had always been a kid who asked questions, wanted to know how things worked, and what had happened.
The Lichtys asked me to write up some of the data I'd found in a booklet. Many of the museum visitors had the same questions I had. So, my first published writing, THE STORY OF THE INGALLS, was printed. I was fifteen. Later I got out to South Dakota to see the prairies and the town of De Smet, where the Ingalls family finally settled. Back then, there were many people still around who remembered these pioneers. I asked questions, and found a lot of welcoming people in De Smet. Two of the family homes still stood--they eventually became museums. Aubrey Sherwood, publisher of THE DE SMET NEWS, became a mentor. He started the organization in De Smet which preserved the Ingalls-Wilder sites. The increasing number of tourists often stopped in the NEWS office. Aubrey dropped his work to conduct them around town and answer questions. He had known Laura and Almanzo Wilder, and was a neighbor boy of the other Ingalls family members. A great source of information.
As a student at Albion College, I did a summer hands-on project: working for the Wilder Memorial Society in De Smet. By then, two of the homes were tourist attractions. I gave tours, along with other college students, did restoration work, research, and generally had a great summer on the prairie. I remember one day we had 900 visitors to usher through the houses. I returned to De Smet for seven summers. And my research materials expanded. What a great experience, an apprenticeship for many life experiences to come.
Japanese and USA editions
While Wilder's books have always been classics in literature, with some 60 million in print, the "Little House on the Prairie" TV show even widened their recognition. Not always true to life, the ten year network run of the show made the Ingalls family a household word. During the 1990s and into the 21st century, Harper Collins, who first brought Wilder to print in 1932, asked me to do a number of books on the Ingalls-Wilders, their homesites, and other aspects of their frontier life.
That, in brief, is how I happened to write so many varied books on these pioneers and writers.