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BOOKS: A LITERARY EMPIRE EXPANDS

Lady of the 'House'

The fresh voice of Laura Ingalls Wilder echoes through new and ever-popular stories of the homesteading family.

May 05, 1999|MARY MCNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She is arguably one of the most influential American novelists. Like Mark Twain, like Harper Lee, like Frank McCourt, she wrote of her childhood, recording past events as a child saw them--simply, candidly, with far more wonder than judgment. She never won a Pulitzer, she never won a Nobel, she is rarely included in anthologies or superlative lists, and yet more than 50 million people have bought her books; millions more have read them. She has inspired four generations of girls, and boys, by showing them that surviving with integrity is its own heroism, and daily life the stuff of history.

And almost 70 years after the genesis of the "Little House" series, Laura Ingalls Wilder is a literary empire.

Not bad for the former poultry editor of the St. Louis Star.

The "Little House" series has always occupied a lot of shelf space. It takes nine books of varying length to record the travels of the Ingalls family from the time Laura was 5 ("Little House in the Big Woods") until she was 22, married and with a baby girl ("The First Four Years"). And the Ingalls family believed in a lot of space--homesteaders Charles and Caroline were the people who settled this country, traveling from eastern states to Wisconsin, where Laura and Mary, Carrie and Grace were born. The family moved on to Kansas, Minnesota and Dakota Territory, where all but Laura finally settled.

So it was easy to find the books, in the library or a bookstore--the paperbacks had for years a distinctive yellow border and spine, the hardbacks just took up a lot of room.

Now, of course, it's a bit different. Now the "Little House" books no longer need a lot of room, they need their own room. Because under the aegis of HarperCollins, which has long published Wilder's work, "Little House" is no longer shorthand for one woman's work (or even the loosely adapted TV series); it is its own industry.

"Come Home to Little House" directs a promotional booklet from HarperCollins. Sixteen faux-gingham-trimmed pages introduce us to Martha, Charlotte and Caroline, Laura's progenitors, and Rose, her daughter. As of April, with the launch of the Martha and Charlotte books, each is in various stages of its own seven-book series.

And then there is the Little House Program--board books and novelty books, "My First Little House" books and chapter books, scrapbooks and cookbooks and even a "Little House" baby book.

How long has this been going on?

For about five years. It started with Rose. Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a respected newspaper woman and minor literary figure herself, encouraged and collaborated with her mother to produce the original "Little House" series. Childless, Rose left her estate and a wealth of tales and memories, to friend Roger Lea MacBride upon her death in 1968.

He wanted to preserve those stories, and HarperCollins, which had begun producing "multi-age" versions of the "Little House" stories--the chapter books, the cookbooks--was all for it. In 1993, "Little House on Rocky Ridge," the first of the seven "Rose Years" books, was published.

"We were very excited by the Rose books," says Alix Reed, who heads the "Little House" projects. "We thought that if they were popular, we would begin other prequels."

They were, and they did. Author Maria D. Wilkes published "Little House in Brookfield" in 1996, launching the story of Laura's mother, Caroline. Shortly thereafter, Melissa Wiley began working on "Little House in Boston Bay," which tells of Charlotte, Laura's grandmother, and "Little House in the Highlands," about--who else?--Laura's great-grandmother, Martha.

Both of these books inaugurated their own seven-volume series last month. The final Rose book, "New Dawn on Rocky Ridge," will appear in the fall. The remaining series will continue in staggered spring, fall and winter publishing dates.

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The enduring popularity of the books all but ensures the success of the new series.

"When my roommate moved in, her set of 'Little House' books was the first thing she put out," says Tracy Taylor, a librarian in the children's room of Los Angeles Central library. "And when kids here chuck everything else away, I can get them to read 'Little House.' Even the boys. 'Farmer Boy' is one of the few historical books I can get boys to read."

Historical fiction for children, particularly girls, is booming. The American Girl series and the Dear America series, both of which offer a variety of plucky young peoplefrom different eras and socioeconomic strata are hugely successful; American Girl is a multimedia merchandising bonanza, complete with its own magazine and now a hit play in Chicago.

One could argue that these too are the work of Wilder, who died in 1957: Her books were among the first written solely as an attempt to preserve a certain time. While her populist politics certainly show through, Wilder, unlike, say, Louisa May Alcott, was not in it for the morality tale.

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