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Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder


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Many girls in elementary and middle school fall in love with the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. What they don't always realize is that Wilder's books are autobiographical. This narrative biography describes more of the details of the young Laura's real life as a young pioneer homesteading with her family on many adventurous journeys. This biography, complete with charming illustrations, points out the differences between the fictional series as well as the many similarities.

Little Author in the Big Woods: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Yona Zeldis McDonough, with illustrations by Jennifer Thermes, is the fascinating story of a much-celebrated writer.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250073426
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication date: 01/26/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 231,066
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of many books for children, including Sisters in Strength, Anne Frank, and Louisa: The Life of Louisa May Alcott. Ms. McDonough lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Jennifer Thermes is the author and illustrator of When I Was Built and Sam Bennett's New Shoes, which was a Bank Street College Best Children's Book. Her books as illustrator include the middle-grade novel Maggie & Oliver and The Iciest, Diciest, Scariest Sled Ride Ever! Jennifer also creates illustrated maps for magazine and book publishing clients.

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Little Author in the Big Woods

A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder

By Yona Zeldis McDonough, Jennifer Thermes

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2014 Yona Zeldis McDonough
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-279-0


Early Journeys



The Wisconsin woods were very big. The house was very small. Laura Elizabeth Ingalls was small too, a little girl in the big, big woods. She lived in a log cabin with her Pa, Ma, and older sister, Mary Amelia. The trees surrounding the house stood proud and tall. Oak, ash, and elm. Maple, butternut, and birch. The dense woods were home to many of the animals Pa hunted and trapped for their meat and skins. He farmed, too, in the clearings where the forest opened up and the land was exposed to the sun and the wind.

To Laura, the woods around the cabin must have seemed vast and endless. There were no other houses, buildings, or streets, just the trees and the occasional sight of an owl as it flapped its great wings against the sky. In the winter, glittering white snow piled up against the sides of the cabin. In spring, the woods and fields were filled with flowers.

Laura and Mary played outside, watched by their Ma and Jack, the fiercely loyal spotted bulldog that was their family pet. They had no reason to think of leaving. Everything they ever needed or wanted was right there.

But Pa had other ideas. He had a yen to go out west. He wanted even more land, more space, and more opportunity. He'd heard that out west there were deer, antelope, prairie chickens, and wild turkeys. The land was level and the soil fertile. And best of all, it was free! In 1862, Congress had passed the Homestead Act. This meant that the United States government was offering 160 free acres of land to people willing to settle on the prairie and farm for at least five years.

Once Pa learned that, he was all set to pack up and leave Pepin behind. But in the Ingalls family, Pa and Ma made all the big decisions together. In the evenings, after the chores were done, they sat by the table and talked over the pros and cons. They would be leaving their families behind. The trip was dangerous. Ma loved their snug little cabin and saw no reason to leave it. Pa pointed out that the land cost nothing. They could farm and make money. He could afford to build a frame house, and to buy a buggy and a team of horses. He promised Caroline fine clothes and jewelry too. Long into the night they talked. And the next night, and the night after that. Soon it was decided. They would go to Kansas!

Once they made the decision, preparations for the long trip began. First Pa had to fit a white, waterproof canvas over their wagon's curved bows. The wagon would become their home while on their journey, and even after they arrived; it would take some time to build a new house and they would need shelter in the meantime.

Then Ma started on the packing. Into the wagon went their clothes, dishes, books, and bedding. Patchwork quilts and tablecloths, pots and pans. Pa's fiddle rode up front, cushioned on a pile of quilts. In late April 1870, everything was ready. Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura said good-bye to all their relatives. Then they climbed into the wagon, with faithful Jack following alongside. Pa drove the horses to the edge of Lake Pepin. Fortunately, the lake was still covered in ice, so they could get the wagon across it. On the other side of the lake was Minnesota.

For weeks they lived in the wagon, crossing the state of Minnesota, then traveling south through Iowa and Missouri, and finally heading west into the wide-open state of Kansas. Laura was too little to remember the trip. But Ma and Pa told her so many stories about it that the stories became a part of her. Eventually, it was as if she did remember the covered wagon, the unfamiliar landscape filled with woods, hills, creeks, and rivers, and the little rabbits that hid in the grass and prairie chickens that fluttered in the road.

It was a long and hard journey. Sometimes it poured. Other times it was blisteringly hot. But when they stopped for the night, Pa played his fiddle and Ma cooked a good supper over the campfire. Even on the lonely, desolate prairie, Ma managed to make the girls feel at home.

The family came to the Verdigris River, and when the horse pulled the wagon across, they found themselves in the frontier town of Independence, Kansas. But Pa had not come all this way to settle in a town. He wanted the expansive spaces of the prairie. They got back in the wagon and continued on for another 13 miles southwest. He kept looking until he found a spot that seemed just right. It was near a stream. The stream played a big part in his decision because they needed to be near water. And the trees that grew along the banks could be used to build their house and provide wood for a fire.

Pa started in on the new house straight away. First he had to find the right trees — only the straightest ones would do. Next he had to cut them down and haul them to the building site in his wagon. It took several days to prepare enough logs — about 50 logs in all. Then he started to build. Day by day the walls of the new cabin grew higher, and then higher still. When it was high enough, he made a temporary skeleton roof from slender saplings. Over this he tied the canvas wagon cover. Later he would put on a more secure roof, made from wooden logs that had been split into thin slabs. But there were other, more important things to do first. He had to dig a well. And he had to build a log barn, to protect the horses from thieves and from the packs of wolves that roamed the prairie.

After the building came the backbreaking work of plowing. Although Pa often traded work with neighbors for help with building, he worked long days alone in the fields with his sod plow, breaking up the tough grasslands into fields where he could plant. He planned to grow wheat, potatoes, corn, and other crops. The tall grass was thick and not easy to cut. The underground root system was so strong that Pa had to get off the plow and hack it with his ax. But he was strong and determined. He got the job done.

Laura and Mary were too little to help with building a house or plowing the land, and Ma could not do much because she was watching them. But as the girls grew older, they pitched in more and more.

Although Ma and Pa didn't meet too many settlers, they did meet Native Americans, who in those days were called Indians. They did not know it then, but they had settled on an Indian reserve. Sometimes the Indians they saw came to their cabin and asked for food. Other times they just barged right in and took it. Ma never tried to stop them. She and Pa thought it best to try to get along with their Indian neighbors, not fight with them.

One day when Laura was three, Pa took her and Mary on a long walk in the prairie. He was taking them to see an Indian camp. The Indians were all off on a hunting trip, so the camp was empty. But Laura and Mary were excited to find the ashes where the fires had been, and the holes from the tent poles. Then Laura saw something bright shining up from the dust. When she leaned down to pick it up, she saw that it was a bead. And look, there were more of them! Red, green, and blue beads, strewn around the camp. Since the beads were scattered all over, it didn't seem like the Indians cared too much about them, and it didn't feel like stealing. Laura and Mary filled their apron pockets. Pa helped. They didn't leave until the sun started to go down.

Laura couldn't wait to show Ma the beads. She would be so surprised. But Ma had her own surprise. They found her dozing in bed, holding the girls' brand-new baby sister with jet-black hair in her arms! Mrs. Scott, a neighbor, had helped with the delivery. Back then there were few hospitals. Babies were born at home with help from family members, friends, or neighbors.

Ma named the new baby Caroline Celestia and decided they would call her Carrie. Life with the new baby was even busier. Ma had all her regular chores of cooking, cleaning, washing, and mending. Added to that was taking care of the baby.

Soon Ma and Pa noticed that the Indians were showing up more often. They were from the Osage tribe. Pa had not known that he had built the cabin along one of their old trails. He had been in such a hurry to start that he hadn't filed a proper claim on the land. If he had, he might have chosen to build somewhere else.

The Indians were angry with the white settlers for moving onto their land. There was talk that the Indians might decide to wage war on them. Night after night, Laura and her family could hear their loud chanting and war cries. The sound was terrifying — even worse than the howling of wolves.

Meanwhile, far away in Washington D.C., the government was trying to decide what to do about the Indians. Over the years, white settlers had been forcing them off their ancestral lands, and there was now a lot of tension between the two groups. Feeling threatened, the Indians were attacking the settlers. The settlers were retaliating against the Indians. Something had to be done.

In 1870, Congress voted to pay the Osage $1.25 an acre for their land in Kansas. They also voted to give them new land in Oklahoma. The Osage accepted their offer. They would leave Kansas and head to Oklahoma.

Laura and her family were watching on the day the Indians left. To Laura, the long line of Osage on foot and horseback was fascinating. She loved the different-colored ponies and was curious about the children riding bareback. Some of them didn't even wear clothes!

After the Indians left, things settled down. No more surprise visitors. No more war cries in the night. Fall turned to winter, and the Ingalls family all came down with whooping cough. Kindly Dr. Tann — an African-American doctor who had treated the Osage — came to help. A lot of folk cures were prescribed for whooping cough: eating the skin of a snake, drinking white ant tea, tying a bag of live bugs around the throat.

Perhaps Dr. Tann used some of these methods to cure Laura and her family. Perhaps not. Whatever he did, it worked, because they survived and got well again. Soon after they had recovered, Pa got a letter from Gustaf Gustafson, the man who had bought their house in the Big Woods. Mr. Gustafson had been paying off his debt a little at a time, but he was unable to keep up with the payments. Instead, he wanted to head west and asked Pa if he would take the house back.

Ma thought of the time and effort that they had put into their prairie home. What a waste it had been. But Pa didn't see it that way. He thought of the hunting in the Big Woods and the fishing in Lake Pepin. He was willing to go back and reclaim their former home.

As they always did, Ma and Pa talked the matter over. And in the end, the lure of the journey won out. The covered wagon would be packed up once more, and the Ingalls family would make their way back to Wisconsin.


Grasshoppers and a New Baby Brother



The 1871 trip home in the covered wagon took many weeks. Laura was almost five, and this time she remembered more of the journey. When they finally got back to the Big Woods, the Gustafsons were still living in their house, so they moved in with Uncle Henry and Aunt Polly. Laura liked living with her cousins — they had so much fun playing together.

Laura was not quite old enough to join Mary and her cousins when they walked half a mile down the road to the Barry Corner School. But when Mary returned, she showed Laura everything she had learned. Soon Laura was reading as well as her big sister. Ma and Pa loved reading too. Often, Ma read aloud to Pa in the evenings. She read novels, biographies, and a book about the holy city of Jerusalem called The Land and the Book. Laura always associated reading and books with the gentle sound of her mother's voice.

In the fall, Laura was finally old enough to go to school with her sister and cousins. How exciting! She and Mary had a shiny new dinner pail and shared a schoolbook. Their teacher was named Annie Barry. Although she was only 25 years old, she knew how to keep order in her classroom.

Life in the Big Woods was more social than life on the prairie. Not only did Laura get to play with other children at school, so many friends and relatives stopped by the house to share a meal or to visit. Sometimes there were dances, and Ma would get all dressed up. Laura loved how fine and pretty she looked. When the music started, Pa chimed in with his fiddle. Laura and the other children stood back and watched as the caller shouted out the steps for the dancers to follow.

The Ingalls family felt safe and happy for the next few months. Laura had lots of playmates. She was especially drawn to Clarence Huleatts, who had red hair and freckles. He liked all the same things she did: running, jumping, and climbing. Mary preferred his little sister, Eva, who had excellent manners. Laura didn't care for Eva so much.

While Laura and Mary were busy with school and friends, Pa farmed and hunted, like he always had. But soon the yearning to head west again took hold of him. He missed the wide-open sky and the plains of Kansas. Once again, Ma wasn't so keen on the idea. She thought their life in the Big Woods was just fine and told Pa he had an "itching toe." But when Pa was able to persuade his brother Uncle Peter and his wife, Aunt Eliza, to join them, Ma changed her mind. She liked the idea of having family along on the journey.

Pa sold his farm in the fall of 1873 to a Swedish man named Anderson for $1,000. The Ingalls family moved in with Aunt Eliza and Uncle Peter until it was time to go. And in February 1874, the two families set off together. Pa wanted to settle in the western part of Minnesota. Since it was too cold to travel across the state in the winter, he and Uncle Peter took over an abandoned cabin in southeastern Minnesota where the two families could stay until spring, when the weather warmed up. Uncle Peter found a farm along the Zumbro River and decided to settle with his family there. But Pa felt the need to keep going, so the Ingalls family continued west without them.

They made their way across the prairie lands until they reached western Minnesota. Finally they came to a village called Walnut Grove. It was no more than a few stores and houses, loosely spread around the railroad tracks. The first railroad linking the East and West coasts of the United States had been completed in 1869. Laura had never been on a train, but she'd been enchanted by the sound of its whistle. While in town, Pa heard about a Norwegian settler who had travel plans of his own. He was willing to sell his homestead to Pa.

Pa bought the 172 acres of prairie land along Plum Creek. It came with an underground house called a dugout. The small, one-room dugout was carved right into the ground. The roof was made of willow boughs covered by sod, which is grass-covered ground. It was hidden from view except for the stovepipe sticking up through the sod. The walls, made of packed earth, were smoothed and whitewashed. The floor was earth too. Right by the door was a window covered not with glass but with greased paper. It let in only a little bit of light.

Since they were so close to town, Laura and Mary were able to go to school. Although there was no church when the family arrived, Ma joined a committee to help build one. Pa contributed money for the church bell, and when the church was completed, the Ingalls family attended Sunday services. Laura always remembered the very first decorated Christmas tree in church. The tree held presents for everyone. To Laura, the fur cape and china box she received as gifts were precious.

Minnesota winters were long and hard. Blizzards lasting three or four days whipped across the plains. When this happened, Laura and Mary had to do their lessons at home. But there was a bright side to blizzard season. All the moisture in the ground made for good crops. In the spring of 1875, Pa planted wheat. He was so confident about the crop that he went into town and came back with a load of yellow pine lumber that had been sent to the prairie by railroad. He also came back with glass windows, factory-milled doors, and white china doorknobs. Pa was going to build a house! The shopkeepers all knew about his big wheat field. He would pay them when he harvested his crop.

One of their neighbors, Eleck Nelson, helped Pa with the framing, the roofing, the windows, and the walls. Laura thought the new house was wonderful. She and Mary had a hard time keeping Pa's secret surprise for Ma: her very own cookstove. Laura and her family were thrilled to move into the new house. All summer long, Pa tended the wheat field. What a crop they would have!

Then, one day, a dark cloud passed in front of the sun. The cloud turned out to be an invasion of grasshoppers. The sky filled with them, and the whirring of their wings made a loud, terrible drone. When they hit the ground, it sounded like a hailstorm. Once they hit, they began to eat: all the wheat Pa had grown, all the vegetables in Ma's garden. Leaves, grass, flowers, and fruit. They stripped the fields and prairie bare. The government tried to fight back: they offered children up to $1.00 for every bushel of dead grasshoppers they collected, and 50 cents for a gallon of their eggs.


Excerpted from Little Author in the Big Woods by Yona Zeldis McDonough, Jennifer Thermes. Copyright © 2014 Yona Zeldis McDonough. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Author's Note,
ONE: Early Journeys,
TWO: Grasshoppers and a New Baby Brother,
THREE: A Terrible Illness,
FOUR: A Train Trip and Life on the Prairie,
FIVE: Married life,
SIX: A Budding Writer, and Rose Leaves Home,
SEVEN: Building the Dream House,
EIGHT: The Little House Books,
Quotes from Laura Ingalls Wilder,
Games Laura Played,
A Prairie Craft: Corn-Husk Doll,
What Laura Ate,
Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder,
Other Writings by Laura Ingalls Wilder,
About the Author and Illustrator,

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