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Authors: Yona Zeldis McDonough

Little Author in the Big Woods


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Title Page

Copyright Notice


Author's Note


Early Journeys

Grasshoppers and a New Baby Brother

A Terrible Illness

A Train Trip and Life on the Prairie

Married life

A Budding Writer, and Rose Leaves Home

Building the Dream House

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




For Katherine Constance McDonough, darling daughter, beautiful girl

—Y. Z. M


For Kirsten

—J. T.






Author's Note

Many writers have used people, places, and events from their own lives to form their fiction. But Laura Ingalls Wilder was a writer who used the events of her life to form the basis of her novels in a more direct way. She changed hardly anything about her past when she recast it into fiction; she even used her own name and the names of her family members, so that the character Laura Ingalls of the Little House series shares her name with her creator, Laura Ingalls Wilder. The same is true for her sisters, friends, neighbors, and teachers. She did change the last name of the unkind girl from Owens to Oleson, and she chose not to include the death of her baby brother. But mostly, Wilder used her life as the basis for the wonderful books she wrote. In this biography, readers of the Little House books will recognize many events and details from the fictional versions; it is my hope that knowing the facts that inspired the stories will deepen an understanding of these much-loved classics.




In 1839, Caroline Lake Quiner was born in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area. Some people said she was the first non–Native American baby to be born there. Her parents, Henry and Charlotte, were pioneers who had come from the east to settle the new land. It was not uncommon for pioneers to move many times. Sometimes they were pulled in a new direction by the promise of fertile or free land, or new job opportunities. Other times they were pushed away from a place by disease, drought, or other calamities.

Even though Caroline's early life was hard (and it became even harder after her father drowned), her mother, Charlotte, believed in the importance of education, even for girls. This was a very unusual idea for the time. Women were expected to tend house and raise children, so girls were taught to cook, clean, sew, and garden. “Book learning” was a luxury that most girls were not given. But Charlotte had been educated at a female seminary in Connecticut, and she wanted her daughters to have book learning too.

Little Caroline was a star pupil. She loved to read, and she excelled at writing essays and poetry. A schoolteacher who boarded with the family praised Caroline's compositions. So when Caroline told her mother she wanted to follow in her footsteps and become a teacher, she not only had Charlotte's support, she had her blessing.

At 16, Caroline finished school and passed the examination for her first teaching certificate. She was hired to teach at the very same school where she and her sisters and brothers had been students. Her salary was somewhere between $2.50 and $3.00 a week. Though the wages were modest, she was proud to be earning money of her own. She used her salary to buy clothes and to help her parents and siblings.

Even out on the frontier, Caroline had a sense of grace and elegance. She may have been a country girl, but she didn't have country manners. Her unusual poise caught the eye of a neighbor's son, Charles Ingalls. They began “keeping company”—an old-fashioned term for dating—and were married in Concord, Wisconsin, on February 1, 1860. She had not yet turned 21 years old.

Caroline understood that her new husband craved adventure. And he understood that, although she would indulge his craving and follow him willingly on his travels, her refined nature would set the tone for the life they led together. Wherever they went, Caroline was a lady.

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