Like countless American girls, Linda Sue Park devoured the “Little House” novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder, re-reading them and imagining herself in the stories as a friend of young Laura.

But as she grew up, Park was troubled by the way those stories treated people of color, in particular Ma’s hatred of Native Americans. “Ultimately it meant that she would never have allowed Laura to become friends with someone like me. Someone with black hair and dark eyes and tan skin. Someone who wasn’t white,” writes Park, who is Korean American, in the author’s note to “Prairie Lotus” (Clarion Books).

Park’s new novel for middle grade readers (approximately 10 to 12 years old), is her attempt to reconcile her love for Wilder’s books with her criticism of their shortcomings. Hanna, 14, and her widowed white father arrive in Dakota Territory, where he hopes to open a dress goods store. Hanna’s late mother was Chinese. The girl “already knew from living in California that most white people didn’t like having neighbors who weren’t white themselves.”

A skilled seamstress, resourceful cook and a lover of learning, Hanna is as determined and plucky as young Laura. “Prairie Lotus” is filled with making and doing, just like the “Little House” books. But as a young woman of color, Hanna’s viewpoint and the reality she experiences are very different.

Park won the 2002 Newbery Medal for children’s literature for her novel “A Single Shard,” the story of a 12th century Korean orphan who yearns to become a potter. Most of her books are historical fiction, often centered on Korean and Korean-American characters. Because Koreans didn’t immigrate to the United States until the early 1900s, she gave Hanna a Chinese mother.

In a telephone interview, Park said she has pondered a book like “Prairie Lotus” for a long time, but needed to do more thinking and learning about her own identity before she could write it. One important development that made her book feasible was the advent of “We Need Diverse Books,” a Twitter movement that grew into a nonprofit organization that promotes diverse children’s literature.

Park said racist incidents and microaggressions that Hanna experiences are reshaped versions of her own experiences, like the “slanty eyes” comments about her epicanthal folds.

The reader also experiences Hanna thinking through what she tells and doesn’t tell her father about such incidents, fearing his explosive reaction. “That goes to an ongoing battle that people of color and other marginalizations have all the time,” Park said. “Do I make the wave, or do I stay quiet? … Either way, both take a tremendous emotional toll.”

While Hanna experiences prejudice, she also meets new friends and allies. She draws strength from memories of her mother, and in occasional disagreements with her father makes her own voice heard.

“Prairie Lotus” also has the kind of granular detail that made the “Little House” novels popular. For example, a reader learns what a “prairie turnip” is and how to cook it.

While working on the book, Park visited De Smet, South Dakota, where Wilder lived and where her later novels were set. Park knew that streets in Dakota railway towns were wide enough for two-way horse-and-wagon traffic. Wide enough, in fact, so either horse and driver could make a U-turn.

But she was still surprised at how wide the street was. Her husband paced it off at 100 steps - 300-feet wide. That’s a football field, she pointed out.

Having the feel of that width in her bones helped her craft the scene where Hanna wants to cross that street under duress. “While research is always important, experience is different and better,” Park said.

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Park offered several reading suggestions for a diverse view of pioneer days:
“The Birchbark House” series, five novels for children by Louise Erdrich, set in the same time period at the “Little House” books, but featuring an Ojibwe girl and then twin Ojibwe boys as main characters.
“Under a Painted Sky,” by Stacey Lee. A lauded YA novel with a Chinese-American teen and a runaway slave pretending to be boys during the California gold rush.

“Bad News for Outlaws,” by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson with illustrations by R. Gregory Christie. The life story of Bass Reeves, a former slave who served as a deputy U.S. marshal in the Arkansas and Oklahoma territories for more than three decades, capturing criminals in a variety of clever ways.
Contact Jim Higgins at jim.higgins@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.