Travelling to Vimmerby today, you still find rural charm in the depths of the Swedish forests. The birth-place of Astrid Lindgren, is situated right on the edge of the tiny town. Imagining her childhood is easy, a hundred years ago, spent with cows and discovering hidden forest paths.
But the artist Astrid Lindgren never settled for the picturesque and the nostalgic. In her work, she took a firm stand: for peace, democracy and against all kinds of violence. She was very much a part of the public debate, in articles and in speeches. And her views were often well in advance for the times.
1945 saw the birth of Pippi Longstocking. Though an immediate success - it caused a general outcry. Parents were furious. Teachers were furious. Some critics warned of a collapse of public morals. How could Pippi Longstocking be so dangerous?
Feminist in the forties
She made her début at a time when girls were supposed to do embroidery, tuck their dolls into bed, and have pretty bows in their hair. Children should obey without question.
Pippi jumped, totally without permission, right in the world of boys and grown-ups. She was quick-witted and full of self-confidence. She would give her opinion on anything to anyone at all. Pippi would never just sit and wait for her prince charming to come riding on his white stallion. She had her own horse, that she could even pick up and carry.
With Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren revolutionised children’s literature, not just in Sweden, but across the whole world. But Pippi was not alone in finding an international audience - many of Astrid Lindgrens other caracters have become beloved globally.
How could a girl from the village of Vimmerby in the Swedish countryside end up writing stories that touch people in such different cultures? Stories that comfort a girl in Poland, and make a boy in Thailand laugh? The answer is fairly simple: a good story is a good story anywhere. If it touches our humanity, makes us dream, makes us laugh so much it hurts, then it makes no difference if the comfortably chubby heroe of the story is Kalli, Kljukec or Karlsson on the Roof.
Astrid once said that she always wrote for her inner child. By doing that, she reached out to the whole world.
She never forgot what it means to be a child
Her childhood years were full of love and laughter. The love came from her parents Samuel August and Hanna of Hult. The laughter spilled forth in the games that Astrid played with her three siblings, Gunnar, Stina and Ingegerd. “We played and played so much, it was a wonder that we didn’t play ourselves to death,” she once said. Many of the settings and characters in Astrid’s books can be traced back to her own childhood. Maybe they have been redrawn, but they were easy enough to recognise for those who grew up with her.
Memory is often described as the most important talent needed when writing good children’s books. You have to remember what the grass was like, how it smelled, how it felt. You have to be able to recall how you got butterflies in your tummy when climbing a tree.
Astrid remembered, all her life, in her bones, what it was like when she was small. The deadly beams in the barn’s roof, the sawdust that got stuck in her hair, how rye-bread sandwiches with cold ham tasted during snack time at school. She remembered how terrifying and wonderful it was to climb way up high and jump…
She never forgot how wonderful, but how difficult, it is to be a child. How imagination can be both first aid and the last hope for some children.
Reviving a genre
The success of Pippi Longstocking saved the publisher Rabén & Sjögren from bankruptcy, and the firm employed Astrid part-time as a children’s editor in 1947. Writing for children had previously been a low-status profession, but now it was an exciting new area. Astrid supported and encouraged young, promising writers for 25 years.
During this period, a whole new generation of children’s authors writing in Swedish emerged : Lennart Helsing, Tove Jansson, Åke Holmberg and Gösta Knutsson. Not only was she always on the child’s side in her books, she also helped change and renew an entire industry. And on top of that, she became one of the most beloved and esteemed children’s authors in the world.
To award a prize in Astrid Lindgren’s name not only feels logical and correct, it is also a way to continue her important work for children’s rights and their right to high-quality literature. Because, unfortunately, only imaginary heroes live forever.
Text: Svante Törngren, edited