Books For Children: Astrid at 90

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The Independent Culture
Astrid was 90 on 14 November. She is the most widely translated writer Sweden has produced, eclipsing even Strindberg. Pippi Longstocking, her best known book, has appeared in 50 languages, and her publishers estimate that over five million copies of the English edition have been sold. Pippi has been hailed as the "child of the century" and her many successors have enjoyed scarcely less popularity. Astrid Lindgren has created books for children in every possible genre, from humorous tales for the very young to a sophisticated novel for teenagers that is now required feminist reading (Ronia, The Robber's Daughter). It would be impossible to find a Swede who hasn't read her, films and plays have been made of her work, politicians quote from her in their speeches (I have actually heard the previous Swedish Prime Minister, Ingvar Carlsson do this) and there is even a law named after her: the Lex Astrid, concerning the humane treatment of farm animals. She has won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal and the German Book Trade's Peace Prize and there are many, myself included, who feel that the Swedish Academy should have awarded her the Nobel Prize for Literature long ago. Though her books are to be found only in the children's departments of libraries or stores, they transcend all categorisation as triumphantly as does Pippi the limitations and restrictions of childhood.

Pippi Longstocking came into being as a means of cheering up Astrid's daughter, Karin, when she was ill in bed with pneumonia. Nine years old, Pippi lives without parents in tumbledown Villekula Cottage, which she shares with a monkey, to whom she regularly serves buns and fruit juice in bed, and a horse, which she keeps on the verandah. She sleeps with her feet on the pillows and her head under the blankets; her visit to school is not a success, and she resists authority to the extent of depositing interfering policemen on her cottage roof. She's a compulsive improviser of stories, but then, as she says: "How can you expect a little child whose mother is an angel and whose father is a cannibal king and who has spent her life sailing the seas to tell the truth always?"

Pippi made her published appearance auspiciously in 1945, the first year of the peace, and wildly maverick though she might be, she's always promoted kindness of heart and sympathetic identification. Though Astrid Lindgren's range, like that of her compatriot Ingmar Bergman (80 next year) is Shakespearean, her oeuvre is given unity by these values. They are present alike in her recreations of humdrum childhood activities in the country (The Six Bullerby Children) and in the delightful fantasies of Karlsson-on-the- Roof, about a fat little flying man who may or may not be the creation of a small boy's mind.

Perhaps her most remarkable achievements, however, are her two last full-length stories for older children, The Brothers Lionheart, which follows two brothers from a poor home in Stockholm into death, and the love story Ronia, where boy and girl have to meet across opposite sides of a great chasm in the forest. The first book is used in Sweden to help sick or dying children, the second is seen as a plea against all forms of division. As a friend said to Astrid in my hearing: "Sweden wouldn't be Sweden without you."

Paul Binding

8 A selection of the Pippi Longstocking books is available in Puffin, pounds 3.99.