Sunday, October 7, 2007

Astrid Lindgren

Astrid Lindgren
Born November 14, 1907 in Vimmerby, Smaaland, Sweden
Died January 28, 2002 in Stockhol, Sweden

If you haven't read Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, then you have a treat in front of you. If all you have read of Astrid Lindgren's work is Pippi Longstocking, then you have a feast.

This year is the centenary of Astrid Lindgren's birth and there are many celebrations underway in Sweden and around the world. She wrote more than a hundred books in her time, seventy of them for children. She was a strong activist in the cause of peace, animal rights and children's rights. She received rewards and recognition in Sweden, across Europe and the globe. Her books have sold close to 150 million copies and have been translated into more than ninety languages.

So who was this person? Before sketching her background, I think it is worth noting that, while she is best known for her Pippi Longstocking stories (Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Goes on Board , and Pippi in the South Seas),she actually wrote a number of series (Emil, Karlsson-on-the-Roof, Bill Bergson, and The Children of Noisy Village) each distinctly different from the others (though with some shared themes) as well as individual titles (Mio, My Son; Ronia The Robbers Daughter; Rasmus and the Vagabond; and The Brothers Lionheart), any of which on their own would have made the reputation of the author.

Astrid Anna Emilia Ericsson was born into a farming family in Småland, Sweden, November 14, 1907 and was the second of four children. Her childhood was a happy one with loving parents and lots of time spent outside among farm-workers or in fields and woods. When she was seventeen, Ericsson began working as a reporter for the local newspaper, Wimmerby Tidning. For all that Sweden has a libertine reputation, its deep Lutheranism is not far from the surface and this was especially true in the first half of the past century. Consequently when Ericsson, unmarried, became pregnant, it was a catastrophic event that greatly shocked her family. Her son Lars was born in 1926 and was temporarily given to a foster family. When she later married, Ericsson was able to take Lars back.

Ericsson moved to Stockholm, taking a job as a secretary in an office. She married Sture Lindgren in 1931 and had a daughter in 1934. As so often happens, her first stories were written by writing down the tales she told her children. In 1941 her seven year old daughter Karin was recuperating from a bout of pneumonia. She asked Lindgren to tell her a tale about a girl named Pippi Longstocking. As Lindgren recounted later, "I didn't ask her who Pippi Longstocking was. I just began the story, and since it was a strange name it turned out to be a strange girl as well." The first Pippi Longstocking story was published in 1945, was an immediate hit and was soon followed by the other two stories in the series.

Pippi has been way over-analyzed as is often the fate of popular children's books. I hate to add too much more. Simply said, Pippi lives the life most children hanker for, but wouldn't know what to do with if they had it. She is nine years old; her mother died when she was a child; her father, a sea captain, is shipwrecked somewhere in the South Pacific; and she has moved in to Villa Villekulla cottage, and lives alone save for her horse, Horse, who lives on the porch, and her monkey, Mr. Nilsson. Oh, and her cache of gold coins. She has all the power, resources and authority of an adult but lives the agenda of a nine year old. She sleeps with head at the foot of her bed, she scrubs the kitchen floor by tying brushes to her feet, and she does pretty much whatever she wants to do. She is saved from being a poster-child brat by not having a malicious bone in her body. Both the scrapes she gets into and the means by which she resolves them are the engine of humor that drives the stories.

I can still remember how I envied Pippi's independence, reading the stories when I was nine. There was certainly an air of unreality about Pippi: she was so strong she could lift Horse off the porch and her circumstances improbable, but they were also so desirable that Lindgren absolutely made me want to believe this story was possible.

While many of Lindgren's stories are cheery, light-hearted and humorous, she also dealt with more somber issues such as in The Brother's Lionheart where one brother gives his life to save another. Or slightly weightier issues such as in Ronia, The Robber's Daughter where you have a difficult, but ultimately happy love story set in the Middle Ages.

Lindgren's range of topics was broad but there is always a thread of hope, an expectation of sunny days, and a use of folklore and legends. Most identifiable is her concrete connection with nature. From Ronia: "They stood silently, listening to the twittering and rushing and buzzing and singing and murmuring in the woods. There was life in every tree and watercourse and every green thicket; the bright song of spring rang out everywhere." And from her memoir: "Memory - it holds unknown sleeping treasures: fragrances and flavors, sights and sounds of childhood past! I can still see and smell and remember the bliss of that rosebush in the pasture, the one that showed me for the first time what beauty means. I can still hear the chirping of the land rail in the rye fields on a summer evening, and the hooting of the owls in the owl tree in the nights of spring. I still know exactly how it feels to enter a warm cow barn from biting cold and snow. I know how the tongue of a calf feels against a hand, and how rabbits smell . . . and how milk sounds when it strikes the bottom of a bucket, and the feel of small chicken feet when one holds a newly hatched chick. Those may not be extraordinary things to remember. The extraordinary thing . . . is the intensity of these experiences when we were new here on earth."

Her specificity of writing calls to your own memories. From my own store of memories I would add the warmth of a granite boulder as you stretch across it in the mid-afternoon, the summer sun lapping you from a Scandinavian blue sky, storing up warmth for the coming winter, and the pure delicate white of lilies of the valley on a green hill in spring. Like all good writers, she conjures your own memories or provides them for you.

Following the success of Pippi Longstocking, Lindgren continued writing throughout the remainder of her long life. She was a vocal advocate of children's rights as well as animal rights, lobbying for a set of laws governing humane treatment of farm animals that became known as Lex Astrid (The Law of Astrid). She contributed significantly to a debate and through her writings to the reform of Sweden's tax laws when she pointed out that she was paying a tax rate of 102%.

For a farm girl from Sweden's bread-basket, Astrid Lindgren had an incredible life and has left us a remarkable and remarkably long list of wonderful children's stories. She won many of the international literature awards; had many places, schools, and streets named after her and her stories; had a series of stamps based on her stories, statues erected and so on. Her most tangible legacy, of course, is that of the pleasure her stories have given generation after generation of reading children.

Following are the Astrid Lindgren titles in print.

Picture Books

The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Harald Wiberg Suggested

The Tomten and the Fox by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Harald Wiberg Suggested

Independent Reader

Christmas in Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Ilon Wikland Suggested

Do You Know Pippi Longstocking? by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Ingrid Nyman

Happy Times in Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Ilon Wikland Recommended

Pippi Goes on Board by Astrid Lindgren Recommended

Pippi Goes to School by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Michael Chesworth

Pippi Goes to the Circus by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Michael Chesworth

Pippi in the South Seas by Astrid Lindgren Recommended

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman Highly Recommended

Pippi's Extraordinary Ordinary Day by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Michael Chesworth Suggested

Ronia, The Robber's Daughter by Astrid Lindgren and Alfred Lindgren Recommended

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Michael Chesworth Highly Recommended

The Children of Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Ilon Wikland Recommended

The Red Bird by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Marit Tornqvist Suggested

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