Astrid Lindgren, Sweden’s most widely read author, receives an overwhelming amount of mail from her readers. Although she enjoys getting so many letters, she says she would have no time to answer each one personally! Instead, she has written this “open letter”, answering some of the most frequently asked questions about herself and her work:
Let me begin at the very beginning: I was born in November 1907, in an old red house surrounded by apple trees. I was the second child of Samuel August Ericsson, a farmer, and his wife Hanna, The farm where we lived was called – and is still called – Näs.
Two more children were born after me in the old red house. That made four of us: Gunnar, Astrid, Stina and Ingegerd. Our childhood at Näs was a happy one, much like that of the children in the Bullerbyn (Noisy Village) books. We attended school in Vimmerby, which was only a short walk from home. But, of course, we all eventually grew up and moved away from home. I went to Stockholm, where I studied to be a secretary, got a job in an office, married and had two children. Their names were Lars and Karin, and they always wanted me to tell them stories.
So I told them stories. But I did not write any books. Oh no, I had decided long before not to do that. When I was still at school, people were always saying, “You’ll probably be an author when you grow up”, and once I was even teased for being “Vimmberby’s Selma Lagerlöf”. That must have been what scared me off. I never dared to try writing, even though somewhere down deep inside, I thought I might like it.
And now to the question I get asked all the time:
What made you start writing? So, even though I’ve answered that question about a million times already, I’ll tell you how it all began:
In 1941 my seven-year-old daughter Karin had pneumonia. Every night when I sat by her bed, she would beg me to tell her a story. One evening, completely exhausted, I asked her what she would like to hear, and she answered, tell me a story about Pippi Långstrump (Longstocking). She made up the mane right on the spot. I didn’t asked who Pippi Longstocking was. I just started telling a story about her. And because it was such an odd name, she turned out to be an odd little girl Pippi was a hit with Karin, and later with her friends: I had to tell the story over and over again.
One snowy march evening in 1944 I was taking a walk in central Stockholm. Under the newly fallen snow was a layer of slippery ice, and I fell, spraining my ankle. It was quite a while before I was up and about again, and to pass the time I started writing down the Pippi stories. (In shorthand – I still always write my boos in shorthand to start with. I am good at shorthand since my secretarial days).
In May 1944, when Karin was ten years old, I gave the Pippi stories to her for a birthday present. Then I took a copy and sent it off to a book publisher, never really believing it would be accepted. Even I found Pippi rather an odd character: I remember ending my cover letter to the publisher with these words: “In the hope that you will not notify the Child Welfare Authorities” (Well, you have to understand, I had two children of my own, and I was afraid they might wonder what kind of a mother would write such stories!)
Just as I expected, the manuscript was rejected: but in the meantime I had written another book, because by now I had discovered how much fun it was to write.
That book was called Britt-Marie lättar sitt hjärta (Britt-Marie Unburdens Her Heart). I submitted it to the Stockholm publishing house, Rabén & Sjögren, which had announced a girl's story competition. And can you believe it – I won second prize! I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than that autumn evening in 1944 when I was notified that my story had won. The following year, the same publisher had a children’s book competition: I entered a somewhat revised Pippi manuscript and won first prize.
Pippi became a success, in spite of all the people who found her shocking and were afraid that children would now go around behaving like her. “No normal child would ever eat an entire cake at a coffee party!”, wrote an indignant reader. And of course that was true. No normal child would lift a horse with one arm either: but if you can do one, you can probably do the other as well.
In 1946, Rabén & Sjögren announced a new competition: this one was for detective stories for young people. I entered with Mästerdetektiven Blomkvist (Bill Bergson Master Detective) and shared a first prize. That was the last writing contest I entered, but not the last book I’ve written; there have been about 49 since then, plus a lot of picture books, some plays and songs. I’ve also worked with radio, television and films. From 1946 to 1970 I was head of the Children’s Book Department at Rabén & Sjögren. I’ve been a widow since 1952. Both of my children married, and I now have seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. My son died in the summer of 1986.
My books have been translated into more than 60 languages.
Everything I’ve told you so far has been rather easy to talk about, It’s much more difficult to answer questions like: What message are you trying to put across with your books? What about a character like Pippi Longstocking? How can a children’s book author educate and influence young readers? What should a good children’s book be like?
To answer those questions, let me simply say that there aren’t any messages in my books – not in Pippi or any other book. I write t amuse the child within me, and I can only hope that, in doing so, I might be able to amuse some other children as well. I can’t begin to answer what a good children’s book should be like (any why is it people never ask what a good adult book should be like?) My only guideline when I write is “truthfulness” (in the artistic sense of the word). “Why don’t you ever write about what it’s like to be a suburban child from a broken home? Someone once asked me. The answer is that I can only write about things I know, and I don’t’ know what it’s like to be a suburban child from a broken home. But I’m sure there is a child somewhere out there right now who does know, and who will write about it someday.
What I do know is what it’s like – or was like I should say – to grow up in a small town or on a farm in southern Sweden; that’s why most of my books take place in those settings. The children of Noisy Village, Sunnanäng the South Wind Meadow children all live in the country: Pippi Longstocking, Master Detective Bill Bergson, The Children of Bråkmakargatan (Troublemaker Street) and Madicken (Meg/Mardie) are all children from small towns. It was only after spending some 30 summers in Stockholm’s archipelago that I dared to write a book in that setting – Vi på Saltkråkan (Seacrow Island). Karlson in the Roof does his flying in part of central Stockholm I know well; I’ve lived there for more than 60 years. All right then, but what about Mio, min Mio, The Lionheart Brothers and Ronia – can I know more about the Land-of-Far-Away or Nangiyala or Matt’s Wood than a Stockholm suburb? Yes, is the answer; but how I know is my secret.
“Is your writing inspired by your own children or grandchildren?” is a question. I’m often asked, I can only say this: There is no other child who inspires me as much as the child I once was. You don’t have to have children of your won to write children’s books: you just need to have been a child once yourself, and then try to remember how it was.
As I’ve already said, I don’t consciously try to educate or influence the children who read my books. The only thing I would dare to hope for is that my books might make some small contribution towards a more caring, humane and democratic attitude in the children who read them. But even books that provide nothing more than pure reading pleasure is needed. Thank you for brightening up a gloomy childhood” were the words on a scrap of paper an anonymous woman once pressed into my hand. That’s enough for me. If I’ve been able to brighten up even one gloomy childhood, then I’m satisfied.
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