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 hundred years ago is easy, 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 firm stand points: for peace, democracy and in oposition of 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 ahead of its time.
Feminist in the forties
1945 saw the birth of Pippi Longstocking. It was an immediate success but also 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?
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 witty and full of self-confidence. She would give her opinion on anything to anyone. 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 all over the world. But Pippi was not alone in finding international readers - many of Astrid Lindgrens caracters have become globally beloved.
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 Lindgren once said that she always wrote for the child within herself. By doing that, she reached out to the whole world.
Astrid Lindgren never forgot what it means to be a child
Astrid Lindgren' childhood in the area of Vimmerby was marked by love and play. The love came from her parents Samuel August and Hannah in Hult. Play and games came from Astrid herself and her three siblings Gunnar, Stina och 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 her books can be traced back to her own childhood. Maybe they have been reinterpreted but they were easy enough to recognise for people growing 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. Astrid Lindgren remembered all her life, in her bones, what it was like when she was a child. 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 lunch hour at school. She remembered how terrifying and wonderful it was to climb a tree. She never forgot how wonderful and difficult it is to be a child. How imagination can be both first aid and the last hope for a child.
Reviving a genre
The success of Pippi Longstocking saved the publisher Rabén & Sjögren from bankruptcy and they employed Astrid Lindgren part-time as a children’s editor in 1947. Writing for children had previously been a low-status profession but now became an exciting new area. Astrid Lindgren supported and encouraged young, promising writers for 25 years. Not only did she always defend the child’s interests, she also helped changing and renewing an entire book market. And she became one of the most beloved children’s authors in the world.
To present an award in Astrid Lindgren’s name feels not only logical and correct, it is also a way to continue her important work for children’s rights and their right to high-quality literature. Only imaginary heroes live forever unfortunately.
Text: Svante Törngren, edited by the award office