Red, braided, protruding braids. A colorful curled sock. Extremely large, black shoes. And many, many freckles. Well, did you automatically have Pippi Longstocking in mind when you heard these words? Then you are like most people in Germany – and in many other countries around the world. Astrid Lindgren’s most famous book has been translated into 77 languages. But the Swedish author was not only successful with Pippi. Also "We Children from Bullerbu", "Ronja Raubertochter", "Lotta", "The Brothers Lionheart" and many others are still read (or read aloud) with pleasure today.
It is easy to forget that some of the books are more than 70 years old and that the author is no longer with us. 20 years ago, on 28. January 2002, she passed away in Stockholm. Nevertheless, her books fit effortlessly on children’s shelves among titles currently popular with children such as "The School of Magical Beasts," "Greg’s Diary" or "Harry Potter".
How did Lindgren manage to write such timeless books?? What fascinates young readers about the rural world in Bullerbu, without cell phones, television and cars?? What does a children’s book have to have to become a classic?? And what current books might be contenders for this title? We talked about this with three experts.
The famous author Astrid Lindgren
"Astrid Lindgren’s works address timeless themes such as family, friendship and courage, but she also doesn’t leave out loss, death and grief. All of this connects her to great characters that every child would love to have as a friend," says Kerstin Behnken. The 45-year-old is an editor at the Oetinger publishing house in Hamburg and has been responsible for the Lindgren oeuvre for a good 15 years. Her fascination with the author began at the age of four, when she was given "Bullerbu" as a gift. "Astrid Lindgren never gets boring. Even at 30. When I read the texts for the first time, they touch me and inspire me," says Behnken, who regularly checks the comprehensive oeuvre of 34 novels and 41 picture books with a view to new editions. The author spares neither a theme, nor a genre, nor an age group. In short, in Lindgren’s work there is something for everyone.
Lindgren had a very happy childhood
Be it the adventures that Lisa, Lasse, Bosse and the other children from Bullerbu experience in their wholesome farm world. Be it the sense of justice of the maladjusted Madita. The crazy pranks of Michel. Ronja’s closeness to nature. The orphan life of Mio. Or the tech-savvy, cranky Karlsson. The fact that many of the books are set in a world without television, cell phones or computers, that people move around in horse-drawn carriages and sleighs instead of cars, and that farmhands and maids work in the house, doesn’t seem to bother the children. "Even when Lindgren published the first Bullerbu volume in 1947, the story was already playing in the past," says Ines Dettmann, director of the Young Literature House in Cologne and an Astrid Lindgren fan. "Young readers accept this bygone world much like in fairy tales. Nobody asks why the prince doesn’t save Sleeping Beauty with the help of a chainsaw," says Dettmann and laughs. Works such as Bullerbu, Michel and Lotta are inspired by Lindgren’s own very happy childhood in the small village of Vimmerby in southern Sweden. "Lindgren often said that she missed this horse age, when everything was much slower," says Dettmann.
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Then, at the age of 18, the shock: the young journalist Astrid becomes pregnant by her boss. She leaves Vimmerby, gives birth to her son Lasse secretly in Denmark. There he lives with a foster family for the first three years. Dettmann: "Lindgren dealt with this inner conflict above all in her melancholy and fantastic works – and presumably healed herself a little in the process."At the beginning of the 1930s, things were looking up: Lindgren brought Lasse to Stockholm, married Sture Lindgren, gave birth to daughter Karin in 1934 and worked as a secretary. Then, in 1945, the breakthrough with Pippi Longstocking. Later, when Lindgren is a successful and award-winning author, she uses her popularity to campaign for animal welfare and against nuclear power and racism.
Astrid Lindgren is just as unassimilated as her characters
In old age she still climbs trees. Throughout her life, Astrid Lindgren is just as unassimilated as her characters. This is how she tackles the subject of death in the loving fantasy story about the two brothers Lionheart – an absolute taboo in children’s and young people’s literature until the novel was published in 1973. But that’s not all: "With the three Kalle Blomquist novels, Lindgren popularized the genre of the detective novel for children in the German-speaking world," explains Inger Lison, a literary scholar and didactician at the Technical University of Braunschweig and administrator of the "Astrid Lindgren Database" in Germany.
A typical scene: Pippi lifts the horse into the air.
The Astrid Lindgren Company, Ing
But the most controversial is certainly Pippi: a little child who lives without parents, but with a horse and a monkey in a big house, owns a box of gold, sleeps upside down in bed, consumes sweets without end, can lift a horse without any problems, never lets adults tell her what to do – and that even as a girl. "Such wild and adventurous character drawings had previously been reserved for boys," explains Lison, citing Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn as examples. No wonder this book caused a sensation in 1945! And this is true both in quite progressive Sweden, which was already experimenting with anti-authoritarian and reform pedagogical ideas, but much more so in post-war Germany. "With "Pippi Longstocking", the prevailing image of childhood was literally turned upside down," says Inger Lison.
Accordingly, it was already difficult to find a publisher in Sweden, but especially here in Germany. "At the time, it was a gamble for Friedrich Oetinger to publish a book like this," says Lison. Studies have shown that many readers identify more with Tommy and Annika than with the crazy Pippi, something Lindgren’s daughter, Karin Nyman, has also often said. "With the help of Pippi as a projection figure, children can live out on a fictional level everything that is not possible for them in reality or is forbidden by their guardians," says Lison.
Why does a children’s book become a classic??
The story with the difficult search for a publisher is admittedly reminiscent of Joanne K. Rowling and her hero Harry Potter. And yes, we are already in the middle of the search for the prerequisites for a book to become a classic. The literature science describes for it different quality criteria and one reads: Innovation. "In addition to all the progressive character traits, Lindgren expanded and renewed the fantastic narrative with non-genre elements in the "Pippi" books," Lison explains. In her other works, too, she mixes features of different genres; in "Ronja Raubertochter," for example, she mixes elements of Scandinavian folk tales with the robber romance and a love story reminiscent of "Romeo and Juliet" and a love story reminiscent of "The Younger. Friendship against all odds. "Lindgren often didn’t follow what was in vogue at the time," Lison continues. "When she wrote the fantastic tale "The Brothers Lionheart" in 1973, realistic books were just in vogue."
Another item on the classics quality list: Simplicity versus complexity. Lindgren liked to quote the following sentence from Arthur Schopenhauer: "Use common words and say uncommon things."And according to this, the three experts agree, they have been working on this all their lives. Lison: "She writes in an easy-to-understand, melodic, kid-affirming narrative style, and her themes are highly complex."Lindgren never pandered with her language, finds Ines Dettmann of the Young Literature House. Unlike some other children’s book authors, who use youth language that seems stale after ten years. "Lindgren addresses children very directly – and at eye level. She focuses on her young readers and doesn’t take the approach of educating them, as was common at the time," says Ines Dettmann.
Lindgren wanted a new translation of the Brothers Lionheart
Editor Kerstin Behnken tells how meticulously Lindgren wrote. "She never overused a word."And if she didn’t like a translation, she made that clear. For example, she, who had studied German at school, initially vetoed the German translation of The Brothers Lionheart: "Lindgren thought that too many difficult words were used in the translation and asked for a revision," says Behnken. Needless to say, artful language is also another characteristic of classic status. At the end of the 1980s, the overall work was linguistically carefully modernized, and since 2009 the controversial N-word is no longer to be found in the current editions.
But what a classic needs above all is readership. Children and young people who still read a book after twenty, fifty or a hundred years – and they like to do so. "With Astrid Lindgren, we know from the many letters that children wrote to her over the years that they really loved the books," says literary scholar Inger Lison. And these children may later read from it to their children and grandchildren. "If the reader likes the book himself, he reads more authentically," says Ines Dettmann. This, in turn, is noticed by the children, which leads to a special reading experience and, as a result, to the children themselves appreciating this work more.
A book for radio and television
Which also helps to keep from being forgotten: Intermediality. Turning a book into a feature for radio, a radio play or a film – Lindgren was a pioneer in that, too. And of course: a marketing machine that keeps the whole thing running and keeps creating new incentives to buy. So Kerstin Behnken is constantly working with Astrid Lindgren’s heirs to make the books accessible to a new generation: The old texts are provided with modern, colorful illustrations and republished on the occasion of anniversaries.
Scene from the new edition of Lindgren’s "Mio, my Mio"
from_Astrid Lindgren_Mio my Mio
To the 20. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Pippi’s death, for example, Oetinger Verlag has taken on "Mio, mein Mio," an "underrated work," as editor Behnken finds. The Swedish artist Johan Egerkrans has provided the story of the sad orphan Bo, who is magically reunited with his father in a parallel world, with coherent, melancholy and touching illustrations.
For a book to really make it into the Olympus of classics, it ultimately also needs luck, the right place and the right time, and perhaps just a little bit more. Lindgren had a "lively child" inside her, says editor Kerstin Behnken. And maybe that’s the only way someone can reach children across the ages. Whether a book becomes a classic, however, can only be judged in retrospect, when it has survived at least one generation.
"The School of Magical Animals" is currently popular with children
At the moment, the book series "The School of Magical Animals" is particularly popular with children. According to the figures just published by Media Control, the series occupies ten places among the 25 most successful children’s books in 2021 – although only twelve volumes have been published so far. Ines Dettmann sees certain parallels between the magical animals and the Lindgren works, such as the slowness of the narration. And just like Lindgren’s Bullerbu world, author Margit Auer conveys a sense of security to her young readers with the magical animals. "Even though the second elementary school generation already holds these books in high regard, no one can foresee whether they will still be popular in 15 years – or whether something even more innovative will be published in the meantime," says Dettmann of the Young Literature House.
For her, the clearest sign of whether a work has achieved classic status is the social and cultural influence of that work. So the moment when you quote key scenes – and everyone understands them. The moment when the colorful house on the side of the road becomes Villa Kunsterbunt; when a vacation on the farm mutates into a trip to Bullerbu; when, while walking through an enchanted forest, one expects to see a swarm of wild druids passing by. It remains to be seen whether the carnival costume with the red braided wig, the ringed stocking and the black shoes that are far too big will still be clearly identified as Pippi Longstocking 50 years from now. But to hope.