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Smithsonian Notable Books for Children, 1995

Smithsonian Notable Books for Children, 1995

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One afternoon in Stockholm, during the winter of 1944, a 37-year-old housewife, about to become as famous as can be, sat in bed, propped up on pillows, writing away. Astrid Lindgren had slipped on an icy walk the day before and wanted to set herself a diverting task as she nursed a sprained ankle. The first sentences she scribbled down would crystallize into a passage instantly recognizable to millions of children: "Way out at the end of a tiny little town was an old overgrown garden, and in the garden was an old house, and in the house lived Pippi Longstocking. She was nine years old, and she lived there all alone."

The setting is the ramshackle Villa Villekulla, an inviting yellow-frame cottage and the scene of Pippi's transfixing exploits. Pippi Longstocking emerged as a sensational success from the moment the book appeared in 1945 (published by Raben & Sjogren). Fifty years later, the Pippi stories are the world's most translated books for young readers; the latest count shows the three novels appearing in more than 60 languages. (Lindgren herself, now a relentlessly vigorous 88, is the world's most translated living writer for children.) Pippi turns 50 this year, but it seems the moment to point out that she is ageless-and, as one admirer has put it, still "looks good in pigtails."

The freckle-faced renegade is mistress of all she surveys from Villekulla's veranda — the creaking gate, the gravel path, the noble climbing trees. Her domestic arrangements, as any of Pippi's countless readers can attest, are irregular at best. She manages without the interference of guardians or parents (Mama is "an angel in heaven"; devoted Papa, a sea captain, has been lost at sea-although Pippi expects him to return at any moment).

The absence of adult supervision leaves her free to arrange her existence as she will — "there was no one to tell her to go to bed just when she was having the most fun, and no one who could make her take cod liver oil when she much preferred caramel candy." Under those conditions, one naturally has a good deal of time to flip pancakes onto the ceiling, whip up batches of 500 cookies at a time, toss crockery from the treetops, and adorn the parlor wallpaper with an image of "a fat lady in a red dress and a black hat" who brandishes a yellow flower and a dead rat. ("Pippi thought it a very beautiful picture; it dressed up the whole room.")

Not that she lives without companions. Mr. Nilsson, the monkey, cavorts around the kitchen and sleeps under a doll's patchwork quilt. Her beloved horse placidly munches oats from a soup bowl on the porch. (Whenever Pippi wants to canter off, she simply hoists her steed down from the front steps to the garden; as befits a heroine rooted in Scandinavian folklore, she is preternaturally strong.) And most of Pippi's waking hours are spent in the company of the children next door, Annika and Tommy, "good, well brought up, and obedient," who are liberated from a regimen of dreary nursery games once Pippi arrives.

This charmed existence, singularly unfettered, lies at the heart of Pippi's enduring appeal. Life at Villekulla speaks to one of the deepest and most alluring of early fantasies: the odyssey of the self-reliant and inventive child, drawing on inner resources to overcome obstacles and vanquish fears. Pippi has never encountered a hurdle she cannot surmount-"Don't you worry about me. I'll always come out on top" is her watchword-and children worldwide are ravished by her cheerful delinquency.

Adults, not suprisingly, do not always take kindly to such effrontery. Pippi is brash and blunt and rude. Ask her to afternoon tea and she will wolf down an entire cake. She won't intend to, but somehow it will happen. ("Now you mustn't feel bad about such a little accident," Pippi consoles the neighborhood matrons, who are miffed beyond words when a centerpiece confection vanishes before their eyes. "The main thing is that we have our health.") This incident set off a storm of protest when the novel first appeared in Sweden. "No normal child," groused an indignant correspondent, "sleeps with her feet on the pillow, or eats a whole cake by herself at a party." Lindgren retorted quietly: "No normal child can lift a horse with one arm either."

Providentially, Pippi is redeemed by her compassion and her courage. When five neighborhood bullies set upon one hapless boy — and have the temerity to tease Pippi — she trounces them one by one, Valkyrie-style. Face blazing, auburn braids streaming in the wind, she dispenses a just revenge to the ringleader and his cronies:

"'I don't think you have a very nice way with ladies,' said Pippi. And she lifted him in her strong arms — high in the air — and carried him to a birch tree and hung him over a branch. Then she took the next boy and hung him over another branch. The next one she set on a gatepost outside a cottage, and the next she threw right over a fence so that he landed in a flower bed. The last of the fighters she put in a tiny toy cart that stood by the road. . . . The boys were absolutely speechless with fright."

She is an equally passionate protector of animals. When Pippi comes upon a fellow beating his carthorse as it struggles to pull a crushing load, she thrashes that scoundrel as well. And carries the exhausted equine — "who was astonished" — home to the safety of his stall. And breaks the whip into "tiny, tiny pieces." And takes hold of the wagon shafts and pulls the cart home, so as to spare the steed the trouble.

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