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.
Heroism such as Pippi's, quiet and unflinching, prevails in many of this year's titles as well: an Iowa farm girl risks her life to rescue victims of an 1881 train wreck; the young Frederick Douglass defies his oppressors; village women living on the outskirts of a rain forest in India thwart the developers who are clear-cutting their life-sustaining trees. High spirits abound too, in the tales of a mutt who renovates the doghouse of his dreams, a sea monster with a penchant for rescuing swimmers, and a boy who resorts to good-natured bribery in order to free Brooklyn from a punishing drought.
Home Lovely written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins (Greenwillow, $15) A resonant, memorable tale of new beginnings, centered on a child who transforms the plot around her house trailer into a garden lush with melons and tomatoes. A fairy godfather, in the form of the mail carrier, comes bearing petunias. Could I choose but one title from 1995, it would be this book, shining with a grace all its own.
Pond Year by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Mike Bostock (Candlewick, $13.95) Waiting for muskrats, scouting for salamanders: a page-turning account of two friends, "wiggly little girls" up to their knees in mud, exploring the inner life of algae and frogs' eggs.
A Walk to the Great Mystery written and illustrated by Virginia A. Stroud (Dial, $14.99) Over the wooden bridge and into the woods with Grandmother, a Cherokee medicine woman and kindred spirit of hummingbirds and pine trees. A lilting excursion into the ineffable, and into Native American tradition.
Valentine by Carol Carrick, illustrated by Paddy Bouma (Clarion, $14.95) On a bitter February afternoon, a girl and her grandmother gather in a woodstove-warmed kitchen to nurse a newborn lamb back to life. Certain to be another classic from Carrick.
Listen for the Bus by Patricia McMahon, photographed by John Godt (Boyds Mills, $15.95) The chronicle of David, a boy who "likes big dogs and listening to the train" and who happens to be blind, off for his first week of kindergarten. A testament to courage, with splendid photographs.
Waiting for Filippo: The Life of Renaissance Architect Filippo Brunelleschi written, with illustrations and pop-ups, by Michael Bender (Chronicle, $19.95) A foray into 15th-century Florence and the life and times of the sculptor, engineer and architect who created the dome atop the Duomo, with magnificent three-dimensional drawings.
Ten Flashing Fireflies by Philemon Sturges, illustrated by Anna Vojtech (North-South, $14.95) A clever counting book and an evocation of childhood's deep, dark summer nights, when dreams are as thick as stars.
Fernando's Gift / El Regalo de Fernando written and photographed by Douglas Keister (Sierra Club Books, $16.95) The author traveled "deep inside the rain forest in Costa Rica" to document the life of a family committed to saving that country's remnant of old-growth tracts. Superb natural history, featuring English and Spanish text.
The Last Dragon by Susan Miho Nunes, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet (Clarion, $14.95) Above a noodle factory, in a small apartment, a miracle unfolds: during the summer that a boy visits his great-aunt in San Francisco's Chinatown, he rescues a faded silk dragon from a shop window. A rare, wonderful story about the riches of an ancient culture, with refulgent watercolors.
Architecture by Richard Wood and Language and Writing by Peggy Burns and Julian Rowe (Thomson Learning, $15.95 each) Two recent titles in a groundbreaking, visually stunning series trace ideas in science and culture that underlie our intellectual legacy.
The River That Went to the Sky: Twelve Tales by African Storytellers, selected and edited by Mary Medlicott, illustrated by Ademola Akintola (Kingfisher, $16.95) A couple who adopt every orphan in their town; a boy who understands the language of birds; an aspiring botanist who brings rain to her village — stories steeped in laughter and sagacity, from across the continent.
The Harvest Birds / los pajaros de la cosecha by Blanca Lopez de Mariscal, illustrated by Enrique Flores (Children's Book Press, $14.95) In an eloquent rendition of a folktale from Oaxaca, Mexico, a young man whose "head holds many dreams" coaxes a patch of land into a green thicket of corn, beans and squash, as a flock of zanate birds imparts to him the deepest secrets of the earth.
Arthur's TV Trouble written and illustrated by Marc Brown (Little, Brown, $14.95) A cautionary tale, low-key and witty, featuring a child ensnared in the clutches of a television commercial. Should be required reading at the FCC.
The Kingfisher Book of the Ancient World by Hazel Mary Martell [Dr. Paul Bahn, consultant] (Kingfisher, $19.95) It's incredible that an outlay of two ten-dollar bills can make this tome your own: global time travel from the Ice Age to the fall of Rome, lavishly illustrated and studded with intriguing lore from archaeology, anthropology, history.
Sandbox Scientist: Real Science Activities for Little Kids by Michael E. Ross, illustrated by Mary Anne Lloyd (Chicago Review Press, $12.95) From your kitchen drawers to shelves of the five-and-dime, the simplest materials can make for untrammeled fun. The boredom blues will be vanquished for children ages 2 to 8 or more, and parents.
Two Lands, One Heart: An American Boy's Journey to His Mother's Vietnam by Jeremy Schmidt and Ted Wood, photographs by Ted Wood (Walker, $15.95) In 1975, during the chaos of the Vietnam War's final chapter, 10-year-old Phit and two siblings became separated from their parents. The children made it to America. For 16 years, Phit tried to locate her family; in 1991 she succeeded. She returned home with her 7-year-old son in an odyssey recorded in this account of an extraordinary reunion.
Mother Jones: One Woman's Fight for Labor by Betsy Harvey Kraft (Clarion, $16.95) A magnificent biography tracing the career of the legendary union organizer who became known as the "miners' angel."
Aani and the Tree Huggers by Jeannine Atkins, illustrated by Venantius J. Pinto (Lee & Low, $14.95) A testament to heroism, based on events in northern India in the 1970s. When cutting crews came to slash the forests, women and girls faced down the developers and halted the destruction. More books of this caliber might help save the planet.
Mendel's Ladder by Mark Karlins, illustrated by Elaine Greenstein (Simon & Schuster, $15) Magic straight out of Flatbush. When a drought persists, a resourceful boy climbs into the clouds, determined to get to the heart of the matter. Sprint to your bookstore for this one.
Yanomami: People of the Amazon by David M. Schwartz, photographs by Victor Englebert (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, $16) Into the reaches of the rain forest, the writer-photographer team journeyed to create a masterpiece: a spellbinding chronicle of a day in the life of a village, among a handful of the 20,000 remaining Yanomami. With an appendix featuring things kids can do to help indigenous peoples maintain their precarious hold on survival. Future anthropologists will be sleeping with this book under their pillows.
Frederick Douglass: The Last Day of Slavery by William Miller, illustrated by Cedric Lucas (Lee & Low, $14.95) This powerful account of the legendary activist's years in the Maryland fields, based on Douglass' monumental autobiography, shines with a bravery beyond imagining. The author and the illustrator have created an essential introduction to one of this country's greatest heroes.
Some Fine Grampa! by Alan Arkin, illustrated by Dirk Zimmer (HarperCollins, $14.95) Skywriting bees and polar bears who can knit one swell muffler: Grampa takes it all in stride and so should you. At once droll and discerning, an irresistible romp from the actor-author, who is some funny guy.
If You Should Hear A Honey Guide by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Houghton Mifflin, $14.95) A mesmerizing armchair journey to East Africa and the bush country habitat of the honey guide, a small brown bird, its numbers diminishing, that feeds on wild honeycomb. Riveting ornithology with breathtaking images, the outstanding natural history title for 1995.
Off to School by Gwendolyn Battle-Lavert, illustrated by Gershom Griffith (Holiday House, $15.95) Yearning to cross into that "room full of learning" up the hill, a sharecropper's daughter waits for the harvest to come in and her chores to end, so that her year in the classroom might begin. An affecting portrait of a child pursuing her dreams.
Helen and the Hudson Hornet by Nancy Hope Wilson, illustrated by Mary O'Keefe Young (Macmillan, $15) Resplendent as a "huge, soaring ship," a vintage roadster is restored to glory, transporting a 6-year-old girl to the joy ride of her dreams. The text penetrates with acumen to the heart of a child.
When I Go Camping with Grandma by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Allen Garns (BridgeWater, $14.95) Deep into the woods, with a grandmother who "sings to scare away the bears." Marshmallows to moonlight, the next best thing to a real overnight in the wild. They let the fish off the hook, too.
Calling the Doves / El canto de las palomas by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Elly Simmons (Children's Book Press, $14.95) An evocation of the accomplished poet's migrant-worker childhood on the California backroads, where he slept in a tent under the stars, his father summoned doves and his mother recited verse at dinner.
No Dear, Not Here by Jean Davies Okimoto, illustrated by Celeste Henriquez (Sasquatch Books, $14.95) In search of the perfect refuge, a pair of marbled murrelets (endangered Pacific Northwest seabirds) scout sites from Vancouver to Portland. At last they settle in an old-growth fir, the only site where murrelets will raise their young.
In a Circle Long Ago: A Treasury of Native Lore from North America by Nancy Van Laan, illustrated by Lisa Desimini (Knopf, $20) From how the beaver stole fire to the tale of two mice: legends, songs, poems, encompassing more than 20 tribal traditions, from Inuit and Lenape to Nez Perce and Pueblo.
The Gift of a Traveler by Wendy Matthews, illustrated by Robert Van Nutt (BridgeWater, $14.95) That rare commodity, a Christmas tale original and timeless. In turn-of-the-century Romania, a wolf offers a paw in friendship, and gypsies traffic in wishes come true.
Arthur: High King of Britain by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman (Harcourt Brace, $19.95) Tales "beyond the reach of time," in a soaring rendition of the epic story cycle.
On the Trail With Miss Pace by Sharon Phillips Denslow, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Simon & Schuster, $15) A spunky schoolmarm's vacation on a dude ranch, saddled with two students who "stick to her like burrs." Despite her sidekicks, Miss Pace manages to find true love in a witty, winning send-up of one teacher's hard-won holiday.
Lucy's Summer by Donald Hall, illustrated by Michael McCurdy (Harcourt Brace, $15) The distinguished poet's evocation of one season in his own mother's childhood: the year is 1910, when New Hampshire farm dwellers shelled peas, picnicked in the sun and a girl made the journey to faraway Boston.
Kate Shelley: Bound for Legend by Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Max Ginsburg (Dial, $14.99) On the night of a terrible deluge in 1881, a 15-year-old Iowa farmgirl crossed the slippery tracks of a 700-foot railroad bridge to guide a rescue party to the site of a train wreck. This re-creation of her exploits is based on contemporary accounts.
Mrs. Donald's Dog Bun and His Home Away from Home by William Maxwell, illustrated by James Stevenson (Knopf, $16) Indulging a predilection for blue shutters and overstuffed furniture, a "partly Boston bull, partly sheepdog, and partly Labrador" outfits his dream house, only to find that classy digs have their drawbacks. Uproarious for children; sophisticated and witty for their parents.
Any Bear Can Wear Glasses: The Spectacled Bear & Other Curious Creatures by Matthew and Thomas Long, illustrated by Sylvia Long (Chronicle, $14.95) Flying foxes to frilled lizards, a lively, informative bestiary, complete with habitat map and glossary. Junior naturalists will be taking their flashlights to bed to pore over this title.
Monster Beach by Betty Paraskevas, illustrated by Michael Paraskevas (Harcourt Brace, $15) It's not what you think: no scary apparitions here but, instead, a benevolent beastie who lives for rescue missions on the high seas. Certain to become a perennial favorite.
The Feather-Bed Journey by Paula Kurzband Feder, illustrated by Stacey Schuett (Albert Whitman, $15.95) One Hanukkah night, a girl and her mother, now safe in America, retrieve an heirloom. A memorable tale of loss and of some Poles who saved Jewish children.
Everglades by Jean Craighead George, illustrated by Wendell Minor (HarperCollins, $14.95) Roseate spoonbills to panthers, an excursion into a threatened world of unearthly beauties, with paintings from a master.
The Storm by Marc Harshman, illustrated by Mark Mohr (Cobblehill, $14.99) "The blackness, the roaring wind, the funnel cloud": set on an Indiana farm, a heart-stopping account of the moment a tornado hits-and of the boy who saves his family's horses.
The Butterfly Seeds written and illustrated by Mary Watson (Tambourine, $16) When a British boy bound for America in 1908 bids farewell to his grandfather, the old man presses a packet of seeds into the youngster's hands. A tale of ties across time and distance, signified by a window-box garden flourishing on a tenement ledge.
Heroes by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee (Lee & Low, $14.95) More than 50,000 Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent served in World War II. Their unsung valor is the shining filament running through this tale of a Japanese-American boy who confronts his taunting playmates when they brand him "the enemy."
Harry's Stormy Night by Una Leavy, illustrated by Peter Utton (McElderry, $16) With the wind "whistling around chimneys, ripping through branches," a little boy sings his restive baby brother to sleep. A perfect bedtime book.
Josiah True and the Artmaker by Amy Littlesugar, illustrated by Barbara Garrison (Simon & Schuster, $15) A window on early 19th-century America and a rumination on a portraitist's capacity to penetrate our inner selves, this is a book aspiring artists may remember all their lives. The images possess the delicacy and heft of a well-worn quilt.
A Sweet, Sweet Basket by Margie Willis Clary, illustrated by Dennis L. Brown (Sandlapper Publishing, $15.95) Plaiting sweetgrass, pine needles and palmetto leaf strips, an artisan teaches her grandchildren how to weave baskets-and to preserve a South Carolina lowlands craft tradition that can be "traced back to Africa."
Night in the Barn by Faye Gibbons, illustrated by Erick Ingraham (Morrow, $15) Nestled in the hay, keeping shadows at bay, four boys bed down for a sleepover on an autumn night "darker than dark." Spooky as a swooping owl and sweetly reassuring.
Good Night, Sleep Tight by Penelope Lively, illustrated by Adriano Gon (Candlewick, $13.95) For all children who tumble into bed in the company of a stuffed-animal menagerie: this book will help everyone settle in for sweet dreams.