One of four children born to a farmer and his wife, Lindgren spent her childhood in Vimmerby, Sweden, at a farm called Naas. The surrounding area of Småland became the setting for many of her books. The people she encountered as a young girl and the steady flow of hired farm workers passing through her rural community provided a wealth of inspiration for her later writing. "It was fun and it was instructive for a child to grow up, as I did, with people of varying habits and types and ages," Lindgren wrote in her memoir, Samuel August fraan Sevedstorp och Hanna i Hult. "Without their knowing it and without my knowing it myself, I learned something from them about the conditions of life and how complicated it can be to be a human being. I learned other things as well, for these were outspoken people who did not keep anything back just because children happened to be around. And we were around, my brother and sisters and I, for we had to bring them coffee while they were working in the fields. That is what I remember best--the coffee breaks, when they were all gathered, sitting there at the edge of a ditch, drinking coffee, dunking their rye-bread sandwiches, and exchanging thoughts about this and that."
Lindgren described how she started writing in Astrid Lindgren Tells about Herself. In 1926, then a young woman, she moved to the city of Stockholm and began working as a secretary in an office. A few years later she married Sture Lindgren and soon had two children of her own. Her family became an enthusiastic audience for the imaginative stories she recalled from her own childhood. In 1941, her then seven-year-old daughter Karin was sick in bed with pneumonia. She insisted that her mother entertain her with a story. "Tell me about Pippi Longstocking," she asked, making up the name on the spot. The character her mother created that day became the subject of numerous stories for Karin and her playmates in the months to come. It would be a few years, however, before "Pippi" would find her way into a published book. Lindgren recalled, "I didn't write any books, no, because I had very early decided that I wouldn't. Most of the people who never write books probably don't make up their minds not to do so, but for me, it was in fact a decision. When I was going to school I was always hearing people say, 'You'll probably be a writer when you grow up.' I think that scared me. I didn't dare try, even though somewhere deep inside I probably thought it would be fun to write."
Much as the name "Pippi Longstocking" had been a result of circumstance, so too was the series of events that eventually led Lindgren to change her mind and write her stories down on paper. In March of 1944, while out for a walk, she slipped on a patch of snow-covered ice and fell, spraining her ankle. Spending two weeks in bed recovering from her injury, Lindgren began to take down the "Pippi" stories in shorthand. In May she presented Karin with the completed manuscript for her daughter's tenth birthday. Lindgren also decided to send a copy of Pippi Longstocking to a publisher for consideration. The manuscript was rejected, but in the meantime Lindgren wrote another book and sent it to the publishing house of Rabén & Sjögren as an entry in their annual prize contest for girls' books. She won second prize in the competition. The following year she entered Pippi Longstocking, receiving first prize.
"Well, one thing followed another," Lindgren recounted. "Pippi became a success, even if there were some who were shocked over the book and thought that now children would go around behaving like Pippi. 'No normal child eats up a whole cake at a coffee-party,' wrote one indignant reader. And in fact it's true. No normal child lifts a horse straight up in the air either. But if you're one of those who can, then you're also the type who can pack away a whole cake."
Pippi Longstocking is a "character" in every sense of the word--a nine-year-old dynamo sporting unruly red braids that jut out on either side of her head. She possesses an unusual physical strength giving her a vaguely magical quality. Living alone--her father is a ship's captain out to sea, and her mother is "an angel in heaven"--with enough gold coins hidden in her kitchen to take care of her material needs, she is untidy, freethinking, full of contempt for authority, a teller of tall tales, and yet loyal to her friends in the extreme. Happy and cheerful in countenance, she manages to avoid all responsibility except the care of her pets, a horse and a monkey.
From the moment Pippi Longstocking was first introduced in Sweden, the book became resoundingly popular with children. Pippi's independence from adult supervision--the fact that she lives alone, does not go to school, and ignores such social conventions as table-manners and codes of polite behavior--made her very popular with children who led lives structured by such conventions. Mary Orvig in Horn Book wrote, "Pippi Longstocking is a prime example of the anti-authoritarian book. . . . Pippi stands for every child's dream of doing exactly what he or she wants to (regardless of any prohibitions), or feeling his or her strength and ability, and of enjoying himself or herself every minute. The book can be described as a children's safety valve against the pressure of authority and daily life: This is the secret of its incredible success." Margalit Fox in the New York Times Book Review noted that "the sheer subversive quality of the books, whose brazen young heroine does exactly as she pleases, made them unusual for juvenile literature."
Lindgren also had an explanation for Pippi's continuing popularity: "Bertrand Russell has written that a child dreams about power as grownups dream sexual wish dreams," she told Miriam Berkley in Publishers Weekly. "This is a child who has power. That is wonderful, for children to think, 'Oh, if I were like Pippi! I could say to Father, "You don't do that!"'. . . . She has power, but she never misuses that power, which I think is the most splendid thing, and the most difficult."
Most reviews of Lindgren's writing have been in the context of escapist fiction for children. However, the folkloric aspects of the character "Pippi"--immortality and incredible physical strength are two examples--have led some critics to view the Pippi books, including Pippi Longstocking, Pippi in the South Seas, and Pippi Goes on Board, in the more complex framework of "Utopian" literature. Nancy Huse included Lindgren in a discussion of contemporary fantasy writers in The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature, suggesting that the positioning of such an extraordinary character as Pippi in otherwise normal circumstances was Lindgren's attempt to "advocate children's liberation."
Lindgren viewed her writing in a simpler light, commenting to Jonathan Cott in the New Yorker: "I don't write books for children. I write books for the child I am myself. I write about things that are dear to me--trees and houses and nature--just to please myself." Metcalf noted that although Lindgren wrote for herself, her ability to vividly recreate childhood memories appealed to a wide audience: "When she wrote, Lindgren said repeatedly, she wrote for the child within--an approach to the art of writing that many children's authors share. Yet, her ability to remember vividly and in great detail what childhood was like and what her preferences and desires were at various ages make her books especially engaging. Her books show that she never lost touch with the smells, sights, sounds, and feelings she experienced as a girl. Indeed, her writing reflects the intensity and freshness with which only a child can perceive the world. Lindgren combined her ability for vivid detail with a talent for storytelling that she likely inherited from her father. The Protestant work ethic she imbibed at home harnessed her boundless curiosity and desire for experimentation and enabled her later to try many different genres and to develop her own style. Her compassion for those in need, coupled with the courage to speak up for them, also marks a basic element in her writing. Lindgren wrote not what fashion or fad dictated--nor what publishers demanded--but what her inner sense of urgency compelled her to express."
Lindgren's writings were influenced to a great extent by the fairy tales she listened to as a child. Her first exposure to reading was through such stories: "This girl Edith--blessed be she now and forever--read to me the fairy tale about the giant Bam-Bam and the fairy Viribunda, and thus set my childish soul moving in a direction that it has not yet completely ceased to follow," she wrote in her memoirs. "The miracle occurred in the kitchen of a poor farmhand, and from that day forth there was no other kitchen in the world." Lindgren's affection for the stories from her childhood inspired the works Sunnanäng and Nils Karlsson-Pyssling,both collections of fairy tales. "[Lindgren's fairy] stories have a melodious quality of their own. . . . The combination of an amazing plausibility in depicting the labyrinths of fantasy, a tenderness untrammeled by any vestige of sentimentality, and the wisdom by which the mental world of children is recreated makes these stories quite unforgettable," commented Orvig. "Most of them describe how lonely and sick children create a world of their own, which transcends the dreariness of their surroundings and enriches their lives. Astrid Lindgren frequently oscillates between black and pink. The gloomier aspect is particularly apparent in Sunnanäng, four fairy tales about Swedish poverty in the nineteenth century--full of poetry and compassionate melancholy." Kerstin Auraldsson suggested in Bookbirdthat "The mingling of melancholy and childish happiness gives [Lindgren's] books that magic attraction we all know."
By contrast, Lindgren's "Bullerbyn" series--published in the United States as Children of Noisy Village and Happy Times in Noisy Village--are full of "the exciting ordinariness of everyday,"according to Pamela March in the Christian Science Monitor. With nine-year-old Lisa serving as narrator for a collection of stories about the goings-on in a small Swedish farm community, Lindgren paints a picture reminiscent of her own childhood at Naas with subtle strokes. The "Emil"books, including Emil in the Soup Tureen, Emil's Pranks, and Emil and Piggy Beast, are Lindgren's personal favorites from among her own writings. She told Berkley, "[They preserve] a time and a milieu that doesn't exist anymore, but that every Swede knows about. When my father was a little boy, he was like Emil." Quick-minded, mischievous, but also well-meaning, five-year-old Emil disrupts the routines of rural life in humorous fashion in this collection of stories also set in the countryside of Lindgren's youth.
Lindgren grew to be a literary figure of such stature and popularity in Europe that in 1987, on the occasion of her eightieth birthday, Sweden honored her with a series of forty-nine commemorative stamps--designed by illustrators Bjorn Berg, Ilon Wikland, Ingrid Vang Nyman, and Eva Billow--depicting the most popular of her fictional characters. The West German school system also demonstrated its appreciation for the writings of Lindgren by proclaiming 1987 as "official Astrid Lindgren Year."
In addition to her writing career, Lindgren achieved prominence through her outspoken concerns in the political arena. "In the 1970's," Fox related, "she stepped into public life to protest Sweden's income tax laws, which sent self-employed artists like Mrs. Lindgren and the director Ingmar Bjoorn Bergman reeling under a staggering tax burden. A lifelong supporter of the ruling Social Democratic Party, Mrs. Lindgren published a caustic newspaper satire before the 1976 election in which she calculated that, because of competing local and federal taxes, her income was taxed at an annual rate of 102 percent. The Social Democrats, in power for more than 40 years, were defeated, and tax cuts followed, events Mrs. Lindgren was sometimes credited with bringing about."
In 1988, through repeatedly publishing letters in Sweden's major newspaper, Lindgren almost single-handedly lobbied an animal rights bill into law. Dubbed "Lex Astrid" by Sweden's Prime Minister, the new legislation ensured that cattle, pigs, and chickens be given natural grazing rights, and that the use of drugs and hormones be eliminated except in cases of medical necessity. In March of 1989, Lindgren was presented with the Albert Schweitzer Award by the Animal Welfare Fund for her victories in her native country on behalf of the farm animals she had loved since childhood.
Lindgren reflected on writing for children in her acceptance speech for the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the text of which was published in Bookbird: "It is useless to make a conscious effort to try and recall how things were. You have to relive your own childhood and rememberwith your very soul what the world looked like." She continued, "I write for one child only; a child who is sometimes six, sometimes eight, and sometimes eleven years old. And yet it's always the same child. . . . she was a girl and she lived on a farm in Sweden many years ago; it was during the Horse Age when it was so wonderful to be a child."
"Memory--it holds unknown sleeping treasures: fragrances and flavors, sights and sounds of childhood past!" Lindgren wrote in her memoir. "I can still see and smell and remember the bliss of that rosebush in the pasture, the one that showed me for the first time what beauty means. I can still hear the chirping of the land rail in the rye fields on a summer evening, and the hooting of the owls in the owl tree in the nights of spring. I still know exactly how it feels to enter a warm cow barn from biting cold and snow. I know how the tongue of a calf feels against a hand, and how rabbits smell. . . . and how milk sounds when it strikes the bottom of a bucket, and the feel of small chicken feet when one holds a newly hatched chick. Those may not be extraordinary things to remember. The extraordinary thing . . . is the intensity of these experiences when we were new here on earth."
Throughout her prolific career, Lindgren never veered from her original inspiration. "Children work miracles when they read," she said in her acceptance speech. "They take our poor sentences and words and give them a life which in themselves they do not have. The author alone does not create all the mystical essence contained within the pages of a book. The reader must help. But the author of books for adults has no willing little helpers at his disposal as we have. His readers do not work miracles. It is the child and only the child who has the imagination to build a fairy castle if you provide him with a few small bricks."
"All great things that have happened in the world, happened first of all in someone's imagination, and the aspect of the world of tomorrow depends largely on the extent of the power of imagination in those who are just now learning to read," said Lindgren. "This is why children must have books, and why there must be people . . . who really care what kind of books are put into the children's hands."
Metcalf concluded: "Throughout her long life Astrid Lindgren displayed the agility, energy, curiosity, wit, courage, and caring attitude that imbued her fictional heroes and heroines. She remained physically active until her death on 28 January 2002, at the age of ninety-four. In life and in art Lindgren entertained, inspired, and consoled generations of readers, influenced changes in Swedish laws, and--not least of all--hastened a reexamination of the purpose of literature in children's lives."
From: "Astrid (Ericsson) Lindgren." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2004.