Astrid talks about herself
Let’s begin with my life, because you usually ask about it. We’ll take it from the beginning – in November 1907 when I was born in an old red house surrounded by apple trees. I was child number two to the farmer Samuel August Ericsson and his wife Hanna, née Jonsson. The farm where we lived was called Näs. It still is. It is near a small town in Småland called Vimmerby. Näs has been a rectory since 1411 and still is, although my father was not a priest. He leased Näs, like his father, and now his son does the same.
Two more children were born in that red house, which, as I have said was a rectory and was later leased out. All in all, there were four of us children: Gunner, Astrid, Stain and Ignored. We enjoyed a happy life at Näs, more or less like the children in the Bullerby books. We went to school in Vimmerby. It was so close that it took us only a quarter of an hour to get there. But just like the Bullerby children, we eventually grew up and it was time to see the world. I went to Stockholm, where I trained as a secretary, worked in an office, got married, and had two children. They were called Lars and Karin and they wanted me to tell them stories.
So I did. But at that stage I did not write any books. I thought about it but decided not to. Most people never make a conscious decision about whether or not to write books but I did.
At school they used to say: “You are bound to be a writer when you grow up” and at one occasion they teased me by calling me “Vimmerby’s Selma Lagerlöf” [a well-known Swedish Nobel Prize-winning author]. I think remarks of this kind scared me a bit. So, although I thought it might be quite fun to be a writer, I didn’t dare to write anything. But this is a question which is always cropping up – how did you become a writer? So although I’ve told the story many times, I’ll tell you how it all came about.
In 1941 my seven-year-old daughter was in bed with pneumonia. Every night, when I sat by her bed, she nagged me the way children do: “Please, mummy, tell me a story”. And one evening, although I was quite exhausted, I asked her: “What shall I talk about?” So she answered: “Tell me about Pippi Longstocking”. She made up the name in that very instant. I did not ask her who Pippi Longstocking was. I just started to tell her a story and because Pippi’s name was so strange, she developed into a strange girl. Right from the beginning Karin, and later her friends, showed a remarkable affection for Pippi. I had to tell the stories over and over again and this continued for many years.
On a snowy evening in March 1944 I was walking beside Vasa Park in central Stockholm; the pavements were icy and covered with fresh snow. I fell and hurt my foot quite badly and had to stay in bed for a while. To pass the time I decided to write down all the Pippi stories in shorthand. I’d been skilful stenographer ever since my days as a secretary and to this day this is how I still write the first draft of all my books.
In May 1944 Karin was about to celebrate her 10th birthday. An idea came to me – I would write out the stories properly and give her the manuscript as a birthday present. Later I decided to send a copy to a publisher. I didn’t think for a moment they’d publish it, but so what! At times I was quite shocked by Pippi’s behaviour, and I remember ending my letter to the publisher like this: “I’m sending you this manuscript in the hope that you will not call in the social services.” Yes, I did have two children, and how would they turn out with a mother who wrote such books like this?
As I expected the manuscript was returned to me, but while I was waiting for it, I was already busy writing a second book. I was discovering how much I enjoyed this craft of writing. The second book, “Britt-Mari Lightens her Heart” was written for girls. In 1944, the Rabén & Sjögren publishing house organised a competition for girls’ books. And something remarkable happened – I came second! I don’t think that I have never been happier than I was that late afternoon in the autumn of 1944 when I received the news that I had won a prize. The following year the same publishers arranged a competition for children’s books. So I entered the Pippi manuscript, somewhat revised, and this time won first prize.
From then on things kept happening. Pippi became a success, although some people were shocked about the book, believing that all the children who read the books would behave like Pippi. “No normal child devours a whole birthday cake at a party”, wrote one indignant observer. And it was true. But then, no normal child would lift a horse with a stretched arm either. However, if a child can lift a horse, she’d probably be able to eat a whole cake as well!
In 1946 Rabén & Sjögren organised a new competition for teenage detective novels. I entered with a book called “Master Detective Blomkvist” and managed to share first prize. And that was the last time I took part in any competitions. But of course I continued to write. There were almost 40 books as well as a number of picture books, as well as some plays and songs. I have also written several radio and television serials. During the period 1946-1970 I was in charge of the children’s book section at Rabén & Sjögren.
I have been a widow since 1952. My two children both married, but my son died during the summer of 1986. I have seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, Yes, all that sort of information you usually like to know about.
You ask me about prizes and honours, so here is a list of the most important ones and the order in which I received them.
On this page you’ll find the number of languages my books have been translated into. I ought to tell you that not all my books have been translated into the various languages that are listed, but between them one or other of them have all appeared in all the languages shown.
Some of your questions can be answered quite easily. But some of them are more difficult than others, such as: What are you trying to say with your books? What concepts are you trying to explore with Pippi Longstocking? How can one influence and educate children through children’s books? What should a good children’s book contain? And so on.
To all this I would only answer as follows: I have not tried to explain anything with Pippi or any other book. I am writing in order to amuse the child within myself and I hope that by doing so other children will have some fun too. As to what a good children’s book should be like, I don’t have an answer. I try to be “true” from an artistic point of view when I write, that’s the only guiding rule that I have. Somebody asked me: “Why don’t you ever write a book what it is like to be a child with divorced parents in Farsta?” [a district in the south of Stockholm]. On that subject I will just say: I can only write about what I know. I don’t know what it is like to grow up in Farsta with divorced parents. But there is probably a child walking around right now who will write about it one day.
For my part I know exactly how it is – or rather how it was – to be a country child in Småland, growing up in a small town. Most of my stories are written in one of these settings. The Bullerby children, Emil in Lönneberga, Rasmus and the Sunnanäng children all live right in the heart of the countryside. Pippi Longstocking, Master Detective Blomkvist, the children in Troublemaker Street and Madicken all live in small towns. It was only after spending 30 summers in the Stockholm archipelago that I first dared to set a book there, Vi på Saltkråkan, in which Karlsson on the Roof flies around Vasastan in central Stockholm. I know that miljoeronment well after living there for 60 years. Well, what about Mio my Mio, the Lionheart Brothers and Ronja? Do I know more about what it’s like in the Distant Land , Nangijala and the Mattis Forest, than I know about living in Farsta? Answer: Yes, I do. But I am not going to tell you how I know.
Are you inspired by your own children or your grandchildren? I am asked this question a lot and my answer is that there is no child that inspires me more than the child I once was. It is not necessary to have your own children in order to write children’s books. The only condition is that one was once a child oneself – and then try to remember what it was like.
Finally, I don’t consciously set out to educate or influence the children who read my books. The only thing I dare hope for is that my books may perhaps encourage a more human, life-enhancing and democratic outlook among my readers. But books that set out to be nothing more than a reading experience must be allowed to exist. I was once handed a note by a stranger which read: “Thank you for bringing some glitter into my gloomy childhood.” That’s enough for me. If I have been able to bring some sunshine into a single child’s life, then I am satisfied.
Rabén & Sjögren Bokförlag