Pippi Longstocking and Me

Sophie Trott

Sophie Trott

Every month we invite our readers to pitch us articles on a theme revealed in our regular newsletter. Find out what our next theme is by subscribing to our newsletter below. This month’s theme was children’s books and we loved Sophie Trott’s pitch about how childhood favourite Pippi Longstocking requires a bit of live editing when reading aloud today…

When I was a child, Pippi Longstocking was already OLD. However, I strongly identified with the main character, a free-spirited, wild roaming, Swedish strong-girl with, like all the great heroines of children’s literature, no parents. I thought I could be her. No matter that I lived in a flat in London with two parents, and had no free roaming at all (there were too many cars and white dog poos to be allowed out alone).

So when Blue Peter announced that there were going to be open auditions to play the actual Pippi in a real-life movie, I imagined this was a shoe-in. I was tiny for my age, sallow-skinned, with a faint moustache and no hint of a single freckle. However, I was convinced the producers would see star quality and I would be transformed by the magic of cinema into a leggy, ginger, freckled, pink-skinned goddess of the screen. This was my chance. For some reason, my mum didn’t take me to the casting, and I never saw the resultant film. 

Now, with children of my own, I’ve been reading Pippi aloud – a new edition illustrated by Lauren Child. Although the language has been updated, I’m struck by how often I’m confronted with troubling sexism, racism, and exoticizing of other cultures. That’s not to say I don’t still love Pippi. I do. I love her independence: sleeping with her feet on the pillow; her logic to making biscuits by rolling the dough out on the floor (there’s more room); her stealthy kindness by hiding trinkets for her friends to find; and her ability to turn sticky situations around. In one story she makes two men who’ve come to burgle her learn to polka before sending them on their way with gold coins. Her free-thinking and sense of fun reveals the idiocy of the adults around her.

So what to do about her pal Annika who, unlike her brother Tommy, is fearful and wants to keep her dress clean; Pippi excusing her lying by saying she’s spent too much time in the Congo, where everybody lies; and her absent father being King of ‘the natives’ – whoever they are? Almost every time Pippi speaks of her past she comes out with another wildly improbable generalisation about cultures other than her own: they walk backwards in Egypt and on their hands in India; Chinese people grow enormous yellow ears that flap like sails when they run. I find myself back-peddling, omitting sections, improvising others, and switching the character’s genders around in an attempt to navigate it.

I could strike through passages, or cull Pippi from the shelf, in the same way as Enid Blyton was banned from my childhood. But where I have no time for Blyton, and think she had no interest in changing the status quo, my soft spot for Lindgren lies in her attempt to champion children’s rights and make the world a better place. So I’m going to keep live editing, and focusing on the positives of a narrative in which a girl who can’t read shines a light on the hypocrisy of the adult world, and is genuinely funny.

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