Monday, May 21, 2012

Review: Pippi Longstocking

I loved this book as a child.  I never owned it, but have fond memories of trips to the library with my mom, encountering Astrid Lindgren’s children’s book and its sequels (Pippi Goes on Board and Pippi in the South Seas) for the first time.  As part of my current quest to discover and re-visit classics of children’s literature, I checked all three out from the library to see how they measured up to some of the other lovelies I’ve read recently (Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Daddy Long-Legs, and more).  Alas, it turns out that not all children’s books age with you terribly well.  I was terribly disappointed, and I plan to return the set of three without re-reading the sequels.

Though not everyone has read the books (translated from Swedish), the image of Pippi Longstocking is a famous one, with her carrot-colored hair in two tight braids sticking straight out from her head.  She lives alone in an old house, called Ville Villekulla, because her mother is dead and her father, a sea captain, disappeared in a storm.  By alone, I mean without human companionship – Pippi shares her house with a horse (unnamed) and a monkey (Mr. Nilsson).  Pippi is “indeed a remarkable child” (4).  She is stronger than a circus strong man, strong-willed, generous with her money and possessions, and fiercely independent.  She’s also a compulsive liar and kind of a brat. 

Pippi doesn’t know how to behave.  It’s understandable, with her lack of parental guidance, but the (mis)adventures I found so funny as a child now read only as irritating and bothersome.  I often found myself embarrassed on her behalf.  I wasn’t so bothered by antics within her own home – the time Pippi rolled out cookie dough on the floor; the time she dumped a kettle-full of water on the floor and skated around in it; the time she brought the horse (which normally lived outside on the porch) inside for her birthday party.  It was her interactions with society outside of her home that bothered me.  I realized that this was because Pippi was breaking, often quite flamboyantly and outrageously, the implicit social contract that governs interactions with one’s community. 

Take Pippi’s single experience with school.  She arrives late, smart-talks the teacher, disrupts the classroom, and distracts the other students.  The day doesn’t work out for Pippi, and so that’s the end of her education.  She doesn’t return.  And the time Pippi goes to the circus?  She constantly interrupts the performance, jumping straight into the ring and showing up the performers.  When Pippi attends a coffee party at her neighbors’ house, she eats all the food, constantly interrupts the adults’ conversation, and seems unable to recognize hints or instructions as to appropriate behavior.  At times, Pippi is irresponsible and dangerous – for example, Pippi fires off pistols in her kitchen, missing her friends and putting holes in the ceiling.  She lives in the moment, always seeking entertainment and adventure, with apparent disregard for the safety of those she leads.

Pippi doesn’t know any better, but she also refuses any help in learning how to obey societal expectations.  She leads policemen who attempt to put her into a children’s home on a merry chase before sending them away.  The book applauds her game of tag, but I was left wishing that Pippi was given some guiding influence, because she certainly doesn’t get any from her friends Tommy and Annika, who serve only as an audience for Pippi’s antics.  Pippi lives outside the rules, but she doesn’t seem to learn from her experiences, and I find that to be a really sad model for children.

I haven’t written as much as usual in this review, and I feel kind of bad about that.  I will conclude by asking this:  What makes a timeless children’s story?  For one to age with you, must there be morals and lessons for readers of all ages?  Why do some books, like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables remain beloved throughout one’s life, while others, like this one for me, are entertaining in childhood but not beyond?

Things I’m reading:
To Serve Them All My Days, R.F. Delderfield
A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne
Musicology and Difference, Ruth A. Solie, ed.
Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Jonathan Culler


  1. I loved Pippi Longstocking when I was young. My grandmother had a copy and I read it over and over, although I never read the sequels. Looking back, I can't quite figure out what I loved about it either, since Pippi-esque chaos has always stressed me out, and even when I was a kid naughty and disruptive behavior bothered me. Perhaps Pippi's lifestyle was so aggressively over the top that it fascinated me more than bothered me. I wonder what I'd make of it now.

  2. As a child you want to do all the things that are forbidden. As an adult you don't want to be around a child that does all the things that are forbidden. That must be the difference. Ha ha Pam

  3. This one didn't stick with me either. I just re-read it and was shattered that I no longer love it. I really can't say what the difference is. Maybe it's just that Pippi was a rebel when I was a kid, and now I wonder why no one entered her house and demanded to know where her father and mother had gone. I mean, it makes no sense...

    Anne and Jo March share traits that are warm and lasting -- while Pippi shares ways to break the law and cause mischief. It's just not the same treasure into adulthood.

  4. I find myself really intrigued that so many people I've talked to have had the same reaction to this book. Perhaps this is why it is not generally included on "best children's lit" lists, while Anne of Green Gables and Little Women always are. I wonder if any blogger has mused on what makes it possible for a children's book to be a true, enduring classic - if so, send a link my way; I'd love to read that!