Why does Astrid Lindgren set Sweden apart from the rest of the world?
When thinking about the costs of moving to Scandinavia, one thing I really didn't think I'd miss are the kids books, nursery rhymes and baby songs from the UK. Yes, even the really annoying English babysongs like Wind the Bobbin Up (nobody under 80 knows wtf a bobbin is, so let's stop pretending).
We got a couple of English books out of the local library in Stockholm (which is gigantic compared to the libraries with 5 books nobody wants to read you find in London). But by-and-large, I've been keen to get more into the local Nordic 'child literature' as it's called here (to make it sound fancier).
Swedes take their kid books very seriously. At the centre of the world of Nordic kid literature is Astrid Lindgren and her Pippi Longstockings stories. Then follows the dozens of other characters and worlds that sprang from Lindgren’s pen, and then further culturally iconic authors that followed in her footsteps to make a unique brand of stories for Nordic kids.
So far, I’ve been warmed, shocked and confused by the stories that Nordics read their kids. What is acceptable and even expected in children’s books here in Sweden is very different from what we get in the English speaking world, and it might even play out into how they kids see the world.
Being cheeky is good
I read a couple of the reactions to Lindgren’s Pippi character when the book was first published over 7 decades go. It sounded very much like something that tabloids in the UK might print today if similar books with such a wide reach were published. In sum: these books will encourage delinquency in our children, get them to break all the rules and grow to become horrible and anti-social adults.
Why so harsh? Because Pippi is the consummate rebel child. She refuses to live by the rules others set, from sleeping with her feet on the pillow, to playing up in school lessons, to putting rude people (even adults) in trees to give them a time-out. Pippi even lives without an adult around, with her monkey and horse (with a surprisingly negligent pirate farther who sends her treasure every now and again). She is super-strong, and very self-reliant.
Then there’s siblings Emil and Ida of Lönneberga, more Astrid Lindgren characters. The archetypal cheeky monkies (or cheeky trolls for Scandinavians), Emil goes out of his way to turn the rules of the adults in his village upside down, and Ida is only too happy to join in the antics. In many ways, Ida and Emil are actually very much like normal kids of their age (well, like Little Bear when he gets a bit bigger anyway), causing nuisance to the adult-world just by doing their thing. From painting Ida’s face so she looks like she’s got typhoid, to Emil shocking the village by hoisting Ida up the flag-poll on the village festival so she can get a better view.
Astrid Lindgren started something in Swedish kid books. The list of characters by other classic authors who are cheeky and like breaking rules is endless. And the grown-ups in the books often encourage the cheekyness!
The Wild Baby is a great rhyming series of, well, just what it says, a crazy little tot who (realistically) constantly stresses his poor single-mum out by getting lost or demanding the impossible.
Alfons is probably my favourite. It's about a cheeky little boy who’s dad (main carer) is so use to Alfons ignoring the rules that in one book Pappa gets worried that his son keeps on doing what he’s told! Alfons stops reading comics by torchlight after bedtime, cleans-up after dinner without being asked and washes his hands properly... so naturally Pappa gets worried (I don't think I'm alone by feeling Afons' dad might be looking a gift horse on the mouth).
That’s right, in a national favourite, the main problem of the children’s story is that the kid is suddenly not being cheeky, so there must be something wrong! The Swedish solution? Pappa works out that Alfons is worried about starting a new school so he reassures his son. This is so effective, that the next day Alfons starts playing up again. But his dad’s happy because he’s ‘back to his normal cheeky self’. I’m certain such a book would have been banned from my school (and my home growing up for that matter too).
If the main character in a Swedish small kids’ book isn’t cheeky, they’re happy and fancy free. It’s a pretty staple part of growing up Scandinavian. You’re surrounded by role-models who break social conventions for a bit of fun.
This sort of stuff is fringe in the English-speaking world, and before someone says ‘I think I remember Pippi Longstockings in English’, note that these books are far more important in Swedish childhood than anything we have in the English speaking world. The closest in importance we get are things like The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe, some classic Disney movies, Postman Pat and Winnie the Poo. Might even add the likes of Peppa Pig to that one day! Maybe one day Julia Donaldson fingers crossed?
But these are not as wide-reaching in the English-speaking world as these books are in Sweden, and none of them encourage kids to do really cheeky things. In fact, by-and-large, they encourage kids to be fairly tame (especially if they’re girls).
The message is clear in the books I read growing up: stick to the rules, and if you break them, you’ll get your comeuppance. Nordic children’s books tell a different story: it’s ok to bend the rules and be a little cheeky sometimes. How to the adults react when kids a cheeky here in Stockholm?: more often than you’d expect, they just laugh.
This simply would not have been possible when I was growing up. Cheeky was a nuisance and naughty, naughty was bad, and bad meant getting told off. Not praised with some laughter.
Is it causing social breakdown?
But haven’t the Nordics got something really wrong here? It certainly shocked me when I started reading kids’ books that seemed to encourage children to break rules. There’s even an odd glamourising of robbers, from medieval Ronja the robber’s daughter to the three thieves Kaspa, Jasper and Jonathan.
I honestly had to think twice before reading these stories to Little Bear because my instincts to only show him books that encourage him to follow rules are really deep. But what are we afraid will happen? We’re afraid that our kids will copy the rebels in the books and stop following our rules. Maybe we’re afraid that they’ll grow up not respecting any rules, turn into delinquents and make themselves and others suffer in the process.
Something Nordic parents often do far less than us Brits is worry about how a parent's actions today will sculpt the behaviours of their children when they become adults. Do we need to worry about the impact of everything we do now on their adult life, as long as we’re providing them with love and security?
“Just give kids love, more love, and then some more love, and common kindness will come by itself”
Despite having rebellious rule-breakers at the heart of their child-literature, Swedish kids strike me as very tame to a lot of their British peers. Are the Nordic countries known for higher levels of delinquency? No, in fact, quite the opposite. They have the lowest levels of youth crime and the highest levels of well-adjusted young people and adults the world over. So Lindgren clearly never caused the damage some feared when she first penned Pippi.
In fact when we look at the modern workplace, one of the skills employers are increasingly looking for is the ability to ‘disrupt’. Sounds bad, but they just mean to shake the old way of doing things up and trying something new. So we need more Pippis and Emils in the workplace! They are in fact the ideal role-models for tomorrow’s economy!
Inherently good little rebels
But not all rules are challenged in Nordic child literature. The important ones hold firm and are presented as the inner personality traits of the heroes. To rebel and test the rules is encouraged in Nordic kid literature. But one thing is clear in all the books: intentions are important, and should always be good.
Kasper, Jasper and Jonathan 'only stole things they needed', and in the end reformed with one turning into the town baker. Ronja helped end the tribal feud between two bands of thieves squatting on either side of a castle that was broken in half (seriously must have been on crack when coming up with this, amazing). And most importantly, Pippi, Emil, Ida and the dozens of other cheeky characters, show that they're really good people.
The prankster Emil is actually a little angel in many ways. Pippi is probably more known outside of Sweden for her emotional resilience and kindness than for breaking all the rules.
They are always trying to help other people, and never intend to cause harm. The mean characters can get their comeuppance, but not because they were ‘naughty’, but because they were mean. The real messages that Nordic kids are getting from this?: it’s ok to challenge the rules a bit, but always try to do the right thing and always care about other people.
Once I move past the weirdness of why a feud between castle-squatting bandits is a good setting for a children’s story, I think I’m going to grow to like the Nordic approach to books for kids.
Moving from London to Stockholm, this blog is about learning to become a Nordic Dad as I settle Little Bear into his new home
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