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Astrid Lindgren and the legacy of reading

The birthday of the great Swedish children’s writer, Astrid Lindgren, is being celebrated this month.  As we continue to seek ways to motivate and deepen reading habits among children and adults in South Africa, this offers us a moment to consider what we might learn from a life dedicated to advocating for human rights and writing for children.

Lindgren was extraordinarily prolific and is known around the world, with about 150 million of her books being sold in translation in almost 100 languages. An outspoken champion for empowerment and freedom, and against prejudice and oppression, she was one of the few critics in Sweden to speak out against Hitler and Nazism during World War 2. Her children’s stories arose from her fierce sense of justice and deep respect for children. She is quoted as saying in 1959, “Mankind is preoccupied with two great things: death and love; these catch the interest of all ages. You shouldn’t scare children to the point of anxiety, but just like adults they need to be moved by art.”

Lindgren’s childhood was full of play and stories; she expressed it thus: “And we played and played and played. It’s a wonder we didn’t play ourselves to death!” Play and stories are two sides of the same coin in childhood and remembering the first fairytale she heard from her grandmother, Lindgren reminisced, “And we were sitting there on the floor, my brother and I, listening to her  reading this wondrous story about ‘the giant Bam-Bam and Viribunda, the fairy’. Well! That I didn’t die on the spot! In that instant a hunger to read was born in me, and with the impatience of a four year-old, I stared at those strange black squiggles which Edit could interpret, but I couldn’t. As if by some curious magic, the whole kitchen could suddenly be filled with fairies, giants and goblins.”

Lindgren’s books cover big themes like courage and bravery. The most famous is Pippi Longstocking, which was first published in 1945 and today is available in 70 languages. Pippi has enchanted children around the world, offering adventures and support to gather their inner resources and feel brave in the face of adversity. Pippi’s life is challenging – her mother is dead, her father is lost at sea, and she lives alone. But she looks after herself and she doesn’t care what others think of her.  A loyal and loving friend, the strongest girl in the world, funny and clever, she constantly does wild and rebellious things. Pippi even walks backwards, saying “Well, we live in a free country, don’t we? Aren’t you allowed to walk however you want?”

When Lindgren died in 2002, the Swedish government initiated an annual international children’s literature award, The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, in memory of her life and work. This has served to ensure that her legacy continues to spread beyond the borders of Sweden. The award is deliberately substantial – the largest of its kind in the world.  This is a stance that recognises and encourages more stories of the quality and significance Lindgren wrote for children. It broadcasts clearly the paramount importance of creating and sharing with children across the world the kind of high quality literature that challenges children’s imaginations and nurtures their intellectual, social and psychological well-being.

It is Lindgren’s unremitting passion for children and understanding of how good stories help them thrive that we should take note of. There are many worthwhile and committed South African children’s literature and literacy organisations trying to ensure such experiences become common for children here, in a context where there is a paucity of literature in African languages. There is still so much to be done before we are able to enchant children across diverse settings into reading.

In South Africa, both passion and resources are urgently needed. Who in powerful positions cares enough about the future to invest wholeheartedly in this?

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