There were other free and rowdy girls before Pippi Longstocking in the Swedish literary canon. A new doctoral thesis kills the myth of Astrid Lindgren as innovator of children’s books.

Pippi has always been seen as the first emancipated girl in Swedish literature, and her creator Astrid Lindgren is always pointed out as the one who created the first modern Swedish children’s book. But Pippi Långstrump (Pippi Longstocking), who first saw the light in 1945, is curiously similar to other, now forgotten girls in Swedish literature.

Eva Wahlström, Assistant Master at the University of Borås, began to read children’s books from the 1920’s and 1930’s when she realized that something was off: “My thesis shows that 1945 was not the breakthrough year for children’s books, and Astrid Lindgren was more of a traditionalist than an innovator,” she says.

So who are Pippi’s precursors then? Well, one of them is Bibi, created by Karin Michaëlis, another one is Ann-Mari, written by Ester Blenda Nordström. These girls are of the same age as Pippi and were up to similar mischief.

“Ann-Mari did worse things than both Pippi and Emil. She put honey in an old lady’s hair so that bees would stick to her,” Wahlström explains, and says she is sure Astrid Lindgren knew about both girls – there are too many similarities for her not to have read about them. Just as Pippi, Bibi and Ann-Mari have no mothers. “It’s symptomatic,” continues Wahlström. “In order to create these free and mischievous girls, the author has to kill off the mother, who would have otherwise put a stop to their bad behavior.” Wahlström adds that she is not about to take Astrid Lindgren down from her pedestal, but she also wants to show that she was not as original, and did not create her beloved characters in a vacuum.

Abstract from Wahlström's dissertation: Free Girls Before Pippi. Ester Blenda Nordström and Karin Michaëlis: Astrid Lindgren’s predecessors (PDF format, in English)