I was halfway through Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking when I decided that I didn’t particularly want to re-read it anymore.
Pippi, first published in Swedish in 1945, is the story of an irrepressible redheaded girl. She lives in a house by herself with a pet horse, a monkey named Mr. Nilsson, and a suitcase full of gold coins. She’s also very, very strong, able to lift her horse with one hand and thwart robbers with the other. She doesn’t go to school, she drinks coffee, and she sleeps with her feet on her pillow. Her father is a former pirate and is the king of a South Pacific island—described as a cannibal island.
Pippi lives a child’s dream of disorder. The adults in the village she lives in despair of her. The one time she goes to school, she riles up the children, shows she can’t do math, and tells wild tales about her time abroad. In another chapter, the centerpiece is a tall tale she recounts about a man named Hai Shang from Shanghai. “His ears were so big he could use them for a cape. When it rained, he just crawled under his ears and was as warm and snug as you please.”
The story is so clearly unrealistic that the little girl and Pippi’s friends doubt its veracity. Pippi continues to elaborate and weave her tale. And just when the children start being convinced, Pippi says of her story, “You must know that’s a lie. You mustn’t let people fool you so easily.”
Pippi is a fabulist within her own unrealistic story. The grown-ups in the novel are the ones who are confused and stick to seemingly useless rules. It’s supposed to be fun and absurd, and yet I find that I can’t like it. Because even topsy-turvy worlds have rules, and within the universe of Pippi, some of the tall tales about the cultures Pippi has supposedly encountered turn out to be true—Pippi’s father is the white king of an island of darker-skinned people, for instance. There’s a whole sequel about it called Pippi in the South Seas. The people whom Pippi has encountered on her travels end up as merely props to the chaos she insists on. Within the gleeful disorder of Pippi Longstocking lurks a very familiar order.
In a way, Pippi was the book that enforced my decision to not shove the stories I’d read in childhood at my own kid. Many of my friends are passionate about books and understandably want to share with their children the joy of reading by giving them these classics.
I am happy to pass that love and joy onto my child. It’s the rest that gives me pause.
For the record, my daughter has read Pippi Longstocking. (Pippi in the South Seas is difficult to spot on library or bookstore shelves these days.) But I’ve talked with her about realism and tall tales, and how Pippi’s descriptions of the cultures and people she has supposedly encountered are inaccurate—and the fact that some of the cultures described are part of hers and my background.
And yes, I understand the book was written long ago. I understand that it was written by a mother who started out just telling her kids stories to entertain them, and that she was reflecting the concerns of her time and age and viewpoint. She clearly never imagined that someone who looked like me—or my kid—would be reading them. That’s fine.
But I am also a parent of a time and an age and a particular viewpoint—and I have other choices now. So does my child.
In March, shortly after its release, I bought my daughter a copy of Susan Tan’s contemporary middle-grade novel, Cilla Lee-Jenkins, Future Author Extraordinaire. Like Pippi, Cilla Lee-Jenkins is a story about a girl who makes up stories and is disenchanted with the grown-up world.
Unlike Pippi, Cilla Lee-Jenkins is set in a realistic, recognizable universe. The protagonist is a plucky mixed Asian and white second-grader living in Boston with her parents and near her two sets of grandparents. Cilla—short for Priscilla—is getting a new baby sister. This has her alarmed, and as a result, she decides to become a famous writer so that she won’t be forgotten after the baby is born.
Cilla sometimes annoys and shocks the adults in her life. To her parents’ dismay, she calls her unwanted soon-to-be-sibling “the Blob.” In one episode, she pours glue over her head. But in Cilla is a recognition that the world is more complicated than simple binaries of order and chaos, adulthood and childhood. At one point, Cilla notes:
No one minds if you slurp your soup in Chinatown (which I can’t do at home) and no one cares if your elbows are on the table (my Grandma Jenkins is VERY concerned about this).
Cilla knows that manners—one of the things that Pippi lacks, to the horror of the adults—can be different in different contexts. The “other” culture with different etiquette is treated matter-of-factly—and it is Cilla’s culture, too. So-called disorder and reversal of adult norms—let’s face it, Western adult norms—is not the business of the day. Rather, in this book there is an acknowledgment that the world contains many kinds of order, many ways to be.
It’s not really a fair comparison: two books from different times that are trying to do different things. One is an enduring classic. One of brand new—it’s too early to tell what it will be. But readers’—people’s—lives and perspectives are never exactly equal. And the work that these stories do, especially in the lives of the children who read them, are not necessarily measured in endurance or popularity or cultural reception. Sometimes books and characters do the best work by simply being put in the right hands at the right time.
Cilla Lee-Jenkins was written by someone—Tan herself is mixed—who can acknowledge someone with my heritage, my kid’s, as a reader. And it is one book that shows that my child the possibility that she can be the story—she can shape it—rather than exist an oddity in another person’s narrative. This and novels like this one are the ones I’m urgent to share.
I’m going to write my first-ever book right here in this journal, and I’m going to become a famous bestselling author (with an EXCELLENT new name) before the baby is born. Then no one can forget about me.
Cilla Lee-Jenkins, Future Author Extraordinaire is about a kid growing up and wanting to make sure that she’s seen and heard. And by encountering this character, maybe one kid out there will also know that she hasn’t been forgotten.
About Mindy Hung
Mindy Hung‘s essays and articles have appeared in The Toast, Salon, The New York Times, and many other publications. Her short (often very short) fiction has appeared in Joyland, PANK, and The New Quarterly. She received a New York Foundation for the Arts fiction fellowship in 2010. Her literary novel, Trip, was published in 2012 by Outpost19.