Unconventional, irreverent, suspicious of authority, and fiercely independent: the winning characteristics of the red-haired, pig-tailed heroine Pippi Longstocking were true of her creator, too. Astrid Lindgren, the Swedish author of enduringly popular children’s books and the fourth most translated children’s writer in the world, bucked conventions at a time when it wasn’t easy for women to chart their own course.
Lindgren scandalously bore a child out of wedlock. She published Pippi Longstocking when she was nearly 40. And when she discovered she would be taxed at a rate of 102 percent, Lindgren published a satirical essay that sparked an uproar, effectively changed tax laws, and brought about the demise of the reigning government.
Astrid Anna Emilia Ericsson was born in 1907, the second of four children, and grew up in southern Sweden playing outside on a farm and surrounding apple orchards, creating adventures and fairytales in the natural world, a landscape she would return to in her novels. She took a job at a local newspaper but soon became pregnant by the editor-in-chief, who was married at the time. Though he offered to get divorced and marry her, the 19-year-old Astrid refused and instead moved to Copenhagen to give birth anonymously and in a more forgiving, cosmopolitan city. There she became a stenographer—a skill that would prove useful once she began publishing—and eventually married a co-worker, Sture Lindgren, with whom she had a daughter, Karin. When Karin was 7, bedridden with pneumonia and bored, she nagged her mother, as so many kids will do, to tell her a story. Karin made up the name on the spot: “Tell me a story about Pippi Longstocking,” said the child.
“I didn’t ask her who Pippi Longstocking was,” Lindgren told The New Yorker in 1983. “I just began the story, and since it was a strange name, it turned out to be a strange girl as well.”
Lindgren told her daughter, and later a growing network of family and friends, the story of an outrageously strange girl who had no mother and a buccaneer father presumed lost at sea. She wore one black stocking and one brown and too-big shoes, had a pet horse and monkey, and offended the local ladies by eating an entire cake at a fancy tea party. And she was strong enough to lift a horse. The rule-breaking, authority-defying but fair and kind-hearted Pippi captivated the children who listened to Lindgren’s imaginative tales.
Lindgren eventually wrote the stories down as a chapter book, Pippi Longstocking, and submitted it to a publisher, who rejected it. She then entered the book in a contest and won. Pippi Longstocking has since become one of the most beloved books in the world, translated into upward of 50 languages and spawning several movie adaptations. Lindgren became immediately and immensely popular and influential in her home country, a champion of children’s rights.
During World War II, she privately took a stand against Nazism. With her keen eye for equity, Lindgren was sent to the United States by a women’s magazine in the late 1940s. She became upset by the treatment of black people and later wrote a series of essays about that experience, setting precedent for her publications on social justice. She was also well known as a fierce opponent to animal cruelty and corporal punishment.
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In 1976, Lindgren learned that because of tax laws requiring her to pay both income tax and employer’s fees, she would effectively be taxed at a rate of 102 percent. Though she was generally a supporter of the principles of socialism, paying more than she actually earned appalled her. And so she published a satirical fairytale, “Pomperipossa in Monismania,” about a children’s book author forced to pay exorbitant taxes, in the Stockholm tabloid Expressen. The satire ignited a furious debate over both the tax laws and the reigning Social Democratic Party. Because of her popularity, people listened to Lindgren. Later that year, the Social Democratic party lost the election, giving up power for the first time in 44 years.
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Even so, Lindgren remained a social democrat until her death in 2002, happily paying a tax rate of a mere 80 percent. In an ironic footnote, an image of Astrid Lindgren has been featured since 2015 on the 20-krona Swedish banknote.