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Astrid Lindgren spoke, people listened

Astrid Lindgren was so much more than a best-selling author of children’s books like Pippi Longstocking. She was also an important opinion former who helped unseat a Swedish government, influenced changes in the law and even inspired anarchists.

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Photo: Roine Karlsson/Norstedts

Accidental revolutionary

Astrid Lindgren is the eighteenth most translated author in the world, and one of the most well-known Swedish authors. She became an author relatively late in life, and an influential voice on everyday issues even later. Because of her popularity, people listened to what Lindgren had to say.

At the age of 68 she submitted an opinion piece to the Swedish daily Expressen on the subject of a loophole in the Swedish tax system, which meant that she, as a self-employed writer, had to pay 102 per cent tax on her income. Lindgren wrote the piece in the style of a fairytale, and it had an immediate impact. ‘Pomperipossa in Monismania’, published in 1976, became front-page news and led not only to a change in the tax law, but eventually to the fall of the social democratic government that had been in power for 44 years.

Lena Törnqvist, who is in charge of the Astrid Lindgren archive at the National Library of Sweden (Kungliga biblioteket), believes Lindgren would have been willing to pay 80 per cent, maybe even 90 per cent, of her income in tax because she thought the Swedish social democratic system was good. But she was not prepared to pay more than she earned.

‘I don’t think she planned a revolution, but it happened’, Törnqvist says.

Smacking ban

Lindgren also turned her common sense, sharp mind and clarity of expression to the issue of violence against children. Here she used her acceptance speech for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, which she was awarded in 1978, as the platform for her views.

‘The essence of the speech was that if children are brought up with violence, chances are that they will use violence when they grow up. And if they are people with power, this may be very dangerous’, Törnqvist says.

The speech generated a great deal of attention in Sweden, Germany and further afield, and was one factor behind Sweden becoming the first country to ban the smacking of children in 1979. Lindgren’s involvement also caught the attention of the victims; after the speech, two boys in foster care in Germany ran away and turned up on her doorstep in Stockholm. Lindgren helped send them back and ensured that they were well treated from then on.

Animal rights

Lindgren’s drive to protect the powerless from the powerful also extended to animals, and she became a high-profile advocate of the prevention of cruelty to animals. ‘She was not a vegetarian, but she knew that if we are to keep our humanity, we have to treat other living beings with respect’, Törnqvist says.

Lindgren’s campaign, started as a reaction against industrial-scale farming, stirred up public opinion and led to the government announcing the so-called Lex Lindgren animal welfare law as an eightieth birthday present for the author.

The oracle of Sweden

Lindgren’s many book characters gave credibility to her opinions, whether it was the anti-authoritarian Pippi Longstocking, sticking up for children with her strong sense of justice, or the brothers Lionheart, who tackle heavier issues like emotional growth and death. ‘Everyone knew what she stood for, although her opinions are under the surface in her books’, Törnqvist says.

Toward the end of her long and productive life, Lindgren had become so influential that journalists would call her up, ask her opinion on an issue and then splash her response all over the newspapers. Her input made a topic instantly newsworthy. ‘They wanted her opinion on everything from dental care to world peace’, Törnqvist says. ‘She rarely chose the subject.’

Indeed, she was so influential that on the issue of Sweden’s proposed membership of the EU – which she opposed – the pro-EU press made a point of not talking to her. ‘They knew that if they gave her too much room she would affect the discussion’, Törnqvist says.

‘We have learned from Pippi’

Even into her eighties and nineties, Lindgren kept receiving letters from people wanting her support for their various causes. An anarchist who ran a café for punks near Stockholm that was threatened with closure was one of them. ‘Join us in this fight – we have learned from Pippi Longstocking’, he wrote.

‘People didn’t regard her as an old lady, and that was part of her problem, because they demanded more of her than you can demand of a person who is very old, almost blind and almost deaf’, Törnqvist says.

Lindgren’s legacy to Sweden is not only her much-loved books, but also the attitudes she helped form and the laws she helped bring about.

Co-editor of a posthumous book on Lindgren’s public influence, Suzanne Öhman-Sundén sums it all up: ‘Astrid touched the everyday Swede’, she says. ‘There was a combination of common sense, straightforwardness and warmth in everything she did, which made her unique.’

Last updated: 18 June 2013

David Wiles

David Wiles

David Wiles is a British journalist living in Ystad in the south of Sweden.