I was about to head out the door to donate some old books I hadn’t read in many, many years when my mother stopped me. “Where are you taking Pippi Longstocking?”
“Oh, do you want to keep it? I was just going to give it away.”
“Maybe we should trash it instead.”
I gazed at my mother — a writer, and professor of literature — in pure shock. Never, in my entire life, had I heard her suggest throwing a book in the trash. “What? Why?”
She then told a story I had never heard before: she explained that one day, when I was around five or six, she had walked in on me in my bedroom jumping on my bed and screaming. She asked what I was doing, and I responded that I was pretending to be a cannibal from the Congo. Astonished, she asked where I had heard that the Congo was full of cannibals, and I pointed to my half-read copy of Pippi Longstocking.
Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren, was published in 1950 in Swedish, and has since been translated into 76 languages. It is widely regarded as a classic, and a children’s lit treasure. Pippi, with her bright orange braids, wonky manners, and the monkey on her shoulder, is an iconic representation of the capacities for children’s imagination. The book is funny, precocious, and bizarre. It’s also a lot more problematic than I remembered it to be.
After my mother told me that story, I was horrified. I reread the book, incredulous that a title I recalled so fondly could have had such a negative effect on me. I loved Pippi! She was a role model! Her imagination, her kookiness, her storytelling abilities — all of this charmed and inspired me as a child.
It’s purposefully unclear throughout the book whether Pippi is lying or not, but as a young child, it seems that I was inclined to believe whatever she said. Which means that I also bought into the stereotypes in which she traffics. Pippi exoticizes the cultures with which she claims to have come into contact. She does strange things that do not squarely fit into the society she enters, and each time she is questioned about those habits, she deflects smoothly by claiming her worldliness.
She is introduced to the narrative walking backwards down the street. The other children ask why she’s walking backwards, to which she responds that that is the way they do it in Egypt. She follows this up by saying, “I wonder what you would have said if I had come along walking on my hands the way they do in Farthest India.”
The strange stereotypes don’t end there. Over the course of the book, Pippi tells stories of her father deserted on a cannibal island in the Congo. She gossips about how in Argentina, the schoolchildren eat candy all day, and are punished for knowing arithmetic. She also brags about fighting a huge snake in India, which “every day … ate up five Indians and then two little children for dessert.”
Some of this is ridiculous. A lot of it verges on being purely nonsensical, like Pippi’s story about a Chinese man whom Pippi calls “Hai Shang,” a reversal of the syllables in “Shanghai:”
“I once saw a Chinese in Shanghai. His ears were so big that he could use them for a cape. When it rained he just crawled in under his ears and was as warm and snug as you please.”
According to Pippi, Hai Shang had a child named Peter — a detail to which one of her listeners objects.“Oh, but a Chinese baby can’t be called Peter,”. Pippi recounts how Peter refused to eat a dish called a “swallow’s nest,” so Hai Shang decreed that he wouldn’t be allowed to eat anything until he had finished this particular swallow’s nest. Pippi reports that after a few months, Peter died, “Of Plain Common Ordinary Pigheadedness.”
Of course, nonsense is nonsense—no person has ears large enough to shelter underneath—but there are still a lot of implicit cultural biases that can be gleaned from the Hai Shang story. At the very least, it prompts questions like: are Chinese parents stricter than parents in your own country? Do Chinese people eat bird nests regularly? Can Chinese people only have names like “Hai Shang”? Is it appropriate to refer to a Chinese person as “a Chinese”? A child that has been introduced to Chinese culture by reading this story would likely answer yes to all these questions.
In this cultural moment, as we spend time examining the systemic roots of oppression in our society, and consider ways to topple white supremacy in our own lives, throwing out an old children’s book might seem like a small action to take, possibly an unnecessary one.
You could argue that Pippi Longstocking’s depictions of different cultures might ignite a passion for travel in young people. You could also argue that it isn’t likely to shape any child’s opinion of other cultures for long. You could even make the case that the book might make children more interested in meeting people from these lands that are depicted as so foreign. Yet it’s hard to ignore the fact that this children’s book introduces and reinforces negative stereotypes about non-white cultures. It certainly had that effect on me as a child. For that reason, I think my mother was right about taking our old copy out of circulation. Pippi Longstocking may be well-written, but at the end of the day, I don’t think you should let your kids read it.