Astrid Lindgren and the world

Astrid Lindgren’s excellence as a writer is known the world over. No Swedish author has been translated into as many languages, and the estimated number of her books sold to date world-wide is approximately 150 million copies!

That her artistry is of global quality and appeal becomes very evident when you examine the distribution records. A story such as the picture book, A Day at Bullerby, for example has been published in Vietnamese, English, Icelandic, Japanese, Frisian, Polish and French.

Astrid Lindgren’s global success is unparalleled and there are still new editions being printed into foreign languages even though she died in 2002 and many years have passed since she wrote her last big story, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter (1981).

The big questions of life

Astrid has said that she writes for “the child within her”. She has simply been storing up the memories and feelings from her own childhood and conveyed these to others through her stories. She has written for children “who create miracles when they read”, as she herself expressed it.

Astrid Lindgren has aired the big questions of life – right or wrong, life and death, loneliness and togetherness, as well as war and peace. She has done it unpretentiously, consistent in her artistry and without ever abandoning the child’s perspective, regardless of nationality or background. The themes she deals with continue to be of great interest throughout the ages, to all people, in all nations.

Still, the level of success has varied between different countries and cultures. In Russia, for example, there has always been a particularly strong fascination with Karlsson-on-the-Roof, favouring those books over the rest of her works. Both in China and Japan, Pippi Longstocking is tremendously popular, whilst just about all of Astrid Lindgren’s books do well in Germany. These are just a few examples.

Breakthrough abroad

In 1945, Pippi Longstocking was published in Sweden, and as early as the following year Astrid Lindgren had the pleasure of seeing it distributed in Norway, Denmark and Finland. In 1947, Britt Mari lättar sitt hjärta was distributed in Scandinavia along with Mästerdetektiven Blomkvist ( Bill Bergson, Master Detective). Within two years Astrid Lindgren had become an author whose books were being read in all of Scandinavia.

The big break abroad came in 1949 when a German publisher contacted Rabén & Sjögren. Astrid Lindgren later described him as “the brown-eyed, sweetly smiling Friedrich Oetinger in his somewhat shabby overcoat”. In spite of the fact that five German publishers had already turned down the opportunity of becoming distributors for Pippi Longstocking, Friedrich Oetinger dared to put his money on that book – and the rest is a success-story in the German publishing world.

Today, Verlag Friedrich Oetinger is the distributor for just about everything Astrid Lindgren has written and is very actively promoting her books. That is probably one of the reasons why Astrid Lindgren continues to be so big in Germany; her stories are loved by Germans every bit as much as by Swedes.

Pippi and Karlsson

The most world-famous character of them all is, of course, Pippi Longstocking. The books about her have been translated into 65 languages – as at 2014. Then comes the Brothers Lionheart (46), Emil i Lönneberga (44), the Bullerby books (39) and Ronia the Robber’s Daughter (39).*

Pippi Longstocking was released in USA as early as 1949, when Astrid’s friend the librarian Elsa Olenius made contact with the publishing firm, Viking Press. And as recently as 2007, Oxford University Press, in England released a new translation of Pippi Longstocking with new illustrations by Lauren Child.

The English newspaper, The Daily Telegraph wrote, concerning Pippi Longstocking, that she is a Swedish superhero who “would make mincemeat out of Voldemort. Not only that, but because she is so generous and forgiving she would defeat Harry Potter’s mightiest enemy, and then give him gingerbread biscuits afterwards.” So that’s how powerful Pippi is – that she can beat one of the strongest characters of today in the English world of children’s literature.

But it is not only the best known of Astrid Lindgren’s works that are being published in new editions abroad. In 2008, for example, the three books from the fifties – Kati in America, Kati in Italy and Kati in Paris – were launched in South Korea.

Outside of Sweden, the three books about Karlsson on the Roof have been most successful in Russia and the former Soviet Union. In 1973 an omnibus containing all three stories was published by the firm, Detskaja Literatura in Moscow. They printed more than 100,000 copies which speaks for itself about Karlsson’s enormous popularity in Russia. Then, on top of all the books, we have to add the countless dramatisations, not to mention the vast number of pirate copies produced in the former Soviet.

Illustrations in other countries

In most places around the world Astrid’s books have been published using the same illustrators as the original editions. But there are, of course, some exceptions.

The publishers of the former Eastern Bloc often discarded the Swedish illustrations and had their own pictures created. The same thing happened in bigger countries such as Spain and France. For the German editions of Pippi Longstocking, Oetinger Verlag has been using three illustrators: Walter Scharnweber, Rolf Rettich and more recently, Katrin Engelking. In the former East German Republic, Cornelia Ellinger produced her own illustrations of Pippi for Der Kinderbuchverlag, in Berlin.

These days, new editions are sometimes given a more up-to-date look using modern style illustrations. Examples of this are Lauren Child’s collage in the new English edition of Pippi Longstocking and also the South Korean Manga-inspired cover picture on the new edition of Bill Bergson, Master Detective.

Astrid and the world

Astrid Lindgren’s interest in the world around her began early in her life. She had her roots deeply planted in the Småland soil and in Vimmerby, but in her teens she was already developing a curiosity for the world around her, and for the people outside her little hometown. She devoured whatever books she could lay her hands on and through her reading formed impressions of various places around the world.

This curiosity for the world outside Sweden was indulged when a few years after the War, she travelled to USA on a journalistic tour for Damernas Värld (a Swedish women’s magazine). Her depiction of the oppression suffered by the black population in USA is sharp and deeply critical ( Kati in America ) and is an example of the empathy which Astrid Lindgren always had for those who suffer, wherever they are in this world.

She had a rare ability to be genuinely interested in people and their situation irrespective of where they came from. She couldn’t help but get involved in people’s circumstances, real or as she imagined them to be, and then write about all this with both humour and seriousness so that everybody else would also be given the opportunity to see what she saw. Perhaps this is one of the explanations as to why her books are being read all over the world.