How Astrid Lindgren inspired Barbro Lindgren

As a publishing house editor for almost 25 years, Astrid Lindgren got to receive and read innumerable manuscripts, give advice, make comment upon and be the source of inspiration for a host of hopeful writers. During her time there, the careers of many great authors and illustrators were launched – for example: Åke Holmberg, Harry Kullman, Edith Unnerstad, Hans Peterson, Ann Mari Falk, Kerstin Thorvall and Barbro Lindgren.

Here, you can read the letter that Barbro Lindgren received from Astrid Lindgren in response to her submitting her debut manuscript. In Barbro’s own words, she learned from it the most important things about writing for children. The letter was written on 20th December 1964.

Dear Barbro Lindgren,

Mats is a nice little kid and easy to like. That goes for the author as well, who knows so much about children. But she doesn’t know quite as much about how to build up and maintain the interest in a manuscript. The same problem has been the failing of many other manuscripts – the author makes it too easy for herself and jumps from one episode to the next without getting the most out of any of them. All too many do it that way because it’s an easy way to write books.

But in your case, one gets the feeling that if you were to really put some effort into it, you could rework the book and deliver something with the right kind of appeal. How that is to be done, well, I wish I could explain what I mean, so you’d believe me! I can only give you a few guidelines. First of all, not so many episodes and not so many characters that you barely get a sniff at. Each chapter ought to be more or less a free-standing short story with a solid core to it. Pretend that you have been given an assignment of writing a full and detailed account of how Mats once ran away to his grandmother, or so he thought… That would turn into the type of short story I’m talking about. The same thing with when Lill-Fia was going to be sold. Pretend that your task is to write about that – and only that – continuing until you feel the tension has been building up in the right way and that it holds you till the end. Then you will have another fine short story which becomes a chapter in the book about Mats.

I suggest you scrap the chapter called, “At the theatre” because it would only amuse grown-up people who know what theatre is. But since you are writing for children, you must refrain from using the type of humour which only adults can understand. Surround Mats with a little group of characters who make us feel we know them all, just as well as he does. Lillpelle, Limpan and a couple more would suffice. Uncle Jensen or Mr and Mrs Linder and Klas-Herman – to name just a few – leave us cold, because we are never really given a chance to get to know them.

If I were you, I would never let Mats run away to grandma and grandpa in this book. I would rather let him plod around in his home surroundings at Vanadisvägen in the company of Lillpelle and Limpan. He doesn’t have to have any remarkable experiences, but what he does experience has to be built up properly.

You wriggle out of the difficulty by suddenly transferring Mats to a different environment and you fill out the pages with dialogue – which is highly delightful and amusing sometimes, but other times seems just to be there to fill up the page, so you can move on to the next chapter. Well, these are just some ideas.

Have you noticed that we have a competition going on at the moment? Why don’t you write six, seven or eight short stories – little pearls about Mats – and enter the manuscript in our competition! One more example: The baby bird. There, you take a hop, skip and a jump over something that could have become a splendidly exciting little story. Couldn’t he, together with Limpan, find the bird in Vanadislunden instead of out in the country in the company of the heartily uninspiring Klas-Herman? ….or what do you say?

I hope I haven’t robbed you of all your courage now, because that was not my intention. Perhaps I will get to see your manuscript again.
I hope so.

With kind regards
Astrid Lindgren

Barbro Lindgren, © Rabén & Sjögren