Monday 4 May 2020

Illustrating Pippi - with Mini Grey

When I was a child I didn’t meet Pippi Longstocking. 

She just didn’t cross my path, which was generally wandering in the direction of the Moomins. 

My first Pippi encounter was acquiring a copy of the beautifully illustrated Lauren Child edition, in around 2009 I think. 

Here is Lauren’s Pippi stamping out gingerbread with concentration,
Illustration by Lauren Child
Illustration by Lauren Child
and here, in bonkers style and wearing her father’s old nightshirt, waving sword and pistol, vowing to become a pirate.

Later I read it to my young son Herbie, but we weren’t entirely sure about it – a bit too much horse-lifting for us. Pippi seemed impossibly strong, in a world that was otherwise fairly realistic.

But then last year I was invited by Oxford University Press to illustrate new versions of Astrid Lindgren’s books for the 2020 75th anniversary editions. My friend Niki who lives down the road is Swedish, and when I mentioned the Astrid Lindgren commission she immediately brought over her entire Astrid Collection (and it is quite a huge collection) to properly show me just how important an institution Astrid Lindgren is in Sweden, and what an honour illustrating Pippi was. (Incidentally, Niki also makes very fine cinnamon buns and gingerbread, so I love it when these pop up in the Pippi books.)

In the original editions, Pippi is intrinsically linked with the illustrations of Ingrid Vang Nyman. Here’s Niki’s own copy of Pippi Goes Aboard.
Pippi Gos Aboard, illustration by Ingrid Vang Nyman
To the modern (and un-Swedish) eye, Pippi looks pretty strange. I saw weird slightly alien eyes, anti-gravity hair, anatomically puzzling legs, possibly suspenders. And was she all of nine years old?

Here’s Pippi grinning at her garden gate, and rolling out gingerbread with Mr Nilsson, her monkey. 

Here’s Pippi getting up, and below she is wrestling with a tiger.

In Sweden, these images are an inseparable part of Pippi Longstocking. I started to see how strange and gutsy they were, and appreciate the pared-back lines, and limited colours that have become so emblematic of Pippi now that she has her own set of pantones.

There could be a Japanese influence to Van Nyman’s pictures, with their lack of shadows, flat colour, and unusual diagrammatic perspectives. She made everything really clear, and worked out all the details. And look at the lettering in Pippi’s notes – it looks particularly nice in Swedish:

Pippi Longstocking came out in 1945 and was the first work of acclaim for both author and illustrator.  

Is it important that the irrepressible character of Pippi emerges from 5 years of wartime lockdown, like a spring bursting out of a box? 

So I thought I’d better properly meet Pippi.


When we first meet Pippi, her appearance is very definitely described:

Pippi is also tremendously strong, the strongest girl in the world.

I still had problems with the impossibility and with the horse-lifting; and the excessiveness; smashing things up, being a bit too violent to a bull and breaking its horns off.  There was also a view of the world that was of its time, especially the South Sea islanders in the third Pippi book.


OK, she’s the strongest girl in the world, and is indestructible with the constitution of an ox (she eats poisonous mushrooms, she drinks random mixtures of medicines).
But as I met Pippi properly I found out how much about her I’d missed in that first brief reading aloud. I made discoveries: Pippi’s kindness, her fairness. (When Astrid Lindgren’s characters get really upset there’s usually a big unfairness happening.) Pippi knows what’s going on, even though it seems she doesn’t. You can be safe with Pippi.
There’s also Nature lovingly described, especially Pippi’s wild garden, and also Food, which Pippi enthusiastically creates.
To Pippi, everything’s an opportunity.

Pippi is funny.
‘Who tells you when it’s time to go to bed? Tommy asks. “I do that myself,” said Pippi. “First I tell myself once, very nicely, and if I don’t obey I tell myself again, quite crossly, and if I still don’t obey, well, then there’s trouble, I can tell you”
 Pippi has a way of turning the world upside down, upending convention, using words however she likes. She is a master of the bizarre and surreal monologue. She is a Teller of Tall Tales. She is wild and unpredictable, with the destructive potential of an unexploded bomb. 

She is able to take care of herself and other people: to cook, to clean, to camp, to feed everybody, to organise. Pippi is generous in every way. She has independent means of finance – an endless bag of gold coins. Pippi is not scared of ANYONE, no matter how important they think they are. Pippi gently perplexes those who are trying to educate her or make her do things like ‘multikipperation’, by possibly deliberately misunderstanding things. 

Pippi is an uncontainable force: when she tries going to school, Pippi’s drawing of a horse refuses to be restricted to a piece of paper and takes place on the floor: she explains: 
“I’m in the middle of doing the front legs now, but when I get to the tail most likely I’ll have to go out into the corridor.”

Pippi makes a mess: she Invades Tommy & Annike’s mother’s coffee party like a thunderstorm, burying her face in the cake and strewing sugar on the floor.

Near the end of Pippi Longstocking, after rummaging in her attic,
‘Never let children play with weapons,’ Pippi says, taking a pistol in each hand and firing them into the ceiling.

There’s joy in language: looking through a telescope Pippi says: 
“I can practically see the fleas in South America with this.”
When Tommy, Annika and Pippi go Thing-finding, Pippi defeats bullies but then gets Tommy to look in a tree-trunk, where he finds a little leather notebook with a silver pen. Then Annika is asked to feel inside an old tree stump, where she finds a red coral necklace. Had Pippi dreamed up the whole scheme and hidden the treasures earlier on?  Was it all part of a masterplan? With Pippi you can never tell.
“You never know,” said Tommy. “You never know anything as far as Pippi’s concerned.” 
– and to me, that’s her magic.

Under it all there is understated heart from Astrid Lindgren. 

In Pippi Goes Aboard the threat of Pippi going away looms. Here’s when Pippi is just about to leave and board her father’s ship:
“She turned to Tommy and Annika and looked at them.
What a strange look, thought Tommy. It was exactly the same look Tommy’s mum had on her face once when he was very, very ill.’
And what is that look? 

Astrid Lindgren leaves you to work that one out for yourself.

And lastly, here’s my favourite character, Mr Nillson.  I did love drawing all those Mr Nilssons.

 Mini Grey is an author/illustrator based in Oxford UK. Find more at: Sketching Weakly, Mini's blogsite.

Pippi Longstocking, Pippi Goes Aboard, and Pippi in the South Seas, by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Mini Grey are published by Oxford University Press, May 2020. 

And, you collectors of visual feasts, watch out for Pippi Goes Aboard illustrated by Lauren Child, to be published in October 2020 by Oxford University Press.

Look out for more on Pippi Longstocking in Books for Keeps a little later in May.

1 comment:

Heather Tribe said...

I agree with you on how Pippi is so much more. I, oddly, sensed a real loneliness about her, that I felt she was hiding. I have not read Pippi goes Aboard but it's on my TBR and I think it will help me learn more. By the way...I love the Moomins too!!! Your illustrations are top notch!