There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favourite book.
My first true friend was a carefree, unruly, fearless Swedish girl called Pippi Longstocking. She had neither mother nor father, which was really rather nice, for in this way there was no one to tell her when to go to bed just when she was having most fun, and no one to make her take cod liver oil when she felt like eating peppermints. (Pippi Longstocking p.1) I discovered her in a book when I was six years old. My father found me perched on a step in Foyle’s Bookshop in London, with my head in this strange children’s novel by a Swedish writer, Astrid Lindgren. He bought me the book and I still have it. I have read it dozens of times. It is now fifty years old – it has travelled across continents and lived in many different bookshelves. It has lost its glossy dust cover, its pages are yellowed with age and many of them are smeared with my childish fingerprints. Inside the front cover is a wobbly pencilled statement: This book belongs to Anita Patel only.
I loved Pippi and I still do. She is simply splendid. She is generous, independent, high-spirited and audacious. She never loses her cool but she does have a strong sense of right and wrong. Her response to a group of bullies is absolutely moral and correct – she deals with them with aplomb and admonishes them calmly: Pippi said, “You are cowards! Five of you go after one boy. That’s cowardly. And then you begin to push a little defenceless girl around. Oh, how disgraceful! Nasty!” (Pippi Longstocking p. 19)
I longed to be this girl who could lift a horse (or a policeman), throw a bully over a fence and walk around nonchalantly with a monkey on her shoulder. I still want to be Pippi Longstocking and now I realise that it is her complete freedom from the shackles of society that I admire and desire most. She goes way beyond breaking rules – she simply has no awareness of them. While she enjoys the company of her friends, Tommy and Annika, she is also utterly comfortable in her own skin and happy to be in her own company. She walks backwards, stays up half the night tossing a ball, drinks tea in an oak tree, sleeps with her feet on the pillow, tells shocking fibs, teaches her monkey to dance a polka, thumbs her nose at authority – and yet her world makes perfect sense to me. It did when I was six years old and it does now.
Pippi’s first and last day at school still makes me laugh out loud. I wish I had been mischievous enough to answer an arithmetic question this way: “If Lisa has seven apples and Axel has nine apples, how many apples have they got together?” “Yes answer that one, Tommy”, Pippi chimed in. “And at the same time answer me this one: If Lisa has a tummy ache and Axel has even more of a tummy ache, whose fault is it, and where had they pinched the apples?” (Pippi Longstocking p.36)
The friends that we make in children’s books shape us in odd ways. My childhood was never as blithe and uninhibited as Pippi’s but I am so glad that I met her. Perhaps knowing her allowed me to enjoy teaching every cheeky, bold, funny, chaotic, subversive student that entered my classroom. And perhaps knowing her also made me encourage my students to question and challenge everything they were taught across the curriculum. “Yes, but don’t you see, you have to go to school”, said the policeman. “Why do I?” “Well to learn things of course.” “What kind of things?” Pippi asked. (Pippi Longstocking p.24)
I knew Pippi Longstocking long before she was reinvented in movies and cartoons and played by freckle faced girls who bear absolutely no resemblance to my hilarious potato nosed friend with her long thin legs, big shoes, carroty pig tails and very large mouth. Those cute little girls could never capture her joie de vivre, pluck and ability to tell a rattling good story. “Once I saw a Chinaman in Shanghai. His ears were so big he could use them for a raincoat. When it rained, he just crept in under his ears and was as warm and snug as could be…” (Pippi Longstocking, p.43)
There is only one Pippi Longstocking and she is the same wonderful, happy go lucky, dauntless girl who found me sitting on a step in a bookshop many decades ago.
© Anita Patel, 2015