Monday, May 25, 2009

Pippi Longstocking – a liberating role model

I grew up with great books from Enid Blyton, the stories of Laura Ingalls, and the comics of Tintin. Those were the regulars that I got. But one day my father bought me a different book, about a little girl with carrot coloured hair wearing non-matching stockings, Pippi Longstocking. The original of Pippi was Pippi Langstrump, written by a Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren – who apparently created Pippi to amuse her daughter who was ill and bedridden.

And from that first encounter, as a character Pippi stays with me until now. Apart from her carrot coloured hair which is always on two protruding pony tails on each side of her head, and her un-matching stockings, I also love the way she behaves. She practically does whatever she wants. She lives alone in Villekula Cottage with a horse (which she can easily lift with one hand) and Mr. Nilsson, her monkey. She has lots and lots of adventure, which she shares with 2 other kids – Thomas and Annika (it was assumed that Annika was actually a reflection of Astrid’s own daugher, Karin Lindgren).

Pippi is such an extraordinary girl, having wild thoughts – or perhaps to us adults they are wild thoughts while I think they are what every kids are actually dreaming of (when we adults do not stop them all the time). Pippi loves cooking for her friends, gives away her treasure to other kids when she goes shopping – she has a trunk full of golden coins. She does not go to school – because she thinks learning too much is not good for a kid (some truth in that, too!). She cannot count properly, but she can solve any problem, in a cute ‘kid’ kind of thinking.

She has travelled the world – on a huge ship with her father (a sailor who then becomes a king of a remote island). She has even been to Jakarta and Kalimantan! – I felt exhilirated reading it, imagine, these books were created on 1944!. And Pippi has a very interesting way to describe what life was like at those places that she has visited. For instance, she said in Egypt everyone walks backwards, in India people walk with their hands and their feet up in the air. Of course much of what is in the story book was imagination, but these stories were stuck in my mind and made me wanted to know those places even more.

After years of first reading these books as a child, about a year ago I was thrilled to have found a Pippi movie DVD. I bought it and watched it with my daughter, and she instantly loved this Pippi character which she described as, “Looks naughty but kind hearted, and I like the horse”. And last month I again re-read the three series of Pippi.

Watching the movie and reading the books again as an adult, I can’t help thinking how much I have lost that ability to imagine things, to be ‘daring’ enough to break the barriers, to say things that should have been said. In Pippi’s description, an adult knows no fun, only deals with lots of work that is not exciting, adults have strange ways of thinking – filled with silly beliefs. And according to Pippi she will need one hour practice everyday to be able to behave according to all the rules that adults want kids to behave. I think in some ways, she is right – and I am sure that is what many kids are thinking of us too!.

What I also love is Pippi’s views of school. To a lot of extent, I think we should take some learning from what she said about school. Apart from her thinking that studying too much can make even the healthiest kid sick, she also said that too much knowledge can make her dizzy. That she chose to just sit by the classroom’s window and asked the teacher from time to time throw ‘just a little knowledge’ for her to know bits of things, because inside the classroom she feels suffocated by all the knowledge that is packed in the room. I really love that. Because in reality, how often do we learn and learn and learn, but at the end of the day we cannot even remember what we have learned because we just have too much in our head. And if I look back to the time when I was at school, Indonesia’s education system being so centered around memorising things that sometimes I did feel like my head was going to explode. And when we are growing up, sometimes we cannot even think of how the knowledge can help ourselves, or others. Isn’t having more knowledge is supposed to make us more useful for others too?.

If Enid Blyton books taught me the spirit of friendship and adventure, Tintin comics and Pippi’s stories gave me a zest to travel the world. These books affected me the same way – a yearning to see the places on this earth, to know people’s habit on those places, to see how they live.

And Pippi’s stories gave me another thing: a wisdom to look at life. It sounds strange, but nevertheless, in its purest way of thinking, Pippi has a lot to offer even to us adults in the way we should look at our lives. How we have forgotten how to have fun, many times. And when we have kids – how often we have actually ‘strangled’ their imagination with our rules which we think will govern them. How we sometimes emphasise too much on these rules for our convenience rather than thinking what good they will be for our kids, that they become barriers for kids to explore the world and find out things for themselves. How we think school is great for kids – while sometimes it can become a place where kids’ imagination is trapped and they become bogged down with details and theories which, may not help them very much to survive this life if without knowing the practical side of life (e.g. cooking, cleaning, standing up and looking after yourself). How we often forget to let kids be kids, with their ‘wild’ imagination, and just let them see how far it will take them.

I have to say that Astrid Lindgren’s contribution to children storybooks by creating Pippi is tremendous. She has created a character so liberating, so out of the box, and yet, so real in the way she thinks about many things. And best yet, it is not just about adventures of a little girl, it is about pushing our own boundaries when we think of things around us, of how we think of kids. And the stories are relevant for any kids, at any point in time. They will be able to give kids a way to vent out their imagination.

Yes it may seem that Pippi is a wild little girl who cannot follow rules – but, in reality, which kid wants to follow any rule!. So, why don’t we at least let them have that ‘liberating moment’ by reading what Pippi does. At least at imagination level, we should give them time to get out of the boundaries of rules and ‘must do’s’ once in a while. And who knows, maybe they will question us about our rules the way Pippi does – which is always good for reality check for us. Because sometimes (or many times?) as parents, we think we know best, but I don’t think we do. At least half the time, we actually know nothing.


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