Tag Archives: pippi longstocking

“Grown-ups don’t believe in anything”

This gorgeous image comes, via thegraphicsfairy.blogspot.com, from an old French dictionary.

A while back at breakfast I was recounting to my little family a dream that I’d had about Elton John–the peacock-style Elton of old, who disappears into his costumes. N knows who Elton John is from watching a DVD we have of some Muppet Show episodes, and she has often commented that Elton plays piano with his fingers too flat, since her own teacher is always reminding her to use the very tops of her fingers to strike those keys. “I guess he didn’t have a very good teacher.” Though he seems to have done all right regardless.

Anyway, my dream about Elton was that he came to me several times in his souped-up outfits, serenading me and asking to be my boyfriend. In the dream, there was no N and no N’s dad, and so I was free to accept Elton’s bejeweled hand if I so desired. But I could not get past the enormous glasses, the feathery hats, the glittering sequins and the flared pantsuits. I could not find the real Elton behind all of that, and so I said “Sorry, but no.”

And N’s response? “Mom.” A roll of the eyes. “Grown-ups don’t dream.”

Girl with fairy hovering, by N

Where she got this idea, I don’t know. But it has stuck with me. We sometimes have long talks about fairies, as she is a fan of the Rainbow Magic fairy books by someone with the dubious name Daisy Meadows. Together we have mowed through Penny the Pony Fairy and Ruby the Red Fairy and Sunny the Yellow Fairy and Crystal the Snow Fairy and Amy the Amethyst Fairy and Zoe the Skating Fairy and Samantha the Swimming Fairy. And we have even purchased–setting our sights high–Mia la fee du mardi, but the French is a little beyond us still.

As an author I sometimes wonder, how does Daisy do it?

And how much longer will she go on?

Never mind–N adores these books, and I can practically hear her wheels turning as we read about Rachel and Kirsty gasping (which they do every couple of pages), and zipping off to Fairyland, and stopping the dirty deeds of Jack Frost and the goblins, who steal the fairies’ magic. Actually I like the bad guys, bratty and pointy-nosed, always sneering and sticking out their tongues at the girls. I read their voices in a robotic but nasal way that propels me through the pages. “From this day on, Fairyland will be without colour–forever!”

Sometimes I think it’s the way children imagine the grown-up world–without colour–and they feel a little sorry for us, and a little wary of where they themselves are heading.

N sets up her own fairy houses, decorating them with tiny boxes stuffed with tulip petals for beds, and setting out drinking vessels and offerings of nuts and seeds. She used to ask, “Mom, do you believe in fairies?” But she doesn’t ask anymore, because I think she knows the answer.

It’s the same with ghosts. A while back she and her friend A wrote letters to ghosts for an entire afternoon.

“Dear Grandpa Peter. Can you watch out for me your grandoter that you never met? And can you also watch out for my friend as well?”

“Dear Stella. I live in your olde house that you youst to live in. PS Your probebly verry nice.”

“Dear Terry. I miss you terobly. I will trye to wach ouet for your gardin wehn ever I go bye it.”

Each note was slid beneath the basement door, and they stood listening to it whoosh down the stairs.

Recently N was at another friend’s place, J, and J told her how one night when she’d been lying awake in the darkness, a green hand appeared before her face, just hovering there. It was about the same size as her own hand, and it had the criss-cross pattern of ordinary skin. Alarmed, J screamed aloud until her father came rushing into the room. She told him what she’d seen–how she’d been wide awake and absolutely not dreaming–and he tried to calm her, as a parent would, and told her she was imagining things.

“But I know I saw it,” the girl confided to N. “It’s just that grown-ups don’t believe in anything.”

"When Dorothy, who was an orphan, first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child's laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy's merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at. Uncle Henry never laughed." Illustration by W.W. Denslow.

I suppose our dismaying lack of belief is what keeps us out of so many children’s stories. In the fairy books N devours, Rachel and Kirsty’s parents sometimes drift blandly through the background, offering bus money or a sandwich, but they are never privy to the girls’ mysteries and great adventures. Pippi Longstocking lives parentless in Villa Villekulla with her monkey and her horse. “But who tells you when to go to bed at night?” Annika asks her. And Pippi answers “I do. The first time I say it, I say in a friendly sort of way, and if I don’t listen I say it again more sharply, and if I still don’t listen, then there’s a thrashing to be had, believe me!” Alice, swallowed up by her dream, slips down through the rabbit hole alone, into Wonderland, just as Dorothy Gale drifts up and up, leaving Uncle Henry and Auntie Em in her dust. The sun and wind had “taken the sparkle” from Aunt Em’s eyes, and Uncle Henry “did not know what joy was.” Think, too, of The Secret Garden,  a place reserved for the children of the story until they can make the adults understand its wonderful power.

And from our grown-up perspective, we watch our children taking all this in, remembering doing so ourselves, and how we looked at our own parents with wonder for all the things they did not see.


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The worst worry

"One thing I do know is, the more you worry, the more worries there are, and just when you get used to things, they change."

N recently made a delightful literary discovery by accident. She and her dad went to the library, and she picked Clarice Bean: Don’t Look Now because of the cover. Clarice, with her wispy hair and sideways glance and little squiggle of a nose, looks startlingly like another of English author Lauren Child’s creations, Lola, of the Charlie & Lola series (great picture books and also a very sweet TV show about a big brother caring for his wildly imaginative little sister). N didn’t realize this was a different book altogether.

Don’t Look Now is actually the third in a series of novels, after Utterly Me and Spells Trouble, and we loved it so much that we bought the set. To N’s delight, the books come in a little box. (She often loves the packaging as much as the stuff it contains.) There are few illustrations, but the ones that are there made me miss my old Spirograph.

Night after night, we’ve stayed up late reading these books. As Clarice might say, each one is an utterly and exceptionordinarily good read. The main character, Clarice Bean Tuesday, is a bright spark of a girl with a brimming imagination and a best friend named Betty Moody.

Both Betty and Clarice are obsessed with a series of books about a brilliant girl detective named Ruby Redfort. (N kept asking if the Ruby Redfort books were real, and I kept telling her no, they’re a story within a story, but apparently Child has indeed been commissioned to write a Ruby series.)

Betty is great in school and never gets in trouble, but Clarice’s mind wanders. And her teacher, Mrs. Wilberton, is mean — not a good combination.

More than any other children’s books I’ve read, these ones took me back to the complexities of the child’s perspective — how kids work so hard to put what they learn into context, and thereby grasp the meanings of everything from ordinary to terrifying occurrences. And how there are so many things that aren’t pindownable. For instance, Clarice wonders Why isn’t why spelled y? And why isn’t you spelled u? And she’s alarmed by the notion of infinity.

But it isn’t her worst worry.

Clarice is devastated to discover that “the worst worry in the world, the worry you never even thought to worry about,” is much worse than moving house, or the fact that you can see into the kitchen from a hole in the bathroom floor. In fact her worst worry is so bad, she can’t even bring herself to write it down in her list of worries, because seeing it in writing somehow makes it more real.

These books are funny, surprising, and also touching. Each one has a steady plot that kept us rushing through, but also so many threads running this way and that, that we never lost interest. In the final book, the best of the three, the scene in which Clarice learns Betty is moving away almost brought me to tears, and N, beside me, was riveted. Kudos to Lauren Child for creating a character who stands tall beside the likes of Pippi Longstocking and Anne of Green Gables.

“How does she draw flowers like that, Mom? I wish I could.”


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Ivy and Bean

In creating this online diary of the books N and I read together, I have often blogged about old treasures like The Secret Garden and The House at Pooh Corner. But some of our favourites are quite new. Annie BarrowsIvy and Bean books make N laugh as hard as she did reading Pippi Longstocking, which is saying a lot. Sometimes the illustrations, by Sophie Blackall, can do it all on their own — showing Bean in the strange contortions her body forms when she tries to sit still reading.

A warning! This series will teach your little one how to narrow her eyes to convey boredom. It will also teach her about potent potions and breaking world records by sticking spoons to your face or singing loud enough to (almost) break glass and digging for fossils in honour of Mary Anning and finding only chicken bones and using worms to cast magic spells that (should) make mean big sisters dance forever. As a little sister, as well as a mom, I love these books.

The series begins when Ivy moves into Bean’s street, Pancake Court, and the girls’ moms urge their daughters to play together. But Bean is completely uninterested in Ivy, because Ivy sits across the way on her porch with her nose in a book, and Bean is convinced books are boring. Just looking at Ivy, with her hairband and her dresses and her buckle shoes, makes wild Bean yawn. Bean is barefoot and tom-boyish and always on the go. She itches to play evil practical jokes on her pre-teen sister Nancy — the one who narrows her eyes at every ridiculous thing Bean does.

Much to Bean’s surprise, Ivy turns out to be interesting, with her linty-but-star-studded bathrobe and her gold-stick wand and her bedroom portioned by chalk marks on the floor. All the books she devours have filled her head with fabulous ideas, and she’s been waiting for someone like Bean to come along to set her imagination loose on the world.

Reading through, I am often reminded of N’s “playdates” with A, a friend who lives up the street — their favourite activity is making potions with anything and everything they can find. Old coffee grinds, bits of orange peel, years-old condiments from the fridge, egg shells, spices, herbs and maybe food colouring for a special treat. They like to spy, too, with magnifying glass and notebook, and they can sometimes be heard speaking in a secret language. The last time A visited, I found the big old Raggedy Ann doll I’d passed down to N stuffed in the closet with about fifty barrettes clipped tight to her red yarn hair — some form of barrette torture, I was told.

I didn’t make the connection until today that Annie Barrows of Ivy-Bean fame is also Annie Barrows of Guernsey-Peel fame. The epistolary novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was begun by her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, but when her health began to decline, she asked her niece Annie to help her finish the book. Of course it went on to become a great success. Having collaborated with my sister on The Occupied Garden, the story intrigues me.


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Mourning kings and angels

china nell, cropped

This regal picture was snapped several years ago. Happily, my daughter seems to be moving out of the princess phase. I like to think it’s because she listened when I told her that princesses were overrated — she says “over-aided,” which is also true — but maybe it’s just a natural progression and has little to do with me. What irks me about so many of the princess stories is that the heroine does so little for herself. Sleeping Beauty sleeps. Cinderella weeps until the birds and mice come up with bright ideas.  These are beautiful victims, desperate to be saved. What makes us adore them so much?

Actually I don’t remember loving a princess when I was little, but I’m sure I must have. The heroine who sticks with me from early childhood is Pippi Longstocking, who could outsmart policemen and lift up her horse with one hand. She was no beauty, not in the traditional sense. But later, as I approached my teen years, something must have shifted: I had a Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall (along with Vinnie Barbarino and Fonzie), and had already been infected by that adoration and the accompanying dread that I would never be nearly so lovely, no matter how I styled my hair.

Since Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died, the news everywhere speaks of “the king” and “the angel.” Radio stations and websites and talk shows are asking us to share our thoughts, about “Jacko” especially, as we embark on some collective form of mourning. But what are we mourning, exactly, aside from the loss of talent and the tragedy of famous lives cut short? An old friend of mine said, “It’s always sad when part of your childhood dies,” and that seemed to encapsulate the wave of sorrow so well — celebrities’ highs and lows, from our perspective, are more about us than them. So in this way the screen that we stare at is really a lens that looks inward.

I remember when Elvis Presley died. He was a king too, of an earlier empire. I was eleven years old, and knew of him just because everyone did, not because I or my parents listened to his music. We didn’t. But I knew it was an historic day, and I remember taking the front page of the newspaper up to my room, and folding it and putting it in my drawer. I thought it was something I would always keep, and I recall having the sense that this was the first time I had consciously shared in something that touched so many people, united by their focus on one man. I suppose one of the functions of celebrities is to form a community among strangers.

The Kiss, with crowns on

The Kiss, with crowns on

Who would ever wish to be so relentlessly famous? People are gathering in huge crowds for Michael Jackson just as they did for Elvis and John Lennon and Princess Diana. I keep thinking of one of the interviews I watched on David Lynch’s new Interview Project, in which an 85-year-old woman, rocking on her porch, sums up her life as child, mother, grandmother, in just a few minutes. “I just don’t know of anything I would change very much,” she says. “I’ve lived a good long life. … To be right honest, I don’t care if anyone remembers me or not.”

I find these stories about ordinary people so refreshing. Interview Project is not perfect — in my opinion, it relies too heavily on romantic rural images like dusty roads and birds on a wire, and the questions asked of its participants are often too broad to really be meaningful in such short clips. But the idea behind the project is excellent — a crew traveling across the country and finding people as it goes; collecting and documenting their stories.

When my sister and I were first working on The Occupied Garden, someone asked me what made our family worthy of a book, what was different about them than any other family. And I found myself scrambling for an answer, when really the point was that they weren’t different to any great degree. It’s interesting how in fiction we like to read about “ordinary people” as characters, but memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies in large part are reserved for the celebrities among us. We crave their stories. And yet it’s hard to decipher the truth of those stories — to find the person inside them — when we make them into kings and angels.

***Just adding an interesting aside to this post, having recently come across the Fallen Princesses photos by Vancouver photographer Dina Goldstein. Here, “Disney’s perfect princesses ” come up against “illness, addiction, and self-image issues.”


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