Unlike the English books I grew up with in New Zealand, where there were a lot more compliant Annikas and very few rambunctious Pippis, Nordic children’s literature is populated with self-possessed young girls who do exactly as they please.
Pippi Longstocking is nine years old and in charge of an entire household. Not that she lets domesticity get her down, cleaning her floors with brushes she attaches to her shoes to turn the whole thing into a game, and talking back to adults as equals, with little-to-no respect for authority. Pippi is very much in charge of her own life.
In Moomin Valley, Lille My offers a counterbalance to the more giddy characters, unafraid to express her bad moods. As a woman who grew up with the likes of Annika as role models, Lille My challenges what I expect of little girls. My first thought is that she is “too much”. But as an adult, I also know that’s exactly the kind of belief that holds girls and women back from being able to express who they are, to take up space in the world.
Meanwhile, in the Nordic region, you have had these role models for generations. And it makes a big difference: your countries are celebrated the world over for your commitment to gender equality.
Moving to Denmark from the other side of the world, I recognised characteristics in your people that I knew from your literature: Women who wore practical shoes so they could cycle off at a moment’s notice. Women prime ministers. Parents who split parental leave 50/50. Dads who were primary caregivers.
What has long been possible in your corner of the globe is now coveted by those of us who grew up elsewhere. And that’s a good thing, because gender equality isn’t only overdue in our personal lives. It’s an essential piece of the puzzle in solving broader inequalities, as well as poverty and climate change – the biggest issues facing our world today.
Even though these characters are now well into retirement age – Moomin turns 75 years old this year – they still have plenty of insight to offer about the world around us.
As the saying goes, “you can’t be what you can’t see”. Girls who grow up reading about Pippi know they, too, can be “the strongest girl in the world”, that they can ride their horse around town if they want, taking charge of their own lives and showing leadership. Those are the kinds of role models our world needs now.
Vanessa Ellingham is a writer and editor, from New Zealand. She founded NANSEN, a magazine about migrants of all kinds.