Pippi power fuels young Minneapolis authors

Pippi visitis Bancroft Elementary
A Pippi Longstocking lookalike visited second-graders at Bancroft Elementary in Minneapolis on April 23, 2015. The students studied the book "Pippi Longstocking" by Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren and then created their own storybook characters.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

Seventy years ago, Pippi Longstocking took Sweden by storm. The mischievous child with the distinctive red braids quickly became one of the most popular literary characters in that country's history.

Now the quirky children's book heroine is inspiring young writers in Minneapolis.

If you're not familiar with Pippi Longstocking, the second-graders at Bancroft Elementary are happy to fill you in.

"She can do anything she wants because she doesn't have any parents to tell her what to do," said 7-year-old Addie Winesett.

"She has a pet horse," added Leah Vang, also 7.

"And she has a pet monkey named Mr. Nielsen," 8-year-old Makai Barge piped in.

And Ashley Amaro finished with a conundrum.

"When she doesn't go to bed, she needs to give herself spankings," said Amaro, 8. And just how does she give herself a spanking? "I don't know," Amaro admits.

Mentoring from Susan Marie Swanson
Minnesota author Susan Marie Swanson helped students at Bancroft Elementary come up with ideas for their own storybook characters.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

Swedish author Astrid Lindgren created Pippi Longstocking, a 9-year-old with super-strength and a hearty distrust of authority. If you're looking for an example of character development, Lindgren's protagonist is pretty darn perfect, Minnesota writer Susan Marie Swanson tells the class.

"How can this book 'Pippi (Longstocking)' show us how to make characters of our own? Are they going to be exactly like Pippi?" she asked.

The students responded with an emphatic, "No!"

"But we're going to learn some things from Pippi," said Swanson.

For the last eight years, Swanson has been part of The Pippi Project, an annual six-week-long collaboration with the American Swedish Institute and Minneapolis Public Schools. Using Pippi as a guide, Swanson teaches students how to develop fictional characters of their own.

"Pippi is a remarkable child made out of words," said Swanson. "I tell the children they're making a boy or a girl out of words."

Crafting characters
Second-graders at Bancroft Elementary in Minneapolis were assigned to write their own storybooks. They began by jotting down details about the subjects of their stories.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

Students start brainstorming and soon their characters are taking shape. Story subjects range from a boy who lives behind a waterfall with his alligator security guard to a young girl fighting her mother's fashion sense.

"Her mother bought her some diamond rhinestone-studded go-go high-heel boots, which she does not like at all!" said Addie Winesett. "So she put them in a thrift store!"

Parents and grandparents packed the library at Bancroft Elementary. Students welcomed them with a Swedish rendition of the Pippi Longstocking song.

Bancroft has a diverse student population and many of the family members at this school presentation — especially those from Latin America or Laos or East Africa — have never heard of this Pippi character. To bring them into the world of Pippi Longstocking, there are readings in Spanish and Somali as well as English.

"We're working with multiple cultures," says the American Swedish Institute's Ingrid Nyholm-Lange, "And it's amazing how multiple cultures can come together over a single book."

Passionate about Pippi
During class, one student went into a corner of the room to read a few pages of "Pippi Longstocking" on his own.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

The Pippi Project, says ASI's Laura Cederberg, has become one of the capstones of the academic year.

"It's kind of a rite of passage," says Cederberg. "You'll hear it among siblings saying, 'I can't wait until we read about Pippi.' Because they've heard about it from their older siblings, which is really kind of cool."

Over the past month and a half, the school's second-graders have been crafting characters and developing plotlines. And on this day, they're ready to share their stories.

"Christy has as a magical crystal wall that grants wishes," said Leah Vang.

"April Magical has rainbow hair. She lives in a tree house," said Johana.

"Kevin shouted, 'Hooray! Hooray!'" read Makai Barge. "His ostrich was happy, too. He said, 'Squawk! Squawk!'"

"All of the friends partied for a very long time, for over one hour," read Leah Vang.

Annual collaboration
"The Pippi Project" is a collaboration between Bancroft Elementary, the Minneapolis-based American Swedish Institute and author Susan Marie Swanson (center).
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

The book "Pippi Longstocking" includes lots of the imaginary. Still, author Lindgren was a big proponent of pulling from personal experience.

That, says teacher Becky Ramgren, is one of the most important lessons of the Pippi Project.

"For kids to walk away knowing that authors put a little bit of themselves in their books is really a lesson I love teaching second-graders," said Ramgren. "Then they feel empowered, like, 'I can write a story because I know about this and I can write a story about that.'"

Ramgren loves seeing the connections between her young writers and their characters. Student Alex Naula, for example, wrote about a boy who lives in a sewer with his pet turtle.

"My dad works fixing the sewers," he said.

And 7-year-old Addie Winesett has lots in common with her character Jane Non-Spiffy, from a passion for camping to a strong distaste for spiffy attire.

"I have brown hair. Jane Non-Spiffy has brown hair, too," she said. "I did not really want the brown hair thing to be in the story but, ha, I wish I was in control of if that went in the story or not."

In addition to storytelling, it seems these second-graders also learned about the power of the editor.

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