In 1947, Betty MacDonald introduced the world to an eccentric childrearing guru in her book, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Through the titular character, an endearing and peculiar old lady, the book successfully reflects attitudes towards childrearing in this period, while at the same time satirising post-war America’s social construction.
As the name suggests, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is depicted as an unconventionally funny, even quirky, old lady. Despite being known as an expert in the handling of parenting problems, she is depicted as someone who defies the expectations of what an adult is like. As a widow, she does not conform to the “traditional family values” upheld in the American post-war period, living with the company of only a cat and a dog. Her upside-down house reflects her topsy-turvy and unorthodox approach to various problems and life in general. The un-adultlike characteristics indicated by her way of living are what made children in the neighbourhood comfortable playing with her—while also doing substantial housework on her behalf. The affinity between Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and the children invokes the concept of intergenerational solidarity in children’s literature (e.g., Sundmark, 2021; Joosen 2015), with an elderly character as an interdependent ally against the seriousness of the adult world and normativity.
In contrast to Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s playfulness, the other adults in the neighbourhood are portrayed satirically. In the only study about the book that we have knowledge of, Mills suggests that it is as if MacDonald wanted to caricature of the over-emphasising of traditional family values. All the mothers are depicted as dedicated homemakers, stay-at-home women who spend their time in club meetings and waiting for their children to come back from school. The fathers, on the other hand, do undetermined office work, commuting by train with briefcase in hand.
The chapters in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle generally follow the same pattern, started by an undesired behaviour in a child. The parents become exasperated by this behaviour to the point that the desperate mother tries to find a solution by calling the other mothers. This generally leads to preposterous maternal interactions and bragging-contests, ending with a recommendation to contact Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. This rendering as the advice—giver makes Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle fit in the ageist trope of the wise mentor (Joosen, 2015). At the same time, the titular heroine’s position as the last resort also cements her status as the “wise woman” (Bramwell, 2009)—an independent-minded person often associated with magic who lives on the edge of communities which fear but also need her. At the same time, she also fits in one of Joosen’s ageist tropes—depicting the elderly as the wise mentor.
The chain of events continues with the titular heroine becoming a calming voice for these confused mothers, providing relief through her complimentary remarks on the supposedly problematic children. While retaining her positivity, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle proceeds by proposing her exaggeratedly silly “cures”. Her use of the term “cures”, as Claudia Mills claims (2001, p. 9), actually reflects the development of child psychology at that time, and the shift away from a moral to a medical perspective. This leads to the understanding of “misbehaviour” as a curable disease.
In the book used in this study, all the cures closely reflect a behaviouristic perspective in which parents “train” or condition their children. Children are given more freedom to do what they want, while parents are encouraged to be permissive and worry less. Children are expected to learn from the consequences of their “misbehaviour”. Flexible parenting is clearly championed over stringency.
It is interesting to contrast Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s remedial approach to unruly children with Astrid Lindgren’s books about Pippi Longstocking (1946) due to their cultural significance in Sweden. In Lindgren’s seminal series, contemporary with the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series, unruliness and thwarting of adult authority are celebrated. As noted by Lynch (2016) and Russell (2000), these books are emblematic for Sweden as a nation concerned with counter-acting traditional gender roles. Although both Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Pippi Longstocking rely on absurdist comedy for purposes of satire, Lindgren is more explicit in making the adults bear the brunt of the mockery. As argued by Sundmark, conflicts and re-distribution of power between children and adults are central also in Lindgren’s Emil series (1963–1997), even though the titular character, unlike Pippi, usually receives punishment for his misdeeds. Another relevant, although more low-key example from the Swedish canon of children’s literature are Gunilla Bergström’s Alfie Atkins books in which the protagonist grows up in the sole care of his loving and—in domestic matters—mindful father. Waage (2015) has noted that the books represent values of equality and consensus-oriented parenting in which problems are best solved with discussions. Issues of gender and parenting actualized by the read aloud of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle will be of key interest in the analysis.
As this research deals mainly with the Swedish version of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, it is important to observe the changes in the translation. As Leonardi (2020) has noted, there are greater liberties of text manipulation in translating for children, due to different expectations of child readers in every culture. From that point of view, it is not unexpected for the titular character Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to be transformed into Tant Mittiprick (literally translated as ‘Aunt Spot-On, or, according to the current use of “tant”, “Old Lady Spot-On”). Consequently, this translation creates a possible space for shift in interpretation, from someone funny and amicable (Piggle-Wiggle) into a potentially authoritative, always-right lady (Mittiprick). The Swedish translation also retains Maurice Sendak’s illustrations instead of using the considerably newer illustration by Alexandra Boiger. How Sendak’s version may contribute to the interpretation and understanding of the book will be discussed in the coming analysis.
Previous publications based on the same material (Walldén, 2021) highlighted how the reading of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was followed up by a written assignment in which the students were expected to assume the role of the titular character and write letters containing advice to parents of misbehaving children. In this process of writing pedagogy, directed and supported by the librarian and the teachers, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was construed as an authoritative expert rather than quirky or mysterious. This reception of the book merits a close look at how it was initially presented to, and received by, the students.