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By her own admission, Nöstlinger was a wild and angry child. After finishing high school, she wanted to become an artist, and studied graphic arts at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna. She worked as a graphic artist for a few years, before marrying a journalist, Ernst Nöstlinger, with whom she had two daughters. Today she alternates between her home in Vienna and a country house in Lower Austria.
The majority of Nöstlinger's production is literature for children and for young people, and she also writes for television, radio and newspapers. She centres on the needs of children in her work, with an anti-authoritarian bent. She does not shy away from tackling difficult subjects like racism, discrimination and self-isolation.
Her first book was Die feuerrote Friederike, published in 1970, which she illustrated herself. The book was published in English in 1975 as Fiery Frederica.