Great storytellers for kids: Johanna Spyri, beloved daughter of the Alps

Johanna Spyri, heidi, children books

Johanna Spyri (Source: Wikimedia Commons), Heidi book cover

By Deepa Agarwal

(This is part of a series on iconic storytellers for children.)

The enchanting setting of the Alps, an orphan girl with an immense capacity to do good, the healing power of nature and a happy ending. What else is needed to create an enduring children's classic? Swiss writer Johanna Spyri accomplished this in Heidi, a book that has never been out of print.

When Heidi came into my hands as a nine-year-old, I was enthralled by this little girl's ability to transform so many people, bring sunshine into so many lives. So last year, when my daughter living in Switzerland told me that she had noticed a sign saying "Johanna Spyri Museum" while driving to drop her daughter at school, I was absolutely thrilled. And when we visited the charming museum that has been set up in Spyri's old schoolhouse in the picturesque village of Hirzel, the sight of her family home, her grandfather's house and the church she must have attended, literally gave me goosebumps!

The process of discovering a writer's personal life adds a completely new dimension to any book. Gazing at family photos, the desk Johanna wrote on, early copies of Heidi and her other titles and contracts with her publishers, provided many insights into the creation of this timeless classic. Our jovial guide Bernard Jordan enhanced the experience with fascinating nuggets of information.

Johanna Spyri was born in Hirzel, in the canton of Zurich, Switzerland, on 12 June 1827. Originally Johanna Louise Heusser, her father Johann Jakob Heusser was a doctor and her mother Meta Heusser-Schweizer the daughter of a pastor. A close family-Johanna had two brothers, Theodor and Christian and three sisters, Ana, Ega and Meta. They led a comfortable life, though Switzerland was not a prosperous country at that time. Her mother penned hymns and poems on Christian themes, though she preferred to remain anonymous, despite enjoying some popularity. Johanna had a very religious upbringing, which is reflected in her work. After her school education at the "Alte Schulhaus" at the age of 16, she went to study at a boarding school in the French-speaking city of Yverdon in western Switzerland. On completing her studies, she returned home to spend time in domestic chores, teaching her younger siblings and reading all the books she could find. Goethe was among her favourite writers.

In 1852 she married Johann Bernhard Spyri, a lawyer from Zurich. It was a kind of arranged marriage-he was her beloved brother Christian's friend. Their only child, Bernhard was born in 1855. Unfortunately, Johanna's married life was not very happy. Her husband kept busy, she missed the mountains and it was hard for her to fit into the artificial social life of the city. She fell into a depression which was to last many years. Women did not enjoy much freedom then, and you get a sense of Johanna's feelings when Heidi says, "I want to go about like the light-footed goats…"

Then, with encouragement from a family friend, she wrote her first story, Ein Blatt auf Vronys Grab (A Leaf on Vrony's Grave). Published in 1871, it dealt with the theme of domestic violence and was a work far ahead of its time in focussing on social issues. It brought her much recognition.

Johanna never looked back after that and went on to write 31 books, 27 volumes of stories and four brochures in the 30 years of her writing career.

Her first book for children, Heimatlos: Two Stories for Children and Those Who Love Children was published in 1878 by the well-known publisher F A Perthes in Gotha in Germany. Her name was not mentioned-she was given credit as the author of A Leaf on Vrony's Grave. Two years later, Heidis Lehr-und Wanderjahre (Heidi is Learning While Travelling Around) was brought out by the same publisher and Johanna woke up to unexpected fame. The next part, Heidi Kann Brauchen Was es Gelernt Hat (Heidi Makes Use of What she has Learnt) followed in 1881. The two parts were combined to make the book we know, first translated into English in 1882. Interestingly, under the prevailing laws, Johanna could not sign her own publishing contracts. Till 1882, her husband signed on her behalf.

Johanna Spyri, Heimatlos, children book

Heimatlos: Two Stories for Children and Those Who Love Children, Spyri's first book for kids.

Heidi was to become the most renowned work by any Swiss or German language writer. It has been translated into 50 languages, including Icelandic, Afrikaans, Vietnamese, Hebrew and Japanese, filmed more than a dozen times, and several TV series made. Over 50 million copies of Heidi have been sold worldwide. In Japan alone, there are 123 different editions of Heidi, 21 mangas, 28 picture books and numerous cartoon adaptations.

Johanna could hardly have imagined that the story that sprang from her love for the mountains and her empathy for marginalised children would resonate so deeply with people all over the world. It is said that her summer holidays in Maienfeld, near the old town of Chur provided the creative spark. Not only as a setting, but that she met a lively girl named Heidi in the mountains who was a model for her heroine. Later, this "real Heidi" gained fame too! However, since Johanna never permitted a biography and most of her letters were burned, this matter has remained controversial.

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Sadly, Johanna's son Bernhard died at 28 of tuberculosis in 1884. Her husband too, passed away the same year. The two losses were traumatic but Johanna Spyri's writing and charity work helped her to cope. An independent and self-reliant woman, she also travelled widely to meet her fans. On 7 July 1901, at the age of 74, she succumbed to cancer.

But why has Heidi remained an all-time favourite? Apart from the picturesque locale, maybe her love for home, nature and her positive thinking strikes a deep chord. To quote, "Heidi was never unhappy, for wherever she was she found something to interest or amuse her." Some critics have found the book sentimental, but Heidi continues to delight readers with her spontaneous warmth and her never-say-die optimism. As she proclaims: "I'll always say my prayers... and if God doesn't answer them at once I shall know it's because He's planning something better for me."

(With special thanks to Bernard Jordan for his input.)

(Author, poet and translator, Deepa Agarwal writes for both children and adults and has over 50 books to her credit. She interacts regularly with children, conducting creative writing workshops and storytelling sessions in schools. She tweets @dipuli.)