Re-Reading Childhood Favorites: Heidi by Johanna Spyri

You might not expect Heidi to be one of my childhood favorites, but it is.  I tended to love books that were grittier and darker.  I preferred flawed or “prickly” characters (think Mary Poppins, Ramona, and Harriet the Spy) and I loved stories that scared me and those that had fantastic elements.

Written in 1880, Heidi is not only blindingly optimistic but it’s also religious, and I don’t typically enjoy books that focus on religion. But what I loved about Heidi as a child, I loved all over again as an adult.  Simply put, Heidi is a comfort read.

First of all, this is a book about a girl who is so loved that darkness falls whenever she leaves the room.  She touches the lives of the people around her so completely they can’t bear it when she isn’t there.  Who among us wouldn’t want to be loved like that?  Even her friend Peter’s semi-creepy devotion to her is moving in its own way.

Second, it’s a book about the things that make us feel good, whether it’s a soft blanket, pillows, flowers, good food, or cute animals. A lot of this has to do with Spyri’s beautiful, sensory way of writing.  For me, the images of toasting cheese over a fire, and the sunset lighting up the mountainside, gets me every time.  As a child I never had to think twice about whether I’d rather be running around in the mountains or living in a fancy house, or whether I’d rather live on cheese, bread and goat’s milk or be waited on by servants.  Or whether I’d rather sleep on a sack of hay in a loft or in a soft bed.

And most importantly, it’s a book about the beauty and power of nature.  Life in the Alps may be hard, but it’s also gorgeous.  Spyri makes the beauty of the mountains come alive, and they are so lovely I want to be right there as I read this book.  And when they are taken away from Heidi, I found myself as devastated as she was.

I also love that it’s a book (as most children’s books are) about the power of reading.  I vividly remembered Peter’s struggles with reading, especially when Heidi tries to teach him from that mean, threatening book.  Reading as an adult, I had to wonder who thought those verses were a good idea? But then look at Grimm’s fairy tales. The scene is memorable – and funny – because poor Peter takes them so seriously.

As for the religious elements of the book, what I appreciated was that Spyri’s concept of religion makes sense to me.  No rituals or rules, it’s mostly about praying and going to church and being kind to one’s neighbors.  As I read it, Spyri’s thinking about religion is that each person builds their own relationship with God, and when we pray we shouldn’t expect whatever we ask for to be fulfilled.  Instead, it will be considered and addressed when the time is right.  Spyri doesn’t try to explain why all the bad things in the world happen, but Heidi does learn that if she’s patient and good, things will work out for her, and maybe not in the way she expected.

As an adult, the only thing that bothered me a little in this book was the way the Sesemanns throw their money around at Heidi and her friends.  They mean well, certainly.  But giving Peter a gift of weekly money, for example, or Clara saying she’ll buy salt by the truckload for the goats, just felt a little excessive. And yet I imagine it’s awkward for them having so much, when Heidi and her friends have so little.

My favorite characters were probably the doctor and Grandmamma (I didn’t grow up with grandparents so I’m a softie there) — but Sebastian, a minor character, was my absolute favorite. There are just so many things in this book that touched me, from Heidi’s sad, crushed little hat, to her pile of dinner rolls for Grannie, to worrying that her grandfather won’t know her when she comes back.

This book reminded me of one of my other favorites, The Secret Garden.  Both are very much about the beauty/power of nature, both are about children who can’t walk, and both have a strong religious tone.  Both are about children who are utterly alone yet they become part, due to their own efforts, of a loving family.  Going back to my love of flawed characters, I identified a whole lot more as a child with Mary Lennox than with Heidi.  But I won’t pretend that this sweet, loving character didn’t make an impression on me.

Note: Heidi meets the Reading Around the World challenge, the Back to the Classics challenge, the Read Harder 2019 challenge, and the Reading Women challenge.

  13 comments for “Re-Reading Childhood Favorites: Heidi by Johanna Spyri

  1. April 29, 2019 at 11:11 am

    Ooh, you’re making me want to re-read this. I read it at age 16, which was completely the wrong age. I didn’t warm to its simple charms but I suspect if I’d been five years younger or older I would have liked it a lot more.

    • May 1, 2019 at 8:59 pm

      Thanks for your comment Cora! I would imagine at 16 you’re wanting something much more complex – a story about a young girl that everyone loves wouldn’t have done it for me at 16 either. I wonder if the book would work for you as an adult, or if it really needs to be read in childhood.

      • May 2, 2019 at 2:17 am

        I wouldn’t be surprised if I enjoyed it as an adult. I have a newfound appreciation for children’s classics these days.

  2. April 29, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    Lovely exploration of this book and its enduring charm. I have never forgotten some of the descriptions read in childhood, from the spicy taste of goat milk to the sad state of dried up bread rolls. There is something of elemental power there and it transcends the sentiment.

    • May 1, 2019 at 8:54 pm

      Thanks Lory — Spyri’s description of food has always been my strongest memory from this book – the milk, the toasted cheese. The characters may not be terribly complex but the imagery is so powerful.

      • Krysta
        September 1, 2022 at 3:09 pm

        My daughter is to read Heidi for her reading lessons in school (homeschool), but I became uninterested in Heidi after reading that the book has a thick religious theme. However, after reading your review, I have decided that I want my daughter to read Heidi, and I look forward to it. 🙂

  3. April 29, 2019 at 4:45 pm

    Dang! I’m going to have to read this. I remember watching the old Shirly Temple movie of Heidi. I found it to be very beautiful and comforting. It sounds like I am going to have to read the book now, too. In a day and age of so much anger and strife, stories like Heidi may be what’s needed.

    • May 1, 2019 at 8:56 pm

      Thanks Jonathan for your comment – I never saw the movie but now I really want to. In fact I’m not sure I’ve seen a Shirley Temple movie, but I think she did Little Princess as well? I think you’re exactly right about why this book felt so comforting.

      • XR
        October 14, 2022 at 8:53 pm

        I came across this post looking for reviews of Heidi, which I myself just reread for the Nth time as an adult.

        I’ll be honest, I didn’t love the movie. Shirley Temple is a little too Hollywood Cute. The American vs British accent also grated at me until I thought – City German as British (formal, higher class) and Swiss German as American (provincial, less formal).

        In fact I haven’t liked ang Heidi adaptation I’ve seen, in part because somehow Alm-Uncle is antagonistic towards “Heidi* after Dete leaves her, which he isn’t in the book.

  4. gabriellaquintini
    April 30, 2019 at 12:31 am

    Thankyou very much for explaining the different themes in “Heidi”, such as religion, the feel-good aspect, the power-of-reading aspect etc.

  5. June 26, 2019 at 6:20 am

    I’m just re-reading this for the first time in years – to get in the mood for a visit to Switzerland! I love Heidi and Uncle Alp and Clara and the others as much as ever, but I keep being struck by what an absolute cow Aunt Detie is. Very unlike the usual devoted aunties. grandmas and cousins raising orphaned relatives in books.

  6. rinaldo302
    December 10, 2021 at 1:55 pm

    I was very glad to encounter this now, right after I reread Heidi for the first time since childhood (and boyhood at that — it was just on our shelf back then). The appealing, fantasy-fulfilling things about it, the things you mention, still appeal. The omnipresent religiosity of it now sticks out to me (it didn’t before) — and interestingly, according to Wikipedia it got some criticism for that even when it was new. One jarring note this time was the concern of all the adults that Heidi be cared for all her life, because otherwise she might have to — horrors! — work for a living. That really does belong to another time.

    I also discovered how much one translation of this book differs from another. I expected changes in wording, of course, but whole conversations I remembered from my childhood copy were just summarized in a sentence in this one.

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