by Johanna Spyri
There are countless different websites and blogs with Top 20 books for children, Top 10, Top 100… there is something timeless and appealing about books we read as children and about books we read to our children, so there are no shortage of results if you type ‘top children’s books’ into an internet search. I would like to share with you some of the books that have most inspired me – children’s books I loved, adored even, when I was a child and children’s books that I have come to love since them; all of which have touched me in some way. My choices may not necessarily be considered the best of their genre but they are, however, my best.
I’ve loved Heidi for almost as long as I can remember. I was a quiet, introspective child and learned to read long before I went to school. Although I loved to be read to I could just as happily read to myself and loved poring over the young children’s books on weekly trips to the library. I adored my own small library of (mostly second-hand) books and treated them reverently, even when I was very young. By my 10th birthday when asked what I wanted for my birthday the most important thing in the world was a bookcase for my books. Not just any bookcase. Even by this age, more than anything else, I wanted a bookcase with glass doors to keep the paper and pages nice and dust-free and to stop the paper going brown and brittle. Quite how I had worked this out I have no idea but I was very determined and the trip to the Weedon antiques centre and my resulting find of a small mismatched stripped pine and ash bookcase, with its very own lock and key, remains one of my most treasured possessions.
The first Heidi I fell in love with was in the rather bossily-named ‘read it yourself’ ladybird books series. This Heidi had ash blond pigtails and is pictured hugging an adorable white goat and clutching a bunch of daisies on the front cover. I re-read this particular version over and over and over again and would say it was an equal ladybird favourite (together with about 5 others, including Thumbelina, The Princess and the Frog and Cinderella).
My next Heidi was a 1975 Dean picture book version which came from Daventry’s one and only toy shop of the day, Merretts. It had a lot more text than my ladybird version but an abbreviated story which ended when Heidi returned to the mountains, therefore missing out one of my favourite parts of the story – Clara’s visit to Heidi’s mountain home. I still managed to re-read it many, many times.
Every year for my birthday my mum would give me a lovely new book, or if I was very lucky more than one, and for my 9th birthday I was presented with a matching 3 volume Collins set of the Heidi stories in hardbacks, with lovely colourful dust jackets. I was enchanted. Even now, after all these years and much re-reading, they still look almost as good as new, except for the lovely birthday inscriptions just inside the front covers. I adored all three books, but the original Heidi – the only one penned by Johanna Spyri – has always been my favourite.
The very best and most enduring children’s stories are essentially timeless. First published in Switzerland in 1880, Heidi is certainly one of these. The English translation in my 1980s edition was first published in the mid-1950s and it reads just as well to me now as it did when I was a child. It’s simple but not simplified, with descriptions that leap off the page and straight into your imagination as you’re reading.
Orphaned as a baby, Heidi is brought up by her Aunt Dete until Dete wishes to go off to a job she has secured in Frankfurt and takes the then five-year-old Heidi up the mountains to live with her gruff grandfather in a simple mountain cottage where he has isolated himself from the rest of society for some years. Heidi finds delight and freedom in the mountain landscape, the goats, her goatherd friend Peter and her kindly grandfather, so is distraught when her Aunt Dete returns for her a few years later and takes her off to Frankfurt to be a companion to a frail invalid girl a few years older than herself, called Clara. Heidi is a buoyant and resilient little girl so tries to make the best of this new situation, becoming firm friends with Clara and her grandmother and enjoying a few escapades in her new home in Frankfurt. However, as time goes on, Heidi pines away with longing for her mountain home, her beloved grandfather and her other friends. Heidi’s new family send her back to the mountains but this time with some added accomplishments which make her even more of a delightful child to her grandfather and those around her. She has learned to be more of a help at home, she has learned to read beautifully so she can read psalms to Peter’s grandmother and she has learned to have faith and say her prayers. She brings delight to everyone on her return home and as she regains her health and strength she looks forward with excitement to her friend Clara’s visit to stay with her the following year. The mountain air is sure to improve Clara’s health and perhaps it will help her bereaved friend, the Frankfurt doctor, to overcome his grief as well.
It’s a beautiful warm story and one I can re-read over and over again. I have since read some interesting snippets about Johanna Spyri – that her marriage may not have been an entirely happy one, that she suffered from depression, that her mother’s religiosity may have been overbearing when she was growing up, that she was friends with Wagner, and that she wrote a lot of stories (maybe 50-70 stories altogether). I would very much like to discover more about this wonderful author and am seeking a biography of her in English translation, so if you’re reading this and know of one please do let me know. In the meantime I’m off to track down some more of her children’s stories. Perhaps I’ll start with Vinzi, A Story of the Swiss Alps; or will it be Mazli, A Story of the Swiss Valleys?
I’ll never be too old for a good children’s book…