Johanna Spyri: a writer ahead of her time

Spyri was definitely a pioneer – at a time that is also considered the hour of birth of emancipation.

Johanna Spyri
Swiss author Johanna Spyri was born in Hirzel, in the canton of Zurich, on 12 June 1827. Johanna Louise Heusser’s father was a doctor, her mother a priest’s daughter. Spyri went on to study Modern Languages and Piano in Zürich. Books already meant everything to her in her youth; she discovered Goethe, amongst others, and moved away from the pious world that her mother had communicated to her. She spent several summers in Maienfeld, in the canton of Grisons. These locations were to become the settings for her novel, “Heidi”. In 1852 she married Johann Bernhard Spyri, a lawyer and later town clerk of Zurich. Her first and only son Bernhard was born in 1855 but died of tuberculosis in 1884. After the death of her son, Johanna Spyri dedicated herself completely to writing and charity work. She died of cancer on 7 July 1901 at the age of 74.

Although Johanna Spyri is virtually exclusively associated with Heidi, she wrote 31 books, 27 volumes of stories and four brochures in the 30 years from 1871 – when her first story, “Ein Blatt auf Vrony’s Grab”, was published – until the time of her death. Many of her books and texts take a realistic look at Switzerland and the living conditions of the people there that do not gloss over things. In her literature, Spyri describes with great accuracy and sympathy the poverty of the people at a time when industrialisation was just beginning and people’s lives were dominated by many changes. She was particularly concerned with the fate of children who had lost their parents. This kind of social realism was new at this time, especially in the field of children’s literature.

So in this respect, Spyri was definitely a pioneer – at a time that is also considered the hour of birth of emancipation.

Spyri’s first children’s book, entitled “Heimathlos”, contained the stories “Am Silser- und am Gardasee” and “Wie Wiseli’s Weg gefunden wird” and was published by F. A. Perthes in Gotha in 1878. The author was stated not as Johanna Spyri, but “The author of ‘Ein Blatt auf Vrony’s Grab'”. The cover also had the note “A story for children and those who love children” for the first time, which is included on nearly all of Spyri’s subsequent works.

The same publishers then brought out “Heidis Lehr- und Wanderjahre” in 1879, which was a great and instant success and enabled the author to spend her twilight years in comfort. In 1881 the second book came out, “Heidi kann brauchen was es gelernt hat”.

The author could never have imagined that “Heidi” was predestined for such a popular path, be written in the annals of world literature as a Swiss national myth. What makes “Heidi” so fascinating? The glorification of the ideal Alpine world, and the retention of one’s own childishness are the most commonly named arguments – but they are also the most superficial ones. Analyses often talk of the “basic experience” the character embodies. The tension between of nature and culture, country and city, freedom and etiquette, a place of security and crippling homesickness can be found in the books. The story of the loss caused by industrialisation and modernisation captures the hearts of people all over the world and makes Heidi, the unspoiled girl from the Alps, an “icon of modernity”. And it has lost none of its relevance to this day.

Heidi book

More than 50 million copies: the success of the novels that have been adapted for the cinema several times

From Vietnamese to Afrikaans, from Icelandic to Hebrew and Japanese: Johanna Spyri’s two “Heidi” novels have been translated into nearly 60 languages and have sold more than 50 million copies in total (these figures refer exclusively to the number of novels sold, not all the picture books, colouring kits, adaptations, audio plays etc.). This makes “Heidi” the most successful fictional German-language book in the world. “Heidi” made a breakthrough

in America way back in 1899 in its translated version. The book has not been out of print since. The popularity of the novels inevitably led “Heidi” to several reprints.

From Europe to Asia to America, there is not a single country that has not shown the joys and sufferings of this little orphan girl who lives with her grandfather on a mountain in the canton of Grisons on the big screen and later on the small screen. Cinema, television, theatre, musicals, comic internet and even business and politics have all visited this character from children’s literature.

And of course, Hollywood also became aware of the story. The first silent film was made in 1920. There then followed a very free adaptation in 1937 starring child star Shirley Temple, which was a box-office hit. Further films, an opera and a “Heidi” musical, in which the book was combined with the life story of Johanna Spyri, followed over the years. In 1952, Switzerland produced the first German-language “Heidi” feature film, which stayed very close to the novel and was also a big hit with audiences. But the 1955 sequel, “Heidi und Peter”, relatively loosely based on the second “Heidi” novel, failed to live up to expectations. In addition to numerous films and TV series, the 1974 Japanese anime series by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata achieved immense popularity.

Since the publication of the first Japanese edition of “Heidi” in 1920, Spyri’s work has had a great reception there. 123 different editions of the Heidi books, 21 mangas, 28 picture books and various cartoon adaptations bear witness to this.

And “Heidi” theme parks are no rarity in Japan.

Welcome to the world of “Heidi”

Its international cult status was contributed to a great extent by this Japanese cartoon series, which was broadcast in Germany in 1977 and became one of the greatest TV hits worldwide.

To this day there is hardly anything that has permeated the international image of Heidi to such an extent as the cartoon series. It is definitely down to this series that tens of thousands of “Heidi” fans wander all around Maienfeld every year. Tourism there really took off when the communities surrounding the settings of the book came together to create the “Heidiland Holiday Region”. That was in 1997. Since then, guests have been provided with everything that belongs to a ‘Heidi’ vacation – including a night on the “Heidi” Alp and a walk with the goats.

Heidi – A Film In Numbers


The books by Johanna Spyri have been translated into more than 50 languages and have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. That makes “Heidi” the most successful German-language novel.

Heidi is especially loved in Japan. There alone, there are 123 different editions of the Heidi books, 21 mangas, 28 picture books and various cartoon adaptations.

500 children from Switzerland auditioned for the roles of Heidi and Peter. There are more than 500 extras in the film – as villagers, market traders or schoolchildren.

Filming took place for 45 days in Grisons in Switzerland and in Munich, Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt.

About 25 people spent three weeks returning the location of Latsch to the 19th century. The houses and stall facades were patinised, the street lights are taken down and gardens replanted in the middle of the village. To crown it all, two massive truckfuls of dirt – a mixture of bark mulch, peat and sand – were distributed on the set to make the village look as squalid as mountain villages did at the end of the 19th century.

From Page to Screen: Bringing Heidi to the Big Screen