Going beyond the edelweiss: How Jeanne Willis retold Heidi for a new generation

Published on: 04 December 2019 Author: Jeanne Willis

Jeanne Willis never read Heidi when she was younger - but when she was asked to retell Johanna Spyri's classic story, she fell in love with it. Here, she reveals how she updated the tale for a new generation...

The front cover of Heidi and author Jeanne Willis

I never read Heidi when I was a child. There were no bookshops in Marshalswick and Amazon was still just a river, so I relied on my Auntie Kay to send me literature on my birthday and at Christmas because they sold books in Kettering. Apart from a Blue Peter Annual, my entire collection consisted of Winnie the Pooh, Paddington and Enid Blyton.

I'm not sure I'd have thanked Auntie Kay for Heidi at the time. I liked snow and goats as much as the next kid, but unless it had pictures, I'm not sure I would have been able to wade through the original text at a tender age, what with its many chapters and German names - I'd have preferred an Etch A Sketch.

But having read Heidi for the first time at the age of one-hundred-and-fifty-two, I wish I'd read it years ago - if only it had been presented as a picture book with a large typeface and written in simple language, I might well have done.

I had a wonderful relationship with my grandfather, so I could relate to Heidi bonding with her own Grandpa. I longed to run freely in the wilderness with a shepherd boy (I still do!) instead of roller-skating endlessly around the tiny terrace in our back garden. To cap it all, I've always liked edelweiss because Nana had a dried one that she kept in an album and as a special treat, I was allowed to stroke its petals (it passed for entertainment in those days).

I think I was initially asked to write a picture book version of Heidi because my lovely editor knew I had an allotment, and therefore a fondness for flowers and nature. She also knew that I adored my grandad! They're both key elements of Heidi's world... one I had yet to enter.

Making Heidi a joy to read for children

The idea behind updating Heidi was to present a contemporary book that was a delight to look at, a pleasure to hold, and a joy to read - my responsibility being the 'joy to read' bit. Having read the old edition at last and really enjoyed it, I realised there were several things to consider beyond describing the characters and the edelweiss in all their glory.

Firstly, it's a long story to squeeze into a picture book, even though I was allowed more pages and text than usual. Even so, it was a bit like being asked to take the contents of Herr Sesemann's mansion and arrange them attractively in Grandpa's hut.

Some things had to go, so I did my best to remove the bits no one below the age of ten would miss terribly, whilst attempting to keep the flavour of the original, which is as delicious and satisfying as Grandpa's toasted goat's cheese on a chilly night.

Some passages were easier to lose than others; not everyone is Christian and instead, religion was alluded to in a broader sense. Grandpa was persuaded by big-hearted Heidi to fix Granny's leaky roof a couple of times, and through those acts of uncharacteristic kindness, he found a kind of redemption.

There was also quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the Alps and Frankfurt, and unless you have an app for that, it's quite complicated to navigate the diversions without getting lost in your own horse and trap. So I took the same route as the golden eagle and cut corners, figuring I'd rather take the reader on a joyride than lose them in heavy traffic.

Revisiting Heidi's representation of disability

The hardest decision was how to explain Clara's mystery illness and swift, 'miraculous' cure. The original plot didn't specify why she was confined to a wheelchair for years - there was nothing physically wrong with her limbs or organs, nor was she born with a genetic condition, as far as I could gather, but if I was a child, this would be the first question I'd ask: why can't Clara walk? It deserves an answer.

It was a tricky one. It really seemed to me that Clara was locked in grief after her mother's death, with the natural process of bereavement halted by the fact that she isn't allowed to talk about her mother, especially to her beloved Papa.

To me, Clara appeared to be suffering from a serious case of depression - over-protected, with no-one to play with and so weak through lack of exercise, she lost the inclination and/or the muscle strength to walk.

A psychological cause seemed to be the most plausible diagnosis for another reason, too. At the end of the original story, Clara is cured of her physical disability - not by a great leap in medicine or through surgical procedures, but by a healthy dose of fresh air, goat's milk and prayers.

I'm willing to believe that, but only if Clara's disability was purely down to the state of her mental heath. If not, why give false hope to a real child in a wheelchair whose physical condition might never allow them to stand on their own two feet, no matter how hard they try? Some mountains are impossible to climb and to pretend otherwise is rather cruel.

I hope the children who read my retelling of Heidi enjoy the story and fall in love with her. I'm certain they'll love Briony May Smith's delightful illustrations.

The reviews have been most encouraging, but the icing on the strudel would be if this picture book encouraged young readers to embrace Johanna Spyri's Heidi far sooner than I did, while they still love the snow and aren't afraid of falling and breaking a hip.

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