A Tale of Two Heidis

The illustration to the left is from an older book, a full translation.

This first bit of text is from an abridgement, or more accurately, a ‘retelling.’  Read it, picturing the story in your mind (make a movie of it, or a series of book illustrations):

“Clara could hardly control her excitement when she learned of her grandmother’s visit.  She told Heidi all about her and how much fun it would be to have her in the house again.

When the day finally came, even Heidi was excited about Grandma’s visit.  As soon as Heidi saw the old woman, she loved her at once. She saw the kind expression in her eyes and the way her white hair curled in tiny ringlets about her face.  And grandma liked Heidi too.  Despite Miss Rottenmeier’s harsh words, Grandma knew that Heidi was a bright and loving child.

Not long after Grandma arrived, she discovered that while Clara took her afternoon nap, Heidi was left with nothing to do.  The child still had not learned to read and this concerned Grandma.  She could not understand why this was so.  She called Heidi downstairs and asked her to sit next to her while they looked at picture books.  Heidi was happy to have company in the afternoon and liked all the lovely pictures Grandma showed her.  But when they came to a picture of a green meadow with goats and sheep and a young shepherd, Heidi burst into tears. It reminded her of the home she loved so much and Peter and Grandfather, who were now so far away.

Grandma dried her tears and decided to ask her why she had not learned to read.  Heidi confessed that she knew she could never learn to read, since Peter had told her how hard he tried but could never learn either.  Grandmother told her that of course she could learn, and that she must try.  She asked Heidi if she would like to read the story that went with the picture of the green meadow and the animals.  Heidi thought about it for a minute.  How wonderful it would be if she could spend her lonely afternoons reading stories about faraway places!

One morning about a week later, Mr. Usher asked if he could speak with Grandma.  He was invited to her room, where he was greeted in the usual friendly way.

I have something quite remarkable to report, ” he said. “The impossible has happened.  Heidi has learned to read at least.  I never thought I would see the day!”

Grandma smiled.  That evening she gave Heidi the picture book as a present, and Heidi read the story about the meadow to Clara.”


Now, I’m a Charlotte Mason educator.  So I want to suggest you take a moment to narrate the above to yourself.  Draw a picture of it or simply retell it to yourself, picturing it in your head as vividly as possible.

Once you’ve done that (no cheating ,please), read the following, also picturing it in your mind as you read through.  Here is the same section as  found in an original translation on Gutenberg:


The following evening great expectation reigned in the house. Tinette had put on a new cap, Sebastian was placing footstools in front of nearly every armchair, and Miss Rottenmeier walked with great dignity about the house, inspecting everything.

When the carriage at last drove up, the servants flew downstairs, followed by Miss Rottenmeier in more measured step. Heidi had been sent to her room to await further orders, but it was not long before Tinette opened the door and said brusquely: “Go into the study!”

The grandmama, with her kind and loving way, immediately befriended the child and made her feel as if she had known her always. To the housekeeper’s great mortification, she called the child Heidi, remarking to Miss Rottenmeier: “If somebody’s name is Heidi, I call her so.”

The housekeeper soon found that she had to respect the grandmother’s ways and opinions. Mrs. Sesemann always knew what was going on in the house the minute she entered it. On the following afternoon Clara was resting and the old lady had shut her eyes for five minutes, when she got up again and went into the dining-room. With a suspicion that the housekeeper was probably asleep, she went to this lady’s room, knocking loudly on the door. After a while somebody stirred inside, and with a bewildered face Miss Rottenmeier appeared, staring at the unexpected visitor.

“Rottenmeier, where is the child? How does she pass her time? I want to know,” said Mrs. Sesemann.

“She just sits in her room, not moving a finger; she has not the slightest desire to do something useful, and that is why she thinks of such absurd things that one can hardly mention them in polite society.”

]”I should do exactly the same thing, if I were left alone like that. Please bring her to my room now, I want to show her some pretty books I have brought with me.”

“That is just the trouble. What should she do with books? In all this time she has not even learned the A,B,C for it is impossible to instil any knowledge into this being. If Mr. Candidate was not as patient as an angel, he would have given up teaching her long ago.”

“How strange! The child does not look to me like one who cannot learn the A,B,C,” said Mrs. Sesemann. “Please fetch her now; we can look at the pictures anyway.”

The housekeeper was going to say more, but the old lady had turned already and gone to her room. She was thinking over what she had heard about Heidi, making up her mind to look into the matter.

Heidi had come and was looking with wondering eyes at the splendid pictures in the large books  that Grandmama was showing her. Suddenly she screamed aloud, for there on the picture she saw a peaceful flock grazing on a green pasture. In the middle a shepherd was standing, leaning on his crook. The setting sun was shedding a golden light over everything. With glowing eyes Heidi devoured the scene; but suddenly she began to sob violently.

The grandmama took her little hand in hers and said in the most soothing voice: “Come, child, you must not cry. Did this remind you of something? Now stop, and I’ll tell you the story to-night. There are lovely stories in this book, that people can read and tell. Dry your tears now, darling, I must ask you something. Stand up now and look at me! Now we are merry again!”

Heidi did not stop at once, but the kind lady gave her ample time to compose herself, saying from time to time: “Now it’s all over. Now we’ll be merry again.”

When the child was quiet at last, she said: “Tell me now how your lessons are going. What have you learnt, child, tell me?”

“Nothing,” Heidi sighed; “but I knew that I never could learn it.”

“What is it that you can’t learn?”

“I can’t learn to read; it is too hard.”

“What next? Who gave you this information?”

“Peter told me, and he tried over and over again, but he could not do it, for it is too hard.”

“Well, what kind of boy is he? Heidi, you must not believe what Peter tells you, but try for yourself. I am sure you had your thoughts elsewhere when Mr. Candidate showed you the letters.”

“It’s no use,” Heidi said with such a tone as if she was resigned to her fate.

“I am going to tell you something, Heidi,” said the kind lady now. “You have not learnt to read because you have believed what Peter said. You shall believe me now, and I prophesy that you will learn it in a very short time, as a great many other children do that are like you and not like Peter. When you can read, I am going to give you this book. You have seen the shepherd on the green pasture, and then you’ll be able to find out all the strange things that happen to him. Yes, you can hear the whole story, and what he does with his sheep and his goats. You would like to know, wouldn’t you, Heidi?”

Heidi had listened attentively, and said now with sparkling eyes: “If I could only read already!”

“It won’t be long, I can see that. Come now and let us go to Clara.” With that they both went over to the study.

Since the day of Heidi’s attempted flight a great change had come over the child. She had realized that it would hurt her kind friends if she tried to go home again. She knew now that she could not leave, as her Aunt Deta had promised, for they all, especially Clara and her father and the old lady, would think her ungrateful. But the burden grew heavier in her heart and she lost her appetite, and got paler and paler. She could not get to sleep at night from longing to see the mountains with the flowers and the sunshine, and only in her dreams she would be happy. When she woke up in the morning, she always found herself on her high white bed, far away from home. Burying her head in her pillow, she would often weep a long, long time.

Mrs. Sesemann had noticed the child’s unhappiness, but let a few days pass by, hoping for a change. But the change never came, and often Heidi’s eyes were red even in the early morning. So she called the child to her room one day and said, with great sympathy in her voice: “Tell me, Heidi, what is the matter with you? What is making you so sad?”

But as Heidi did not want to appear thankless, she replied sadly: “I can’t tell you.”

“No? Can’t you tell Clara perhaps?”

“Oh, no, I can’t tell anyone,” Heidi said, looking so unhappy that the old lady’s heart was filled with pity.

“I tell you something, little girl,” she continued. “If you have a sorrow that you cannot tell to anyone, you can go to Our Father in Heaven. You can tell Him everything that troubles you, and if we ask Him He can help us and take our suffering away. Do you understand me, child? Don’t you pray every night? Don’t you thank Him for all His gifts and ask Him to protect you from evil?”

“Oh no, I never do that,” replied the child.

“Have you never prayed, Heidi? Do you know what I mean?”

“I only prayed with my first grandmother, but it is so long ago, that I have forgotten.”

“See, Heidi, I understand now why you are so unhappy. We all need somebody to help us, and just think how wonderful it is, to be able to go to the Lord, when something distresses us and causes us pain. We can tell Him everything and ask Him to comfort us, when nobody else can do it. He can give us happiness and joy.”

Heidi was gladdened by these tidings, and asked: “Can we tell Him everything, everything?”

“Yes, Heidi, everything.”

The child, withdrawing her hand from the grandmama, said hurriedly, “Can I go now?”

“Yes, of course,” was the reply, and with this Heidi ran to her room. Sitting down on a stool she folded her hands and poured out her heart to God, imploring Him to help her and let her go home to her grandfather.

About a week later, Mr. Candidate asked to see Mrs. Sesemann, to tell her of something unusual that had occurred. Being called to the lady’s room, he began: “Mrs. Sesemann, something has happened that I never expected,” and with many more words the happy grandmama was told that Heidi had suddenly learned to read with the utmost correctness, most rare with beginners.

“Many strange things happen in this world,” Mrs. Sesemann remarked, while they went over to the study to witness Heidi’s new accomplishment. Heidi was sitting close to Clara, reading her a story; she seemed amazed at the strange, new world that had opened up before her. At supper Heidi found the large book with the beautiful pictures on her plate, and looking doubtfully at grandmama, she saw the old lady nod. “Now it belongs to you, Heidi,” she said.

“Forever? Also when I am going home?” Heidi inquired, confused with joy.

“Certainly, forever!” the grandmama assured her. “Tomorrow we shall begin to read it.”

“But Heidi, you must not go home; no, not for many years,” Clara exclaimed, “especially when grandmama goes away. You must stay with me.”

Heidi still looked at her book before going to bed that night, and this book became her dearest treasure. She would look at the beautiful pictures and read all the stories aloud to Clara. Grandmama would quietly listen and explain something here and there, making it more beautiful than before. Heidi loved the pictures with the shepherd best of all; they told the story of the prodigal son, and the child would read and re-read it till she nearly knew it all by heart. Since Heidi had learned to read and possessed the book, the days seemed to fly, and the time had come near that the grandmama had fixed for her departure.”

Take a moment to think about what you’ve read.  Narrate it to yourself, or in the comments.  Or draw a picture.  Visualize it.  Dwell on the story.  Notice all the richness that is missing- not just the religious references, but the fuller descriptions, the motivation, the heart.

Heidi was not originally written in English, so any version we read in English is going to be a translation. Translations will vary a bit.  However, the first excerpt quoted above is not a translation. It’s not even an abridgement. It’s a complete butchering of the original story, discarding its heart, and leaving the reader with a few loosely disjointed plot scenes.

People often recommend these particular abridgements as being good for young children to begin with- they will then be interested in the original story later.  But why waste their time with this?  Let them read the many wonderful books already suitable for their age and reading level without the butchery, and read Heidi aloud together when they can follow the story (you’ll be surprised how young this might be).


Later I will share another comparison from the story of Heidi. Here you go.

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