Written by Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss, and edited by his son Johann Rudolf Wyss, the novel was intended to teach his four sons about family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance. Wyss's attitude towards education is in line with the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and many of the episodes have to do with Christian-oriented moral lessons (frugality, husbandry, resignation, co-operation, etc). The adventures are presented as a series of lessons in natural history and the physical sciences. It is based on the model of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, a genuine adventure story, and presents a geographically impossible array of mammals - including pangolins, porcupines, capybaras, camels, monkeys, lions, leopards, tigers, bears, onagers, peccaries, wild boars, tapirs, mustangs, kangaroos, elephants, hyenas, wolves, giraffes, jackals, walruses, platypuses, koalas, wombats, dingos, zebras, bison, rhinos, hippos, and moose - and a flora that probably could never have existed together - including the rubber plant, flax, coconut palms, sago palms, and Myrica cerifera - on a single island for the edification, nourishment, clothing, and convenience of the children.
Although movie and TV adaptations typically name the family "Robinson", it is not a Swiss name; the "Robinson" of the title refers to Robinson Crusoe. The German name translates as the Swiss Robinson, imply a Swiss version of Robinson Crusoe, rather than a Swiss family named Robinson.