Totto-chan, the Little Girl at the Window is a children’s book written by Japanese television personality and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. Published in 1981 it became an instant bestseller in Japan. The common wisdom is that the book is about the values of the unconventional education that Kuroyanagi received at Tomoe Gakuen, a Tokyo elementary school founded by educator Sosaku Kobayashi during World War II, and it is considered her childhood memoir.
Very true but there is much more being expressed in the simple language of this extraordinary novel. It is perhaps better seen as an adult novel written in a way that both focuses on the education and development of children but also slyly informs the adult reader with alternate views on the development of children, especially in opposition to many of the long-held beliefs and practices prevalent in Japan before the war.
And kids can read it too!
The story begins with Totto-chan’s mother being called to Totto-chan’s school because her daughter is being expelled. But when all the grievances against Totto-chan are described, the mother realizes that her daughter is not being a bad girl but rather that her daughter needs to express herself and explore life more than to sit rigidly in a classroom having dry education pumped into her by a less-than-enlightened teacher.
So she takes her daughter to enroll in the Tomoe Gakuen school where little Totto-chan flourishes in a less structured environment. The novel tells little stories, each focusing on an event that helps Totto-chan to learn and appreciate the world around her. In some ways the novel reminds me of some of the books I read in elementary school where there are life-lessons on every page (Miss Piggle-Wiggle comes to mind). But the key to Totto-chan’s education is that she is allowed to work things out for herself: no one dictates to her the right thing to do.
I suspect there is an important effort outside of this novel to continue its lessons. From the Wikipedia entry I see that there is a Totto-chan Foundation bringing live theater to the deaf. It is also impressive that Totto-chan has been translated into many, many languages, including, Arabic, Chinese, French, Italian, German, Korean, Malay, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Thai, Russian, Uyghur, Sinhala, and Lao, and many Indian languages including Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu, Kannada, Assamese, Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam.
So if you enjoy reading juvenile fiction or even if you’re looking for something easy to read but still nourishing … in fact, everyone should read Totto-chan: The Little Girl At the Window … and the above list suggests you can get a copy in just about any language you read, so no excuses.