I stumbled upon an important book the other day.

I probably found it because K is next to J and when I’m in a used bookstore, I always look for Tove Jansson books.

On this day at Retold Tales I noticed a little book called Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. The brief dust jacket description told me it was a person’s true recollections about a school of “fun, freedom, and love” that met in old train cars.

I started reading it there on the floor and knew I’d buy it. I finished it in just a couple days. Tetsuko Kuroyanagi writes her memories of this unusual and special school in Japan during the time of World War II. It’s a beautiful and inspiring little book.

The school, Tomoe, was created by someone named Sosaku Kobayashi who believed children should learn in freedom with much self-expression. He told his teachers “Leave them to nature. Don’t cramp their ambitions. Their dreams are bigger than yours.”

The author writes many beautiful stories of the small and large ways Sosaku Kobayashi crafted a loving space for children of different abilities, interests, and backgrounds. He and his wife made sure each child had enough food to eat, could find and pursue what intrigued them, and felt valued and good. Tetsuko writes about Sosaku’s habit of telling her many, many times “You’re really a good girl, you know.” and how she kept that message in her heart throughout life.

She first came to Tomoe after being expelled from First Grade at another school. At that school, she endlessly opened and closed her desk, ran to the window during class, and other things her teacher just couldn’t tolerate. At Tomoe, her life changed.

The school was not fancy. Instead, it was full of enthusiasm, creativity, and trust that children will follow their interests and learn well if given the right support and freedom. As John Holt much later wrote “All I am saying… can be summed up in two words: Trust Children.”

Totto-chan is a beautiful book showing one model of a school that doesn’t require students to conform, but instead nurtures and celebrates them.

I think you should know going in that things end very sadly. No one is injured in the event, but Tomoe is destroyed by an American bomber and the children must move on to other schools. I appreciated knowing this before reaching that point in the story. Without time to prepare myself, I think it would have been too devastating. The book ends with more information on what each person went on to do in life.

Totto-chan is a book I missed until now and I’m so glad I stumbled upon it. (Aren’t quirky bookstores great?) Let’s take the inspiration of Tomoe and create more and more opportunities for children to grow up in nature, in love, and with the reminder, over and over, that they are good.