When I wake up I always know
What I'll do
And where I'll go
Whom I'll see
And what we'll say
And who I'll be
The whole long day.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Look Through My Window by Canadian author Jean Little. I still have an ancient copy, pictured here. The price stamp is 95¢, and the excerpted review line above the cover image is "a book full of people you will like." This is the truth. And it is still one of my favorite books.
Look Through My Window is about a little girl named Emily. Emily wants to write, and Emily wants a friend. Emily is an only child who lives in an apartment in the city. Her aunt gets sick and needs many months to recover, so she and her parents move to an eighteen-room house in the suburbs with her young cousins. And that, so says the first chapter's title, is The Day the World Changed.
There are many reasons I love this book. Here are just a few:
1. Emily moves into the attic room because she wants a poet's garret. In the room, she finds a locked box full of poems that belongs to Kate, who's been using the formerly abandoned house as a place to hide and write. Emily writes poems, too. They are simple but insightful.
If ever I
Did something new
They all would say,
"That's not like you."
I'm always just
The me they see --
Not the real true
2. Of course, Emily and Kate, pictured above, looking ever so much like Kate, are destined to meet. This isn't an easy story of instant friendship, though. In many ways, they are different, and they navigate their uncertainty with caution and care, gradually working their way into discovering the ways in which they are the same.
3. Into Emily's life bursts not only Kate but this wild group of four young cousins, John, James, Ann, and Jean, who are all fully formed characters in their own rights. They make Emily's life infinitely more complicated and stressful, but it doesn't take long for her to realize that the chaos all of these children bring is also kind of awesome.
4. This book has a few wonderful illustrations by Joan Sandin that get all sorts of little details right, from capturing the exact expression you'd imagine on certain characters' faces to depicting familiar and beloved covers of books on bookshelves.
5. A young homesick French woman named Sophie, who barely speaks English, is sent over to help the family by the cranky old lady next door, who of course might turn out to be not really all that cranky.
6. There is a cat in this story named Wilhelmina Shakespeare.
7. Emily evaluates who she wouldn't want to see her new room -- this room with the skylight that takes her breath away, that makes "the room look like Heidi's loft and Sara Crewe's garret" -- with the following standard: "They would not have read the right books. They would not understand."
8. One of the differences between Emily and Kate is religion, and there are some thoughtful conversations about what it means to be Christian and what it means to be Jewish and what it means to be nothing. Possibly because this book was published in 1970 and there wasn't a lot of religious diversity where the book is set, or maybe because she doesn't think she's ever been around any Jews, Emily is surprised to learn that Kate is Jewish, and a mutual friend of theirs is SHOCKED to learn that the cousins are Catholic. (“‘They ARE?' she gasped. 'But they seem just like ordinary children.'") The thoughts and discussions that these characters have about these issues add a nice weight to the story, and I think it's all handled with a lot of sensitivity and honesty for a children's book. Emily and her mom have a long talk about prejudice, and her mom explains that all they can do is "go on being ourselves, I guess. We try to get to know all kinds of people. We fight prejudice when we meet it -- in others or in ourselves." If there is better advice on this issue, I don't think I've ever heard it. "Try to get to know all kinds of people." If everyone did that, the world would be so much damn better.
9. In this book, there is the staging of a play.
10. Emily's dad works a lot, and her mom is home running the show. Her parents' relationship feels natural and real, and her mother is one of my favorite characters. She's harried and crazed and exhausted but warm and understanding and funny and somehow handles the mayhem of the house with a combination of improvisation and good humor.
11. You know what this book is not about? Boys. As in, Emily & Kate never talk about boys. Or even think about boys. They're too busy talking and thinking about writing and friendship and families and religion and pets and kids and books. This book passes the Bechdel Test with glorious, flying colors. (No offense, boys.)
12. Kate's parents figure into the story, too, and they own a bookstore, and they, too, feel like fully rounded characters even though they are in the background for most of the book. One of the most frank and thought-provoking conversations in the book takes place between Kate and her dad. He explains why he's no longer a practicing Jew, and she is full of questions, and he says:
We can't tell you the answers to the big questions, Katharine. "Who are we? Why are we here? Is there a God? Is He concerned about us?" But that is the exciting thing about being a human being. Or one of the exciting things. The questions are always there ... The answers -- ah! ... Those are what life is all about. You find part of an answer -- and it leads to another question. Never does the wonder, the asking, end.
When Kate replies, "I still don't know if I'm Jewish or not," he tells her it's something she'll spend her whole life figuring out. Sing it, Kate's dad.
13. Kate's poems don't rhyme and are depicted in a different font and perfectly encapsulate who she is as a character.
14. People say things in this book like "Great Caesar's ghost!" and "Land of liberty, a child with sense!" I've decided to start using these expressions as much as possible.
15. Many moments in this book, as many times as I've read it (and by "many" I mean "MANY"), leave my eyes bright with tears. For their simplicity, for their sweetness, for the way that they get right to the heart of life.
16. Finishing it again today, at age 35, leaves me feeling like I always have, since I was a little girl, and like Emily does here ... In that moment, deep inside herself, she felt the steadfastness of important things. Feeling the steadfastness of important things might be the most important feeling of all. Jean Little, I love you.
It's possible this book is still on the shelf in a library or a used bookstore near you, and there are used copies available online. If I were you, I'd try to find it. To steal a phrase from the book itself, it is “so terribly ordinary -- and so terribly special."