Totto-chan starts the book by being expelled from first grade shortly after the school year started. Totto-chan seems to have been perpetually full of excitement and enthusiasm. She was thrilled with the street musicians who came by the school and invited them to play for the class. The novelty of a desk that had a lid caused her to open and shut it as often as she could. She was more concerned about drawing a good flag than keeping it on the paper (the marks didn’t come off the desk), and this list goes on...
So she is re-enrolled at Tomoe, a school made of one building and a number of railroad cars. The head master asks her to talk about anything she wants and listens attentively for four hours. “Neither before nor since did any grown-up listen to Totto-chan for as long as that.” Afterward she is introduced to her class in one of the railroad cars. The class did not have formal lessons as such; the students had studies that they needed to do, but they could do them in any order during the day, asking the teacher when they had difficulties, although first grade was a little less independent.
The headmaster was creative in how he instilled values in the children. Students were to bring something from the land (vegetables, beef, pork, pickled plum, etc.) and something from the sea (fish, seaweed, bonito flakes, etc.) to get a balanced meal. The headmaster inspected the lunches and if anything was missing, it was supplied by his wife. This way the students got a balanced meal, and regardless of whether the lunch was fancy or impoverished, the children were only concerned about satisfying the two requirements. Likewise, to teach them about ghosts, he had some of the older children dress up as ghosts and hide in the graveyard of a nearby Buddhist temple. The younger children were supposed to find them, although they could come back if they were scared. They made it various distances, but none of them to the temple graveyard. The older boys came back a little upset that no one had found them and some of them, the ghosts, were scared. So if even the ghosts got scared, there was no point in being scared of them! He encouraged the children to swim naked in the school pool so that the children who were crippled would not be ashamed of their bodies. Likewise, he may have arranged the sporting events for Sports Day to favor the less athletic children (like running in a semi-circle up and down the small-height stairs in front of the main building, which the child whose growth was stunted won). And he always made a point of saying “You’re really a good girl, you know” to Totto-chan, because he believed that everyone is really good at heart, and Totto-chan was not likely to hear this from most people...
Totto-chan had a rather irrepressible spirit, illustrated one day when she dropped her favorite purse down the toilet after looking down into it. Since this was 1940s Japan, the toilets were the outdoor pit variety. Totto-chan wanted to get her purse back and the cesspool did not daunt her in the least. She got a wooden garden-watering ladle, longer than she was, and began emptying the cesspool. “The headmaster came by again. ‘Have you you found it?’ he inquired?. ‘No,’ replied Totto-chan, from the center of the pile, sweating profusely, her cheeks flushed. The headmaster came closer and said in a friendly tone, ‘You’ll put it back when you’ve finished, won’t you?’ Then he went off again...” When she was satisfied she had done all she could, she scooped it back, including some wet earth in order to return the liquid, too. She never looked down at the toilets after that.
Then there was the time that she saw a newspaper on the ground and decided to see if she could jump onto it. She did, but the newspaper was covering the cesspool hole that the janitor had been cleaning and when he came back, he had to pull her out. Some time later she jumped into a pile of grey wall plaster and discovered that she could not move without slipping farther into the pile, so she had to stand there until her mother came and found her.
Totto-chan follows her first few years in school, until the World War II bombings of Tokyo eventually destroyed it. But it clearly had taught a girl who would frustrate most teaching systems brilliantly and she never forgot it. The book is a set of entertaining and instructing views of Totto-chan’s childhood, illustrated with simple and expressive drawings by Chihiro Iwasaki.
Entertaining to read, Totto-chan seems a magnet for trouble. Each story is more than just a fun recollection, it is an illustration of a particular point, usually about Kobayashi, but sometimes about children in general or herself in particular. Each story is well written, with a fairytale or fable quality about it.