After Eleanor and Edward fell asleep in the magical room in the attic, they woke up facing a mirror where they could see reflections of themselves extending back to infinity. As they approached, they found themselves walking through that mirror, then facing a choice between two more mirrors.

Both mirrors reflected their every move, but they were slightly different. The mirror on the right showed them as they were, but in an agreeable mood; the mirror on the left showed Edward with a slightly unpleasant stubborn grin, and Eleanor wearing thick white powder to cover the freckles that led her to dislike her own face. They chose the second mirror and stepped through. Again they found two mirrors, with the same dichotomy: those on the left stubborn, worldly, and discontent, those on the right more natural and unaffected.

The journey through mirrors continued. The siblings began fighting over which to choose, running haphazardly and pulling themselves through one after another. Then, before they realized it, they stood before middle-aged versions of themselves, each terrified to find hardened grimness and meanness of spirit on their older faces.

“Oh, no, no!” screamed Eleanor, and turned to escape. “Choose, choose!” she said, “oh, let’s be careful how we choose!” Together they stared at the next pair of images.

But there was no choice. There was only one more set––one Edward, one Eleanor––a frightening, savage Edward, and a terrible, tawdry Eleanor.

They turned this way and that, looking for the other pair of images. But there were no more. They had come so far in the wrong direction that they could no longer choose at all. They could go only one way. The choices had shrivelled down to one alone, and that was no better than none at all.

I was stunned at the power of this image as I finished reading aloud this chapter of Jane Langton’s The Diamond in the Window to my kids. What Langton depicts so well is a view of character development that I find compelling: that free will is something we enjoy most fully when we are young, but that we are quite capable of carelessly making choices that will mold us into a future person we never would have chosen from the start, and which is much harder to change once our habits are formed. In the book, the children are given a chance to retrace their steps and choose better “versions of themselves” on a second trip through.

In The Diamond in the Window, and seven subsequent books about the Hall family, Langton has built a world that celebrates American philosophy like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books celebrate the Christian faith. Children travel to magical worlds and learn life lessons through their adventures. Langton’s inspirations are the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and the philosopher Henry David Thoreau, the two most famous members of the American “transcendentalist” school of thought from the 1800’s. Both men lived in Concord, Massachusetts, which is where the children in Langton’s book live. Their home is inspired by a real house at 142 Walden Street in Concord, which you can see through a google map search.

Eleanor and Eddy are orphans who live with their Aunt Lily and Uncle Freddy, middle-aged brother and sister. Years earlier, their other aunt and uncle (children at the time) disappeared mysteriously along with Aunt Lily’s beau Prince Krishna, who had surrendered a throne in India to stay in America with Lily. Now Eleanor and Eddy enter the magical world in hopes of rescuing their missing family and saving the family home from repossession.

A friend of mine said this book helped her fall in love with reading as a kid, and I was glad that I read it aloud to my kids. Langton writes lively characters and suspenseful adventures, and there are plenty of big ideas lending substance to the story.

The weaknesses are similar to those of the Narnia books: the various episodes can be a bit preachy, and some of the lessons are over kids’ heads. But that can be a feature as much as a bug: my younger kids could still follow the adventures most of the time, my older kids had more complex ideas to challenge them, and I had something to keep my mind active while I read.

I recommend the book, and indeed I also read my kids the second book in the series, The Swing in the Summerhouse. This second book followed a format similar to the first, and started to get a bit formulaic with its quotes from transcendentalists, followed by magical journeys that taught corresponding lessons. But still it was a solid read-aloud with some fun moments. At the moment I’ve switched over to a different book series to shift gears, but then we’ll move on to Langton’s third Hall Family book, and I’ll see how my kids respond from there.

The Diamond in the Window is available as an inexpensive reprint paperback. The other books in the series are mostly out of print and harder to find; I got #2 by ILL through my public library and bought #3 used online.

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