My older brother taught himself to read by watching Wheel of Fortune, and then taught me to read before I started kindergarten. While I enjoyed reading as a kid, I was never what you would call a voracious reader. When I was in grade school, our district introduced the Accelerated Reader program – a system which assigns levels and points to books, and quotas to students based on their reading levels. I suppose it could be seen as a way to “gamify” reading, but for me, and many other students, it turned reading into a chore.
By junior high, I was pretty disillusioned with the system and felt I was essentially being punished for reading well. As a “Grade 12” reader, I had to read more and longer books in order to hit a dizzyingly high point quota. Typically a straight-A student, I came up short of my AR quota in eighth grade and mother was none too pleased. As punishment, she gave me a new reading quota, in quantity of books only, that I had to reach by the end of the summer.
While the AR system almost killed my joy of reading, my “punishment” of even more forced reading somehow brought it back to life. Maybe it was because I got to choose books based purely on my interest rather than on how many points they would garner. That summer, I frequently made the short walk from our house to the library and enjoyed picking out a new story each time.
I mostly stuck to the Young Adult section. This was before the big YA resurgence of the aughts, so the pickings were fairly slim and very 90s. While most of the books have faded from memory, one story has stayed buoyant in my mind as an adult. I didn’t remember all that much about it, just that it involved a young girl, an old house, a mystery in the attic, and a dead body. I also remembered that it had terrified me to the point that, in high school, I talked my parents out of moving us to a big old house they were interested in buying because I was afraid I’d find a mummified corpse hidden in the walls.
I recently happened upon the title of the story once again, thanks to this Atlas Obscura article about lesser remembered children’s books. The book was Time Windows by Kathryn Reiss. Luckily, the book is available digitally through my local library, so I’ve spent the past few afternoons enjoying re-reading it.
Time Windows follows rising eighth grader Miranda Browne as her family moves from a tiny apartment in New York City to a looming old house in small-town Massachusetts that hasn’t been occupied for fifty years. Miranda finds a dollhouse in the attic that is a perfect replica of their new home and discovers that she is able to view scenes of the home’s previous inhabitants through the windows of the dollhouse. She quickly becomes obsessed with the lives of the families of the past, and finds herself caught up in a mystery as strange things start happening in the present.
Revisiting the story as an adult called up some pretty strong feelings of pre-9/11 childhood nostalgia. It’s easy to see my pre-teen self in Miranda — a well-behaved kid who likes her parents, takes music lessons, and is quick to develop a crush. The story takes place over the summer, reminding me of long days free from responsibility and filled with exploration (in stark contrast to today, where I found myself indulging in the book and writing this blog post when I should have been working). Even little details, like the family ordering out for pizza after a long day, or Miranda enjoying practicing music in an empty house (nobody to be bothered by the noise), took me back to what was a pretty idyllic youth.
Even more striking was the clear role this book had in developing my love for mystery and adventure. It seems like all of my NaNoWriMo novels involve some re-telling of Time Windows, always involving connections to the past, mysterious keys, discovering dead bodies, and meeting attractive men in cemeteries. Time Windows is a story that helped define what would become a lot of my favorite narrative concepts, so that made it especially nice to read again.
If you’re interested in a quick, fun, summertime mystery (though it’s YA that’s heavy on the Y, so you’ll probably be connecting the dots more quickly than the protagonist), you can get the eBook version of Time Windows on Amazon (don’t be turned off by the creepy updated cover!).