Energetic and creative when she is alone, Eileen Spinelli’s unnamed protagonist sings and dances, shows off her basketball skills, and is “brave as a bear / in a cave / in the dark.” When others are around — her classmates, her family, other adults in public places — the boldness disappears and she fades into the background. While others play and argue, she stays out of the way. That is, of course, unless the other is her friend Loretta, who is shy, too. When the girls are together, they make space for one another, and each feels free to play and make noise, even if others are watching, too.
Spinelli’s protagonist is beautifully complex and very relatable. Even readers who are rarely shy have likely found themselves in situations when they didn’t feel quite free to be themselves, and will feel a tug of familiarity when reading When No One Is Watching. For those children (and adults!) for whom shyness is a more frequent experience, the book is a gem, offering a character who understands what it’s like and who finds joy in both aloneness and friendship. Johnson’s illustrations are as exuberant as the child they depict. She is brightly coloured, full of motion from her hair to her shoelaces. The others — with the exception of Loretta — live their busy, talkative lives in softer colours, separated visually, as well as experientially, from the protagonist’s inner life.
Read an interview with Eileen Spinelli.