The Wheel on the School

005902

NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1955

The Wheel on the School

by Meindert DeJong

Age: 8+

Interests: birds, ocean, Holland, cooperation, helping others, adventure, small towns, country life

HarperCollins: 1954

298 pp – 15 chapters

Also by this author: Along Came a Dog; The House of Sixty Fathers; Hurry home, Candy; Shadrach

There are no storks in the Dutch fishing village of Shora, though they nest in all the neighbouring towns. Why? The town’s six school children ponder the problem and decide they need to put an old wheel on the roof of the school for the birds to build a nest on. Their project is not going to be easy, for the migration has already begun and difficulties beset them at every turn – a wheel proves hard to find, neighbours are unhelpful, an ancient wheel falls to pieces, one child falls off the dike, someone else is stranded in the tide, and finally a tremendous storm hits the coast. Will they get a wheel onto the school roof? Can they do it in time? Will the storks survive the storm, and will they come to Sora?

To start with there was Shora. Shora was a fishing village in Holland. It lay on the shore of the North Sea in Friesland, tight against the dike. Maybe that was why it was called Shora. It had some houses and a church and a tower. In five of those houses lived the six school children of Shora, so that is important. There were a few more houses, but in those houses lived no children – just old people. They were, well, just old people, so they weren’t too important. There were more children, too, but young children, toddlers, not school children – so that is not so important either.

So begins the book, and this is a terrific way to start because while it appears to be the children’s story it quickly turns into the story of a whole town, as everyone is drawn into the stork project. But the whole thing begins with one child’s question, and one simple request from their teacher:

“From now until tomorrow morning when you come to school again, will you do that? Will you wonder why and wonder why? Will you wonder why storks don’t come to Shora to build their nests on the roofs, the way they do in all the villages around? For sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen.

If you’ll do that – then school is out right now!”

And so it begins. Each of the six schoolchildren tackles the task in their own way, and each has a special role to play. Slow and clumsy Eelka reveals great strength and intelligence in rescuing a classmate. Auka’s generosity to the Tinsmith’s family results in a new friendship and valuable help. One twin wins over the grumpiest man in town, and the other risks his life to rescue storks. And timid Lina, the only girl, fearful of strange roads and barking dogs, is the one who sets the whole plan in motion, and who finds a wheel in the most impossible place you can imagine.

In the end everyone in town plays a part, from 93-year-old Douwa right down to the 3-year-olds who spot storks in trouble from the bell tower. Even bitter old Janus in his wheelchair, who has spent years terrifying children away from his cherry tree, comes to life after he is enlisted to their cause, and he more than anyone becomes their greatest ally and cheerleader. The inter-connectedness of everyone in the village becomes clear whenever trouble arises. And it may sound corny, but the events of the story change everyone involved.

I fear it all sounds a little saccharine as I tell it, but it really doesn’t read that way. DeJong shows great restraint, keeping the tone simple and understated, yet he tells the story with such warmth and understanding that you cannot help but be moved. He has a perfect grasp of the inner workings of the children’s minds, and can also hint at the corners of grownup hearts as well.

Some of the biggest moments for the characters are interior ones, beautifully played. One of my favourites is after Eelka pulls Jella from the water, saving him from drowning.

Eelka suddenly lay down. It felt wonderful to lie there, knowing he had done it – done what he had intended to do and done it just as he had planned. He had been strong; the rope hadn’t broken. It was a wonderful proud feeling.

This book is a little on the long side, so the biggest challenge for readers will be sticking with it, but the children’s little adventures begin right away, and the action keeps humming along with moments of great drama and suspense. The illustrations by Maurice Sendak (see below) perfectly match the author’s style and will help children visualize just what is going on, ie. the size of the wooden wheel, what a tin man’s cart looks like, etc.

Reading this book was like uncovering a hidden gem. A beautiful book about small towns, human nature, and storks.

(available at amazon.com)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.