Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on the School
illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Book review by Shannon Duncan
Ages: Middle Grades
To start with there was Shora, a tiny Dutch fishing village on the Friesland coast. In Shora was a little girl who was bothered by a big question.
There had been no storks in Shora for as long as she could remember. In villages a little further down the road, however, there were happy pairs nesting on every roof. Lina wanted to know why they passed by on their long journeys from Africa.
While Lina was pondering, she wrote an essay that held everything that she knew about the birds. When she read it aloud in class, it set the whole school wondering.
As the answer to the question became clear, the children realised that something had to be done if they ever wanted to have the long-legged birds clapping contentedly on their village roofs.
Soon all of the village folk were involved; even the elderly and disabled had something to give. They had knowledge, experience and memories that were priceless.
Before long the children of the village were seeing the older members of their community as real people. They were not frightening or unimportant. Grandmother Sibble and Grandpa Douwa had been children just like them, and had stories to tell. They made wonderful friends.
Even with the weather and the fierce ocean against them, the village folk persevered and before long they saw the beginning of the dream fulfilled. All because Lina had wondered.
Meindert DeJong's clean, uncluttered style of writing won him multiple awards, including the 1955 Newbery Medal for this book set in his own childhood home. DeJong perfectly expresses childlike wonder and passion for life.
His style is just right for children, who see their world in sharp focus. Their minds are free of others' ideas, everything they touch is new and exciting. The simplest events burn themselves into a child's memory, forming pictures that will never fade.
This fresh simplicity is balanced with depth of expression and emotion rarely found in stories for young children. Simple, but not silly. Easy to understand, but never shallow. Profound ideas captured in few words.
The style of writing used in this book is complemented by the pen-and-ink drawings by award-winning artist Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) throughout the book.
The Wheel on the School is set in a time pictured on old-fashioned biscuit tins, the time when Dutch children only wore wooden clogs. Although the way of life may be foreign, the issues dealt with are still relevant to children today.
DeJong never brushes aside the childhood fears of failure, of drowning, elderly or disabled people and dogs. Instead, through the story, the author teaches children to conquer their fears.
Throughout the book, the author shows the value of friendship and cooperation; that nothing is impossible when people stand together, and when they persevere in spite of obstacles.
Meindert DeJong always remained a child at heart. When he wrote his books for children, he became one of them. The Wheel on the School is no exception. It is definitely a must-read for all young children from about 8 years old.
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