By the time Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on the School won the Newbery Medal in 1955, there was already a long tradition of Newbery winners about children in foreign cultures. What DeJong's book had that almost none of its predecessors did was an inside view—though his family moved to the United States when he was a boy, Meindert had experienced Dutch culture in Holland.
This makes the story of six kids trying to get storks to come to Shora, Friesland ring with special authenticity. In an indeterminate time (probably the late 19th century), five schoolboys and one schoolgirl are inspired to get storks to nest in their village, a village on the seashore without trees, and without wheels on the housetops for the migrating birds.
The wheel on the school is just what it sounds like. In Holland and Friesland, people put wagon wheels on their rooftops to attract storks to nest on them when they migrate north from Africa. Shora is a town without storks, and when Lina asks why at school, the teacher inspires the kids to think it out, which in turn leads to a quest to find a wheel and put it on the schoolhouse roof.
DeJong follows each child as they search for a proper wheel. Jella, Auka, Eelka, the twins Pier and Dirk, and little Lina all have many adventures, some comical and some truly frightening, as they scour the town of Shora and the surrounding farms. While there are setbacks, eventually everything comes together Providentially and the kids have a wheel, thanks to the new friends they've gained on their search, which include some of the oldest and most grouchy people in the village.
Shortly after the wheel is found a big storm blows in, and there's barely time to get it to the schoolhouse before one of the biggest storms in Shora's memory hits. The fathers of the kids heroically put the wheel on the schoolhouse roof during the storm, helped and directed by Janus, an old fisherman with no legs.
But when all this is done, there's very bad news: all the storks on their way from Africa are presumed dead in the aftermath of the storm since they had no shelter in the ocean. It's two small children, up in the belltower where they shouldn't be, who spot a pair of storks still alive in the sea, sparking one last adventure and rescue mission. In the end, they are settled cozily in the wheel-nest atop the school.
Is this a story about nature conservancy? No, there's no agenda here. Is it just about adventures on land and sea? There are plenty of those, and DeJong doesn't spare readers some chilling details, but it's more than that, too. Is it simply a happy story about kids reaching inside themselves to overcome difficult odds? Certainly not.
Any good novel uses metaphor to stress its main point, and The Wheel on the School is no exception. In this case, it's the wheel itself—because at the heart of this novel is the way children can bring people together, soften hardened hearts, and rekindle life where it has grown dusty and ashen. The care and love of the Shora schoolchildren go out from the hub like spokes, joining the villagers together in a single purpose that makes them whole again.
Himself a Dutch Reformed Christian, DeJong is careful to keep his story unshackled by sentimentality. He portrays a wholesome ideal of family life balanced with salty realism: the families go to church, but still quarrel at home; the children are respectful, but not always obedient; Janus makes a turn for the better, but repentance is necessarily part of his healing.
Though he's never named and takes a somewhat background role, the school teacher is the real hero of the story. While he does teach arithmetic, reading, and the other academic disciplines, he also fosters a hunger for learning in his young students, letting them do things on their own initiative and not turning education into a dreary chore. His methods are similar to those modeled by Charlotte Mason, as he encourages nature study and active participation.
Overall this is a very good book, well-written, filled with adventure, and satisfying. If there's a complaint it's the length—three hundred pages is too many for a book about kids and storks, and The Wheel on the School could definitely have been shorter. It is worth reading, however, and one of those children's novels that will reward young and old readers alike.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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