Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Day the Storks Returned to Shora

Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on the School

Meindert DeJong was not into self-promotion.

I already love the man.

Other than the two brief entries that I found in two separate volumes of Something About the Author, one of which was a short obituary (he died in 1991), I came up empty.

According to SATA, outside of his books, the only additional information available were The Horn Book's publication of his Newbery and Hans Christian Andersen awards acceptance speeches, and one article on how to write for children for Author and Journalist.

In DeJong's words, "... before he [the author] can perform that duty of art, he has to listen for and to only one challenge: he has to listen to the cry of creativity. But he has to listen to it alone."

Good luck with that in 2016.

Authors today seem to be under a constant pressure to be out there, to have a strong media presence, a platform, to be accessible and open and approachable and on and on and on, world without end. That leaves me to wonder, how in the world do they ever get any writing done?  I remember reading an article about Alex Haley, how, when he wanted to write he would book a passage on a commercial freighter effectively isolating himself from life's distractions for weeks at a time. Since the end result was Roots, I'd say it was a good call on Mr. Haley's part.

Lucky for us, DeJong also saved his energy for what counted, and today's post is the evidence.

Book #38:  The Wheel on the School (1954) by Meindert DeJong; illustrated by Maurice Sendak. 298 pages.

Shora is a fishing village in Holland. It has some houses, and a church, and a tower, and is situated tight against a dike on the shore of the North Sea.

This is Holland of a century ago, with wooden shoes and white caps and wide-legged breeches.

There are no trees in Shora, save one well-guarded cherry tree in the backyard of a legless man named Janus, who spends his days guarding its fruit against birds and children. And because there are no trees, and because there are no wheels on any of the roofs where they could build their nests, there are no storks in Shora.

Lina, the only girl in a school of six children, wants the storks to come to Shora. Her aunt who lives in Nes has told her all about them. Lina writes a story about storks and with the teacher's permission, shares it with her classmates Jella, Eelka, Auka, and the brothers Pier and Dirk.

The children, with their teacher's encouragement, decide to bring the storks back to Shora. But with no trees, the only other way to attract them is to mount wheels on the rooftops for their nests. The problem is that there is not a spare wheel to be had in the town, so each child is sent out to look for one, especially in places they will be least likely to find one.

In the course of their search, the children all become better acquainted with the people who live in and around their small fishing village, who eventually band together to help them on their quest.

There is Grandmother Sibble III, the oldest woman in the village and the only one who remembers a time when there were storks in Shora; Janus, the fisherman who lost his legs and who strikes terror into every child's heart until he becomes their friend and supporter, the tin man, with his large family and less than stellar sales; and old Douwa, who was nearly a hundred years old and who took long walks along the dike every day.

Once Lina and Douwa recover and old wheel from the wreckage of the man's old fishing boat, only narrowly escaping drowning in the process, it then falls to the fathers to mount the wheel on the roof of the schoolhouse. They do so during the course of a weeklong storm that prevents them from being out in their fishing boats, under Janus's stern direction.

The children, and all of the town by now, are thrilled to see the wheel mounted, but worried that the storm will prevent any storks from arriving and watch the skies for any signs of the magnificent birds. In the meantime, Lina's little sister and her friend manage to get themselves locked in the tower, but the entire village except the fathers, now that the storm is over they are back out at sea for weeks at a time, turns out in search and the tiny tots are found, but not before they spot two storks "standing out in the sea".

It turns out that the storks have been trapped in a sandbar, and it's a race against time to rescue them before the flood tide starts. But rescued they are, and after being warmed by a fire, the pair are carried to the wheel on top of the school, where, after some consideration as to its suitability, they make their nest.

The storks have returned to Shora.

This was a book I fell into easily and read straight through until the end. DeJong has a  straightforward style and the ability to infuse the characters in his story with distinguishable personalities with an economy of words.

The story's not an uncommon one in children's literature; not the storks, but the coming together of people for a common goal and the inevitable consequence of better understanding and appreciation of those around us when we just take the time to actually engage with another human being.

It's a good story, and a timely one.

The setting is the world of DeJong's childhood, a world that was gone even when the book was first published in 1954. But childhood memories are some of the most powerful memories we possess, and you feel, after reading the book, that somehow Shora is still a place that exists, maybe just a little bit out of reach, but with some effort still a realistic, not a romanticized, destination. A place where people would have been content keeping themselves to themselves, but were shown the error of their ways by a little girl's wish, a wish so, "... impossibly impossible that it just had to be. "

Wheel would make a great read-aloud and serve as a golden opportunity to explain why Holland and the Netherlands are not synonymous.

The Wheel on the School was the 1955 Newbery Medal Winner.

The Wheel on the School at

Meindert DeJong was born in 1906 in Wierum, Netherlands and died in 1991 in Allegan, Michigan. In addition to the Newbery Medal for The Wheel on the School, he also was the recipient of the international Hans Christian Andersen Award, normally given to the world's best single book of fiction for children, for his overall works for children in 1962, and in 1969 he won the National Book Award in Children's Literature for Journey From Peppermint Street.

DeJong only began writing at the age of thirty-two, and his first book, The Big Goose and the Little White Duck, was published in 1938. During WWII, he was stationed in China with the U.S. Army Air Corp.

DeJong retired from writing in 1986.

Brief biography of Meindert DeJong from the New Netherland Institute.

Maurice Sendak is for another post another day.  If you haven't already, read My Brother's Book.

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