Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Review: The Wheel on the School by Meindert deJong (1954)

When Lina, one of the six schoolchildren in the Dutch fishing village of Shora, writes an essay questioning the lack of storks nesting in Shora, the teacher reads it aloud to the class. Afterwards, he challenges the students (Lina, and her male classmates Auka, Jella, Eelka, Pier, and Dirk), to begin wondering seriously about the reasons storks might not come to their village, and suggests that by wondering, they may set important things in motion. The class's musings about the stork question lead them to realize that the way to attract storks is to give them a place to nest. In the absence of any trees, they decide to put a wagon wheel on the roof of their school so at least one pair of storks can move in. Finding a wagon wheel proves difficult, however, and soon the whole community is brought together in an effort to find and install the wheel and to help storks safely land upon it.

The description of this book might sound a little cheesy, but the execution is anything but silly. The story unfolds very organically, beginning simply with a schoolgirl's curiosity, and spiraling outward into a life-changing community project. The story is inspirational, but not in a showy or sentimental way. The reader is inspired because the characters are so real and so believable, and the obstacles they must overcome are familiar and relatable. This is a book about the value of asking questions, looking for solutions, and working together, but it never preaches to the reader about a single one of these themes.

I did have some trouble with the language that made me consider abandoning the book early on. DeJong often repeats ideas, and even specific phrases, over and over again within the  space of just a few sentences, which interrupted the rhythm of the story for me. I read segments of it aloud to my younger daughter (yes, babies love novels!) and I found myself getting tripped up quite a bit. I can't tell if this was a byproduct of DeJong's first language not being English, or if he was purposely constructing his sentences differently to highlight the difference between the language of his characters and that of his readers. I think, once I settled into the voice of the book, it worked well as a means of conveying that the characters do not actually speak English, but it made reading the book take twice as long as it needed to.

The Maurice Sendak illustrations also intrigued me. The black and white spot drawings which appear throughout the book are quite different from his iconic images of Max and the wild things, but they show his range as an artist. I could see hints of Max and Pierre and Mickey (from In the Night Kitchen) in the figures' faces, but because this is a novel and not a picture book, the role of the illustrations was more supportive of the text and less interwoven with it. Sendak provides the details of how the characters dress, including their wooden shoes, and he shows the excitement the community feels about their stork project in the way they move together in groups. I also absolutely love the original cover, with the children looking and pointing upward at the stork, as it manages to convey everything the book is about without truly giving anything away.

Overall, I enjoyed this book very much. It's as relevant today as it was 60 years ago, and it's a perfect read-alike for Great Northern?, the last book of the Swallows and Amazons series, which focuses on protecting a rare bird species. It also reminded me vaguely of Because of Winn-Dixie, because of the way involvement with the storks seems to heal members of the community of some of their difficulties, and of The View From Saturday, in the sense that the characters come together as a team quite by accident, without fully understanding the influence of their wise teacher.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for a wonderful review! I have never read this book, despite reading numerous glowing recommendations. Maybe I will remedy that next April! :-)