The 34th Newbery, The Wheel on the School, by Meindert de Jong is super charming and the sort of book I imaged reading when I embarked on this project to read all the Newberies. It’s set in the author’s native Holland, in a fishing village along a dike the holds back the sea during, I would imagine would be early 20th century, when farmers still used horses and carts. This particular village, Shora, has no trees and unlike the surround villages, no storks. The six children of the local school begin a quest to discover why there are no storks and see if they can’t make a home for a pair of storks on the roof of their school using a large wagon wheel. Along the way they enlist the help of the whole village.
What I liked. I loved the vividness of village the fishing village life with so many different kinds of characters — children and disabled old fishermen alike—growing and becoming wiser and kinder as they worked together to bring birds back to their village. The point of view changes with each chapter, following the six different children around the village and country side as they discover much about themselves and their community searching for a wagon wheel. I love the way that old sorrows are put right, and that de Jong seems to find an endless way to let people help one another. The storks don’t follow human rules, and it is only in combined efforts of all the children and all the adults in just the right time that will make a home the storks choose. (Also Maurice Sendak’s illustrations were lovely.)
What was interesting. I thought so much of Shora life — the government run clock, the closet beds for the parents, the way the dikes affected the geography of village streets and life—were all super interesting. It seemed like de Jong really knew about villages like Shora not simply from research but from living there (or perhaps having parents who lived there).
What were some limitations. I’m fairly familiar with what a dike would look like and why north Holland has so many of them, but I am not sure if the average child reader would. This is not necessarily a limitation, books certainly don’t need to define everything for the reader, one the charms of a novel (and strengthening of reading skills) is making educated guesses based on context. But I think that a glossary of terms would help kids these days know about a few of the frequently mentioned and important parts of the Dutch village which were never explicitly explained in the text. For example, I don’t think that I really realized how large and heavy a wagon wheel was until the kids had such a hard time getting one back to the school. A glossary would probably be more of something an editor would add in a later edition, and I do think this story is strong enough to merit a reprinting!
Similarity to other Newbery winners. While the scope of this book is extremely narrow compared to our first Newbery (The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon) both are by Dutch authors and have certain European quality. Van Loon’s book makes reference to the type of school children that are in de Jong’s book — mostly boys, reading a lot of world history and geography. Other Newbery’s that focus on cozy village life are Dobry, Thimble Summer, and Ginger Pye—all of which I really liked as well. I suppose I’m a cozy village lover.
What it teaches me as a writer. I think that the way that de Jong wrote the characters of the town: the wives, the mothers, the old women, the old men, the fisherman fathers, the tin man, the school children, the farmers, and the little children all connected and yet going about their serpate business was so skillfully done. In thinking about my own writing, I want to create a community and that seems a little overwhelming, how do you develop that many separate characters to make up a whole town? But this book reminded me that you only need a few telling details to help various aspects of a town come alive. We find out what various village members really want— the fathers to stay dry during a storm and enjoy the fire, but even more to make their children happy (leading them to leave their fireside to put the wheel atop the school in the rain) or for the older members of community to be remembered and feel important by the younger generation.
Have you read The Wheel on the School? What are your favorite cozy small town books?
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