Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5
The 1955 Newbery Medal Winner, The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong, was a surprisingly entertaining recounting of life in the Dutch village of Shora. One day, little Lina points out that no storks next in the village. Her whole class at school is set to thinking on the reason why nearby villages have storks but they don’t. Through conversation with Grandmother Sibble III, Lina discovers that storks came to Shora when the village had trees. Although they can’t grow trees, the children decide to put a wheel on the roof of the schoolhouse to give the storks somewhere to nest. Adventures ensue as they set off in search of a wheel. Eventually, Lina finds a whole wheel in the wreck of a boat, and enlists 93-year-old Douwa to haul it out. It is mounted on the roof despite stormy weather. Shortly thereafter, the children acquire two worn-out storks from a nearby sandbar and help them up into the wheel/nest.
Although the plot is a bit odd, the storytelling is extremely entertaining. The older characters, in particular, shine. Though the story initially focuses on children, the author engages the whole village to help tell the tale. He demonstrates the power of relationships and the value of every person. For example, Grandma Sibble III, by sharing her remembrances with Lina, shows the child that cranes have successfully nested in the village before, giving Lina inspiration for her project. Douwa races to grab a saw when Lina explains why she was on the boat, tells her the story behind the wheel’s presence, and frees the wheel from the boat under treacherous conditions. Janus, a legless man who initially scares the children, aids their project on several occasions. He uses his ferocious arm strength to retrieve a wheel rim from the dike, provides the brains behind the mounting of the wheel onto the school roof, and rows the children out to rescue storks stranded on a sandbar. The writing is warm and humorous, with a strong focus on interpersonal relationships. The illustrations are done by Maurice Sendak and, while they don’t attain the heights of his later solo work, there are certainly many lovely depictions of storks and of the children. I genuinely enjoyed this Newbery entry and highly recommend it, particularly to people who have a strong interest in nature or in the Netherlands.