But I don’t know much about storks, because storks never come to Shora.
This is my second pick for Karen and Simon’s #1954Club. Children’s literature is a genre I always enjoy, especially because much of it has elements owe can appreciate as an adult as well, giving it so many layers, and so much depth. When I was looking up books for 1954, there were many many tempting choices amongst the children’s lit in the year, but when I came across one completely new to me, The Wheel on the School and read its description, it instantly appealed and I knew it was one I’d enjoy, but I hadn’t realized how much.
Meindert DeJong (1906–1991) was a Dutch born American author of children’s literature and winner of the Hans Christian Andersen award for his contributions to the field in 1962, besides several other prizes and nominations. After holding various jobs during the great depression, he began writing children’s fiction at the suggestion of a local librarian, and published his first work, The Big Goose and the Little White Duck in 1938. My pick, The Wheel on the School won the Newberry Medal in 1955, and it didn’t take long to see why.
The Wheel on the School takes us to the small fishing village of Shora in Friesland (the Netherlands) where DeJong himself belonged (Friesland, not Shora). Here there are only six children who go to school (the rest are too small or too big)—five boys—big Jella, slow and clumsy Eleka, kind Auka, twins Dirk and Pier (who claim that if they make one mistake, it counts as double—and who look like ‘second cousins’)—and one girl, Lina, often left out of all the games with the boys, since, well, she’s a girl. And the story begins when Lina voluntarily writes an essay on storks, who visit all the other villages around them, including Nes where her aunt lives, but never come to Shora. The teacher pleased with this effort encourages all the children to start thinking about why this may be (one important reason turns out to be the sharp roofs in the village, the solution for which, as nearby villages do, is to put up an old wagon wheel on the roof, where storks can nest) sparking off an effort which may have been started by the children, but which soon begins to involve all the adults as well, to bring storks (back) to Shora! And not only that, the children soon begin to find that the people they thought ‘not important’ and even those they thought scary, may not be that at all!
This was an absolutely delightful story with so many aspects that really touched my heart. To start off with is the theme of story of bringing the storks to Shora; I love how it incorporates the idea of making space for nature in our lives or more so, treating nature as something that we should care about as a part of our lives rather than something that is divorced from or away from us. The village of Nes for instance, treats it as a matter of course to put up wheels for the storks every year, and Lina soon discovers that this was the case in Shora in the past as well, and soon the rest of the village begins to be involved in the project, turning it into a common dream.
I also loved how this project changes the perspective of and relationship between the children and some of the villagers and between the villagers themselves; at the start for instance, when DeJong is describing the village, he writes,
There were a few more houses, but in those houses lived no children—just old people. They were well, just old people, so they weren’t important. There were more children, too, young children, toddlers, not schoolchildren—so that is not so important either.
But of course, as our story proceeds, this changes drastically. Almost at the start, Lina, left out as usual by the boys from their vaulting games, meets Grandmother Sibble III, an old lady in the village. Grandmother Sibble not only tells her how there were once storks in Shora, but helps her identify some reasons by telling her to think as storks would, and encourages her dream by showing her a chocolate tin, with a picture of houses with storks in them. And, so, Grandmother Sibble, sitting
‘in the porch of her little house’ had ‘suddenly…become important. She wasn’t just an old person any more, miles away, she was a friend. A friend, like another girl, who also wondered about storks’.
Likewise, another old man, Douwa too helps Lina with a task, while some of the boys befriend old, cranky Janus, who has lost both his legs, and spends his time chasing birds and little boys away from his cherry tree (and Janus finds himself looked at through new eyes by grownups too, giving him a new lease on life) while Auka finds a new friend in the tinman, but I’ll leave you to find out how. And the younger children too end up playing an important role! The children’s fathers, who come home for a short while during a storm, too are badgered to join in, and help with putting up the wheel on the school.
Besides the stork project and how it brings everyone together, I loved how the book gives us a picture of life in a small Dutch fishing village in a simpler time: the fathers are almost always away at sea, so the village is mostly mothers and children; treats are rare but enjoyed to the fullest (and surprise ones taken with all the more relish); the newspaper arrives once a week—one copy that is shared by the fisherfolk; the tinman goes about in his cart, selling new pots and pans and patching up old ones; material goods are not plenty, but what is there is respected, and shared. (This is a Dutch village so there is a dyke of course, and people wear wooden shoes.) People are content, and happy, not hankering after more and more as has become the norm in the present day.
There were a few dramatic moments in the story involving storms and tides, and while for a moment, I was wondering whether this would have done better as a simpler story, without all the drama, I realised also, that storms and tides would very much be a reality in a coastal village. The ending itself though following a dramatic moment, is done very well, so subtle that I loved it.
A delightful and heartwarming read that I’d highly recommend.