Book Review: The Wheel on the School

You  might think, anymore, that I’m pulling your leg when I say a book was my favorite in fourth grade. It does seem like I say that a lot, but fourth grade was a golden year for me, so by “fourth grade” I mean around fourth grade. And in reality, I’ve only made this claim half a dozen times, now completing (I think) all the great literature I read under Mrs. Sullivan’s tutelage. (Let’s see… A Wrinkle in Time, The Borrowers, Caddie Woodlawn… oh! There’s one more to review soon, and that is The Indian in the Cupboard. And I haven’t reviewed Matilda yet! That’s a great one.)

One of my favorite books in fourth grade was The Wheel on the School. It’s possible it was my absolute favorite of elementary school, and I made that claim for many years. I remember fondly connecting to the characters, transporting myself in my mind to the salty air of seaside Holland, and making a three-dimensional book project complete with moving parts (like turning wheelbarrow wheels and faces that would peek up over the dyke when you pushed and pulled on a popsicle stick).

Well, it was inevitable that I would share my favorites with my son, whom I homeschool. He is finishing sixth grade right now, and as I said, we are reading the last of my favorites. He’s been much slower on the reading upswing. And I don’t think that any of my favorites has been a favorite of his. He prefers fantasy (Fablehaven, Dragon Breath, How to Train Your Dragon) and stories about boys in nature (Where the Red Fern Grows, The Sign of the Beaver, Old Yeller, Shiloh). What was it that I preferred? Homey fantasy? And stories about girls having adventures? Yeah, I think that about covers it. Spunky gals, like Matilda, Meg, and Lina.

This is the copy I still have, from fourth grade, on my shelf

Lina is one of the main characters in The Wheel on the School. Set in a small village, Shora, on the coast of Holland, Wheel on the School won the Newbery award in 1955 and was illustrated by Maurice Sendak (of Where the Wild Things Are fame). The book is about a small group of village children—the whole school, in fact, which is something like six kids. Lina, the only girl, has just presented them with the problem of storks not coming to their village anymore, and she is determined to put a wheel on the school to provide nesting space. The kids set off to find a wheel, a storm is brewing off the coast, and we follow each child as they have local adventures and discover some characters in the village. In the end, it’s the storm against those determined school kids and an inspired village.

Meindert DeJong was a Dutch-American author. He was born in the Netherlands and moved to the US when he was about the age of the kids in his book. He didn’t start out as an author, but a librarian made the suggestion that began a respectable career. Though I have only ever read The Wheel on the School, his prize-winning books include Shadrach, Hurry Home Candy, The House of Sixty Fathers, Along Came a Dog, and Journey from Peppermint Street. I’ve definitely heard of the last two. And he also received some lifetime achievement recognition for his contribution to children’s literature. (Note of minor interest: DeJong lived mainly in Michigan and North Carolina, which is where I also mainly have lived in my life. He also lived in Holland and Mexico. I also lived in Indiana and, briefly, Israel.)

I still love this book, though it helps that it really opened up my imagination in my formative years. It is a classic, though a lesser-known one, and I certainly would recommend it as classroom, bedtime, or elementary chapter-book reading. It is peaceful, even though there is action happening. The language is nice. It is just a well-written book from a time when books for children were expected to be well-written. I like, too, that this isn’t a book you’ve read before. There isn’t a glut in the market of early-20th century Dutch school children and water birds. The themes and lessons hearken back to a simpler time, which is maybe why this book feels peaceful to me. The illustrations are nice: simple and well-executed. Your children (or you) are still going to find themselves in the characters, and the story is interesting enough to keep you turning the pages.

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