One of my favorite books in elementary school was The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong. For my review of that book, see HERE. When my co-op, language arts class of middle schoolers arrived at The House of Sixty Fathers, I was excited to read something else by DeJong. And though it is from the ‘50s, Sixty Fathers was a contender for the Newbery Award as well as won Hans Christian Andersen and ALA awards.
Where were we at in history? (Our readings coincide with what they are learning in history class. This year they are studying modern history.) World War II. We just read a book about the Holocaust (obliquely; Number the Stars), so what would this one be? There was a Chinese boy and some domesticated animals sketched on the cover (by none other than Maurice Sendak, who also has illustrations throughout the novel). Well, we’ve also studied the Second Sino-Japanese War, a war-within-wars. Bingo. This is the story of a little boy, Tien Pao, whose family has just fled the Japanese army as it destroyed their Chinese village. They’re still in shock and barely surviving the aftermath when a storm blows Tien Pao, his pig, and his ducklings back down the river and into Japanese occupation. He’s all alone, but he’s smart and resilient, and he just wants to get back to his family.
DeJong wrote this book after he was an airman in World War II stationed in China. His platoon adopted a Chinese refugee orphan. When the war ended, DeJong tried to adopt the boy, but he was not able to and lost contact with time. (There is an airman in the book, as well as other similarities that I don’t want to detail and give away.) This book is something like the classic, survival novels. While the protagonist is younger than is typical, you’re on the edge of your seat with uncertainty, watching little Tien Pao navigate hostile enemies, hold on to what is dear to him, and search for food while he traverses difficult terrain. In other words, there is leaf-eating and bleeding feet here. While I found the writing to be acceptable and the story pretty good, I was internally perched on the edge of my seat for the last quarter of the book and I was in no way certain how this would turn out. It is a bit intense for kids, which is maybe why it’s sold more to middle schoolers, but even for them… we see gunners and doomed civilians, we see starving children and doomed pets. We see war and we realize war doesn’t just affect grown-ups.
For that reason, I would recommend this book. While China may feel a long way away (as well as the 1940s), children are going to connect with Tien Pao. They might be a little raked over the coals, but this is fiction, an adventure story, and one that keeps the reader wondering throughout. They’ll learn some Chinese culture words and concepts, and they’ll put themselves in Tien Pao’s shoes. Written in non-flowery language with a fairly fast pace, The House of Sixty Fathers may be a stretch for current PC concepts of cultural appropriation (for the extreme), but it will also be a favorite of some students. The real question is whether or not you should focus their attention, as a parent or teacher, on the storybook positivity of it or the underlying current of tragedy.