Monday, March 31, 2008

The Wheel on the School

This is another Newbery book that I had a terrible time with remembering the title every time I was at the library. The keywords wheels and schoolbus bring up a lot of hits in the library catalog, but not this 1955 Newbery winner.

Frankly, the book didn't sound very interesting when I finally managed to get the title right. When I picked it up, though, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and that the wheel in the book goes on top of the school to attract storks. Storks are definitely more interesting (to me, anyway) than schoolbuses - which are no where to be found in this book, my mind just sticks wheels and buses together because of the preschool song - the wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, ad nauseum.

Anyway, I found The Wheel on the School a gentle and interesting if not overly exciting read. It reminded me a bit of Roller Skates in this respect - and like Roller Skates, DeJong's story does an excellent job of portraying a community of interesting characters and a time and place that is unfamiliar to most of us.

I did a little reading on the author, because I was intrigued to read on the dust jacket that Meindert DeJong lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after he came to the US (from Holland) as a child in 1914. DeJong's memories of his childhood in a small town in Friesland formed the basis for this story.

I think he did a masterful job of describing the dikes, the sea storms, the fishermen and their families, and the kids themselves:
It was a picnic - steaming coffee and cakes and fatballs. It was a feast! Hot chocolate milk for the boys and Lina! That was what made it really a picnic and a feast. You had hot chocolate milk on the Queen's Birthday and fatballs only on Santa Claus Day. But now fatballs and chocolate all the same day!

...It happened so seldom, having their fathers home. Always they were out at sea or, if home, busy with nets and sails and the readying of the boats. Now they'd have almost a whole day with their dads. The storm had made it a holiday for them, a chance for games and jokes with their fathers (p. 231).
Fatballs sounded so decadent and delicious I had to Google them. Here's a recipe - it does sound like they would be very good with hot cocoa.

After a few days of stormy weather in Shora, though, the situation was no longer quite so cozy:
For five days now each fisherman had been cooped up in his little house - one living room, a hall, and a kitchen. The living room, with its bedding from the closet beds piled over every chair, seemed always to be in the long, awkward process of bedmaking. The restless fishermen were growing irritated by the closeness of the dark, shut-up houses, the smell of their own stale tobacco smoke, the babies and little children that seemed always to be underfoot...

On the fifth day of the storm Lina's father finally swept the whole mess of dominoes off the table so hard that two of them landed in the ash box of the peat stove that his wife was just emptying. "You can't eat dominoes," he exploded. "It seems when I'm not holding a half-wet tot, I'm keeping older kids quiet with dominoes. Dominoes! It's getting so I'm getting spots before my eyes!" (p. 235)
For kids (and adults) that have the patience for this story - it is a bit long, especially compared to some of the other winners - there is a lot to enjoy. DeJong shows a fine understanding of environmental relationships (and how cool would it be to have storks on your roof?), community and family interactions, and how kids think. I'm glad I read The Wheel on the School, and I wouldn't mind reading some of DeJong's other books - a couple of the others won Newbery Honors, and several more are also illustrated by Sendak.


Sandy D. said...

Geez. I just linked to this review in a forum discussing books on a parenting board, and what did I write as the title? "The Wheel on the Bus". I STILL can't get that song out of my head. And it's been years since I've sung it with my kids.

Unknown said...

We are reading this book right now -- it's a gem, that's for sure!