What happened? Could the "influential librarians"* of the 1950's have been so wrong?
My own interest in DeJong came as a result of reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. The legendary editor's letters to DeJong are so full of confidence in his literary abilities that some of her excitement rubbed off on me and I ran straight to my library to find a copy of The Wheel on the School. (There were no holds.)
To glean any reading pleasure from The Wheel on the School, you have to accept one premise going in: having a pair of storks nesting on the top of your one-room schoolhouse would be the best thing that could ever happen to you or your town. So good that it makes you hyperventilate a little bit just thinking about it. So good that it will inspire legless men to leave their backyards and tie themselves to dinghies for the privilege of helping your wish come true.
Despite the odd premise, The Wheel on the School is actually a very good book. The sense of place is so strong that the book probably deserves its Newbery on the strength of setting alone. It's set in a Dutch fishing village similar to the one where DeJong spent his early years, and the descriptions of storms, dikes, and fishing life are obviously drawn from experience. Characters, especially the older inhabitants of the village, are depicted with humor and sensitivity.
The plot is skillfully structured and fast-paced as well - at least for Part One (Operation Get the Wheel). Judith Hartzell wrote, in a 2006 DeJong centennial article for the Horn Book, "This is an action book, built, as the title suggests, in the shape of a wheel. It begins with the hub—Lina. Like spokes running out toward the rim, the six children go on their separate adventures, and bit by bit, through the children, the whole rim of the village comes into play. Near the end, in a celebration-of-community scene, the fathers climb the schoolhouse roof on a stormy day to put the wheel in place."**
Ah, but there's the problem. That scene (Operation Put The Wheel on the School) is not nearly close enough to the end of book for my taste. There are still 70 more pages to go (comprising Operation Get Some Storks). Maybe it's my modern sensibilities, but by the time they finally heaved the wretched birds onto the wheel I was ready to get out my shotgun and start scanning the horizon for wings.
So, despite its strengths, this is probably not a book I'd hand to most kids I meet in 2012. Unless they're really, really excited about storks. Like, Double Rainbow excited. I mean, read this passage:
"Lina sat quietly, looking down at her stork. She had to hold herself very quiet, absolutely still, or she'd burst out and scream and laugh and cry. It was so unbelievable, so wonderful, sitting in school with a stork on her lap. Storks in school, storks in Shora! She bent deep over her stork and cried a little and stroked its long white neck."
Now tell me it doesn't make you think of this:
*A phrase that always makes me laugh.
**Hartzell, Judith. "Happy Centennial, Meindert Dejong!." Horn Book Magazine 82.2 (2006): 227. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.