The Wheel on the School

The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong


Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

When Lina, a young schoolgirl in a tiny Dutch fishing village, wonders why the storks no longer nest in Shora, she and her five schoolmates (all boys) resolve to fasten a wagon wheel onto the roof of the school to tempt their return.  Gently encouraged by their teacher, the children each take one of the roads radiating like spokes from the village, in search of a wheel.  Along their meandering and intersecting journeys, they are joined by a small and eccentric cast of characters, including Janus, the misanthropic and grumpy double amputee who spends his wheelchair-bound existence protecting his cherry tree from predatory birds and children.  Lina, exploring along a dyke, discovers a wagon wheel in the most unlikely of places, under an overturned fishing boat that had been beached by a storm eighty years before.  Aided by Old Douwa, who as a boy had saved his shipwrecked father – trapped beneath this very boat, she works to retrieve the wheel, racing against the incoming flood tide and an approaching storm.  Their subsequent rescue presages the later rescue of a pair of exhausted storm-battered storks, marooned on a sand bar, threatened by the rising tide – storks who become the first to nest on the wheel on the school.

The book quietly celebrates the power of children, ever resourceful, to change the world.  The book is also a quiet celebration of the European white stork (Ciconia ciconia), which has largely disappeared from many of its traditional breeding grounds in western Europe.  The population of breeding pairs in Holland at the advent of the twentieth century was over 500: by the time DeJong was writing The Wheel on the School, the number was in the 50’s, and nests which had seen continuous occupation for hundreds of years were empty.  Most Dutch today are more likely to see a stork, symbol of fertility, deliverer of babies in a sling, on a birth announcement than in the sky overhead.  The storks still fly north to breed but they now head for eastern Europe, particularly Poland.  Theirs is a remarkable migration: in flocks of 10,000 or more, they make the journey from their wintering grounds in Africa, splitting east and west at the Mediterranean Sea to avail themselves of the warm thermals that rise from the land.  The roundtrip is over 10,000 miles.  With their stark tuxedo plumage, impressive stature, and bizarre bill clattering (they cannot sing), it is easy to imagine how their miraculous return to a rooftop year after year came to be considered an auspicious sign.

Maurice Sendak illustrated six of Meindert DeJong’s books, including The Wheel on the School.  Their shared spirit of humanity made for a harmonious marriage of talents.  They also shared the honor of each being a recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international recognition for creators of children’s literature.

Along Came a Dog


Along Came a Dog by Meindert Dejong


Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Along Came a Dog is the unlikely story of a man, a homeless dog, and a little red hen. On the first day of spring, the man enters the hen house and greets the red hen, a bright and adventurous creature when compared to the timid bird-brained white chickens and the unimaginative rooster. The little red hen’s toes have frozen and fallen off during the cold winter and she is left with an awkward ungainly gait that makes her the target of the flock’s nastiness. The man fashions rubber flippers and sews them onto his jacket: when he plants the hen’s knuckle bones into the socket holes, she can perch on his shoulder. A black stray dog, meek and starving, appears in the barnyard and becomes the little red hen’s protector. Twice banished by the man, he twice manages to find his way back to continue his mission as the hen’s guardian. By the end, he earns himself the gratitude of the man and the home he so craves.


Dejong’s style appears simple, deceptively so. No breathless prose here – Dejong’s Dutch Calvinist background is evidenced by straightforward plots, methodically written. Behind the plain-spokenness, however, is an uncanny ability to convey the essence of character, whether it be the stupidity and meanness of a flock of chickens or the cringing self-effacement of a miserable dog desperate for an owner. In DeJong’s books, the overriding sense is one of honesty.


In a long and prolific career, Meindert DeJong was repeatedly acknowledged for his unusual gift as a writer for children. He was the first American (he immigrated to Michigan from Holland at the age of eight) to be honored with the Hans Christian Andersen Award. He set a record when he was awarded one Newberry Medal and four Newberry Honors in a five year stretch. The Newberry Medal went to The Wheel on the School, a story of a group of young children in a Dutch village who wonder why the storks have disappeared and carry out a plan to attract their return. The Newberry Honors went to Shadrach, Hurry Home Candy, The House of Sixty Fathers, and Along Came a Dog. A decade later, he received the National Book Award for Journey from Peppermint Street.



little bear

Little Bear

Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak


In 1957, two authors, independently, set out to write a book that could help young children learn to read.  Else Holmelund Minarik, a first grade teacher on Long Island, was prompted by the dearth of interesting books for early readers, her young daughter among them.  Dr. Seuss was given a list of 348 words by his publisher and challenged to do something with them.  The results were Little Bear and The Cat in the Hat, each written with a vocabulary of fewer than 250 mostly monosyllabic words.  It is remarkable that such a limited palette could be transformed into two such divergent reading experiences.  Dr. Seuss concocted a frenetic rhyming wonder about the Cat in the Hat and his kite-flying sidekicks, Thing 1 and Thing 2, who create havoc while the mother is away.  Else Minarik invented Little Bear, a lovable creature who enjoys the pleasures that come from the imagination, friendship (with Hen, Duck, and Cat), and a loving mother.  Both books have retained their popularity for more than half a century and children should be forever grateful that their publication spared future generations the robot-like tedium of the Dick and Jane primers in which nothing ever happened (“See Spot.  See Spot run.”)

Minarik’s gift was the creation of character with an economy of words, especially memorable in the figure of Mother Bear who is wryly humorous, playful, and reassuring.  When Little Bear makes himself a space helmet and declares his plan to fly to the moon like a bird, she responds with tolerant skepticism.

little bear

“And maybe,” said Mother Bear, “you are a little fat bear cub with no wings and  no feathers.

“Maybe if you jump up you will come down very fast, with a big plop.”

“Maybe,” said Little Bear.  “But I’m going now.  Just look for me up in the sky.”

“Be back for lunch,” said Mother.

When Little Bear wanders back, pretending in his mind that he is having a lunar experience, his mother greets him, “But who is this?  Are you a bear from Earth?”  And they enjoy the shared pretense until Little Bear decides it is time to resume his true persona so he can envelop himself in the arms of his real mother.

little bear's friendElse Minarik’s writing was paired with Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for Little Bear.  Both were immigrants, of sorts.  She came from Denmark at the age of four and imbued her books with her memories of an idyllic childhood in the old country.  He, the son of Polish immigrants, had a miserable growing-up in Brooklyn, steeped in tragic stories of shtetl persecution.  Sendak may have given vent to his personal demons in Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, but for Little Bear he got the tone just right for Minarik’s childhood eden.  The costumes are late 19th century with pinafores, bonnets, sweeping dresses, capes, and top hats – for everyone but Little Bear himself, who wears his own fur coat.  For the space helmet, Sendak devised an upended cardboard box with ear flaps and sprung coil antennae.  Sendak illustrated the first five in the Little Bear series (Little Bear, Father Bear Comes Home, Little Bear’s Friend, Little Bear’s Visit, and A Kiss for Little Bear) and it is best to stick with these.  Note in the last of them, Little Bear paints a picture of a Wild Thing as a gift for his grandmother.

the house of sixty fathers book cover

The House of Sixty Fathers

The House of Sixty Fathers

by Meindert DeJong

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak


In 1941, a group of American pilots volunteered for a clandestine operation to assist the Chinese Air Force defend against the Japanese invasion.  Under the command of the legendary Claire Lee Chennault, the Flying Tigers became populist heroes for their piloting daring-do, renegade spirit, and success despite unequal odds.  When the U.S. officially entered WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Chennault’s mercenary group became the nucleus for the U.S. Air Force presence in China – the nickname and the hallmark shark mouth design that decorated the noses of the bomber planes were retained.  Meindert DeJong (pronounced DeYoung), a Dutch-American writer who was just beginning his career as a children’s author, joined Chennault’s forces in China as a military pilot and historian.  His outfit adopted a Chinese war orphan and DeJong tried unsuccessfully to bring the boy to the U.S.

This true story was the genesis for The House of Sixty Fathers.  Tien Pao, a young village boy, is separated from his parents and baby sister when his sampan is swept down the river into Japanese territory.  Accompanied only by his pig, Glory-of-the-Republic, he hides in tiny caves by day and travels through the mountains by night, reduced to eating leaves to stave off his hunger.  He saves the life of a downed American pilot and the two are befriended by Chinese guerrilla fighters who assist their escape from Japanese soldiers.  Tien Pao makes his way to the town where he last saw his family, only to find it under attack, its inhabitants fleeing in confusion.  He eventually finds refuge in the house of sixty fathers, the dormitory of the American bomber pilots, until his moving reunion with his parents.

from house of sixty fathersMeindert DeJong’s genius was his ability to convey the world through the eyes of his protagonist, whether that be a Dutch girl or a stray dog.  In this book, he views the complexity of wartime from the vantage of a Chinese peasant boy – the thrill of witnessing the routing of an advancing Japanese column by a solitary strafing plane alongside the horror of watching terror-stricken horses drowning, his disgust at a starving child eating mud along with the visceral joy of his first taste of chocolate, the selfish desperation of refugees throwing themselves upon a packed train along with the emotionless empathy of a soldier who plucks him from the crowd to safety.  With unflinching honesty, DeJong presents the fear, loneliness, and chaos of war along with the comfort of human companionship, the anchoring influence of family, and the reassurance of a pet, however porcine.  Both frightening and reassuring, this is one of the most powerful stories of wartime ever written for children.