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.