The Wheel on the School
The Wheel on the School
Meindert DeJong (1955)
Read to: 1st - 3rd grade
Read independently: 3rd - 8th grade
It's hard to consider this book without getting "The Wheels on the Bus" song stuck in your head. Many nights we sang a bit of it as we were getting ready to start reading.
The story is set in Shora, a small fishing village in Holland. The time and place allows the kids to run free all over the town and surrounding countryside, even into nearby villages. At times I was struck by their honesty and at others I was appalled by their gall. There are six children in the school, Lina and five boys with one dedicated teacher.
One day during their math lesson Lina asks if she can share some free-writing she did. The encouraging teacher agrees and the kids embark on a mission to get storks to nest in Shora, as they do in nearby towns. Their first assignment is to think about storks. The next day the teacher asks Jella, " '...what did you think was the reason storks do not come to Shora?' // 'Oh, I didn't think,' Jella told the teacher honestly. 'I asked my mother.' " (p. 27) The general decision is that storks don't come because the roofs are too sharp. There are some who think they've never come so they never will come but one of the oldest residents of Shora reports that they used to have storks. A few kids are still skeptical but the teacher fabulously seizes the opportunity. "But there's where things have to start - with a dream. Of course, if you just go on dreaming, then it stays a dream and becomes stale and dead. But first to dream and then to do - isn't that the way to make a dream come true?" (p. 32) the kids feel it would take too long to grow trees to create a proper environment for storks but the ceaselessly optimistic teacher replies, "Making dreams become real often takes long..." (p. 33). So, one step at a time, the kids attack the dream and, in the process, unite a community.
They decide they want to put a wheel up on the school roof because, apparently, it's common knowledge that storks will nest in wheels. The teacher gives them an afternoon off of school to search out a wheel. He says, "In the afternoon we'll branch out over the countryside. We'll go to every farm down every road." (p. 40) Note that he does not say to sneak onto every farm and steal any wheel they find - neither does he say to ask permission. Still, given the times I assumed that the children would be polite about it and was very surprised when several times they weren't.
" 'Oh, boy,' Auka said. 'If we each found a wheel, we'd have a wheel for almost every house in Shora.' // 'We've got to find one for Grandmother Sibble's house, too,' Lina reminded all of them. 'Everybody but legless Janus,' Jella immediately agreed. 'All I'd give him is a rock in the head.' " (p. 40) I was touched by Auka's optimism and Lina's consideration but shocked by Jella's comments. Although it seems harsh it is necessary to a key plot thread and therefore acceptable as a demonstration of how hearts can be transformed.
As they scatter out to find a wheel, each kid on his own has a unique experience that builds their character. A couple of them say that the teacher said, " 'to look where a wheel could be and where it couldn't possibly be.' " (p. 42) Although it sounds like something the teacher woudl say, upon returning to his instructions I couldn't actually find where he said it until page 49. I found parts of this book oerly wordy so this seems an odd strategy to omit some instructions from the actual occurrence and present them in summary later. But the most annoying thing about DeJong's writing is his over-use of the word "hastily". Perhaps it was exacerbated by my constant contemplation as to whether it is officially pronounced with a long or short "a", I picked short and stuck with it, just as I did with the pronunciation of the names. There are many names that start with a "J" which I believe would be pronounced as a "y" which makes "Jan" sound more like a masculine "John" than a feminine nickname for "Janice" so I stuck with it, especially since my 7y5m son wasn't seeing the text anyway.
After a quick search around town they report back and there is some initial disappointment in which, "They were so quiet they could hear Lina swallowing hard a couple of times. That was the trouble with being a girl, Lina thought, you wanted to cry at things like this. But boys just looked angry and stubborn and disgusted." (p. 47) I feared this might set a precedent for gender disparity but it didn't. The positively positive teacher told them, "...the unexpected still always comes up to surprise us." (p. 49) and sends them home to lunch and then out to search the surrounding area.
So the kids set out and almost immediately Jella, the most mischievous character (I pictured Buford on Phineas & Ferb) is hauled back to the teacher by a farmer accusing him of thievery. The teacher and the farmer have a discussion and wind up excusing the behavior as just something boys do when they want something so badly and can't figure any other way to get it. What! Are you kidding me? I didn't expect this outlook during the 1950s. I think in today's culture we are too quick to dismiss bad behavior without consequence causing all sorts of societal woes but I thought sixty years ago people got fair punishment and learned their lessons. In fact, in this case, the farmer winds up agreeing to help Jella make some arrows for his bow but Jella postpones the invitation knowing his first task should be to find a wheel. As he gets back to it the teacher finally says, "Look but don't take without asking" (p. 56). What Jella started with his comment about legless Janus continues to pop up here and there throughout the story, even with other characters.
When brothers Pier and Duke are on their hunt for a wheel they meet a farmer who says, "I can't think of anything much more useless than a wagon without wheels, except maybe a man without legs." (p. 59) And on page 61, Pier imagines what it would be like to have no legs. When he tries to stand again, his legs have gone to sleep from being folded up under himself and he fears he really has lost them in a moment of panic. His brother tells him, "You've got plenty legs, ... Just no sense." (p. 62) While it all seems somewhat random and horribly non-Politically Correct, we eventually do meet Janus, who has indeed lost his legs and he becomes quite a beloved and central character. Starting on page 67 everything changes as far as legless Janus. Pier comes up with a plan for Dirk to distract Janus so Pier can look in his backyard for a wheel (again without asking permission). Naturally the plan goes awry and Janus catches them but they wind up clearing up some misunderstandings and bonding in such a way that Janus becomes more central to the stork mission than even Lina.
As each child should've been learning not to trespass, Eelka got a double lesson. He also should've learned that patience and asking for help are more important than trying to be the hero because by doing so he wound up breaking the wheel he acquired. After the wheel broke and then went into the water jella showed up to help. He asks Eelka where it entered the water and, "Eelka nodded. All of a sudden he was too close to tears to trust his voice. He'd worked so hard, and now..." (p. 91). At least it was an honest mistake and not the result of an angry outburst, even though he'd have had good reason with the rude comment the farmer made about him. It's one of those veiled compliments when the farmer said, "I'll take a chance on you. Fat, slow kids are usually pretty honest. they have to be; they can't run away." (p. 81) And Jella calls him a "clumsy fathead" (p. 93). But in spite of these comments, Eelka soldiers on and even surprises himself with his own strength. I honestly think that in the 1950s this type of comment was probably accepted. it's not the first book in which we've seen similar dialogue.
Since each child is off looking for the wheel on their own at the same time in a dedicated chapter, sometimes parts overlap. Such as in Eelka's case when he sees Jella rolling a wheel towards the school (before the farmer catches him for thieving). I'd love to see a map of this town because so many times someone on one road can see someone else on a road at a different height.
Auka's search led him to a tin man who had a wagon with a bad wheel. The tin man was on his way home to the next town to see if they had enough money to get a new wheel. Auka tags along to see if he can get the old wheel if the new one is indeed purchased. This involves wrapping wire around the wheel and rim to hold them together. With each turn old wires pop and new ones must be wrapped. Auka is relentless in his task but to no avail - the tin man's kids have been sick and they can't afford a new wheel this week. On his way back home he sees someone who has a perfectly good wheel that they have painted and are about to install on their roof when Auka convinces him that an unpainted wheel would be better so he takes the painted good one to the tin man. What a generous boy! He didn't have to go out of his way to orchestrate the trade because he got nothing out of it. "The man looked at him oddly. 'Say, you're a funny kid, bothering your head about other people's troubles. The tin man has always had troubles and always will with that houseful of kids. but those are his troubles, not yours or mine'." (p. 119) The tin man and Auka then put the old wheel up on Evert's house The tin man tells Evert, "if the good Lord doesn't send you a couple of storks for such a good deed - as he will - I'll get them for you in person." (p. 123)
On page 137 Douwa starts talking about how when he was a small boy his father got stuck under an overturned boat for about a week. This little story was somewhat creepy - especially for a more sensitive child. Fifteen pages later another sort of creepy occurs when Lina needs to climb a rope but can't manage it in her dress. Douwa tells her to take it off. Lina hesitates then ties the dress around her neck and climbs. Douwa says he won't look. Once up top she sees her mother across the bank and hurries to put her dress back on before she gets in trouble, hiding behind douwa until she is ready. Douwa has suddenly beocme like a grandfather to her with this wheel quest. Just as the boys are seeing Janus in a different light, Lina is seeing Douwa differently. " 'I never knew you were so funny,' she said gratefully. 'I didn't know people were funny when they were old'." (p. 155)
There are a couple of other creepy times but nothing too overwhelming. The first is on page 189 when Lina awakes in her attic bedroom during a storm. The other was when some younger siblings go into the clock tower and describe how creepy it is in there. While the incidents themselves weren't overly troubling they seem somewhat out of place with the rest of the story. Especially with the sudden addition of the younger siblings. The characters were such a late addition to the story and, while they did provide critical information to advance the story, it could've been accomplished some other way.
Another thing I disliked was when they finally had the wheel and all the fisherman fathers were in from the storm the children began to pester them to put the wheel up on the roof. In fact, the kids plotted before church to keep bugging their dads until they gave in. When the kids went to school the next day the mom's took over the nagging (off-stage). So the dads soon showed up at school to set up the wheel. The kids got what they wanted from pestering. What kind of a message is that?! "Joke a little and tease and nag, and nag and tease. Wait and see! In spite of what your father said or growled, sooner or later he'd do what you wanted." (p. 211) at least the teacher has a kind word about fathers. "...Your fathers will come through. You know that. ... Fathers always come through when it's possible. It's the way of fathers and mothers. ..." (p. 214) And when the fathers did show up, saying they'd rather put the wheel up in the rain than listen to the women nag, "The teacher grinned at the men. 'Solomon found that out a few thousand years before you. Didn't he in Proverbs say that it was better to sit on the roof of a house than with a nagging woman inside the house?' " (p. 216)
After the wheel was up then the kids had to worry if the storks would come. the newspaper reported that the storm had been detrimental to the storks. "It was in the newspaper so it was to be believed. It was news, it was a fact. there was nothing they could do - it was the storm. god brought storms and hurled big storks into the ocean to become food for fish." (p. 239) Janus does his best to convince the kids the reporter doesn't really know for sure. In doing so, he calls Jella a "young lunkhead". (p. 243)
When the storm is over the dads rise early and get back to sea, without saying goodbye to the kids. i found this a bit unsettling but the kids seemed fine with it. But Lina was not fine when she and Jella were looking for here little sister. Perhaps it was the worry talking. "Lina felt scornful. Jella hadn't the slightest idea which way England lay. Jella was the poorest in geography in the whole class! Then Lina felt anxious again... ." (p. 263) While they are searching Jella mentions the possibility that the kids drowned. But what they find are drowned storks. Douwa makes them bury the storks in the cemetery. One of the boys asks if it is okay to do on government property. Douwa replies, "We've done so much that's illegal the last hour, a little more won't hurt...". (p. 289-290) I really didn't think anything else they did was questionable. if it was city government property they probably would be okay with it since the whole town has stork fever. and of course they all get a happy ending.
In spite of several minor issues i had with the book, my 7y6m son commented several times how much he enjoyed the book.