The Wheel on the School, by Meindert DeJong

I saved this to talk about in ‘back to school’ season, all full of anticipation for what we’re going to learn this time, watching out for good teachers and good ways of learning. But I read it back in summer, wandering around in the almost dreamlike peace of Amsterdam with Jon.

I wanted to read some Dutch authors while I was there – I would have taken Lampie and the Children of the Sea by Annet Schaap if I’d looked closer at her name – and this one has been waiting to be read for quite a while. The great Frank Cottrell Boyce mentioned it (possibly on Desert Island Discs) as a favourite of his, and an unconscious influence, he explained, on his wonderful novel of juvenile art theft in North Wales, Framed.

Well, DeJong’s 1954 novel for children made a perfect counterpoint to The Evenings by Gerard Reve, a sort of Catcher in the Rye novel of teenage alienation and morbid humour (a great scene being the narrator trading gruesome urban myths with an old university friend). The protagonist of The Evenings is a young man, caught in a state of adolescence, living at home with his parents in mutual contempt (or perhaps just incomprehension). Looking forward to nothing but sleep, he spends most of his time willing the long hours to pass.

Illustration by the legendary Maurice Sendak

The Wheel on the School, by contrast, becomes increasingly urgent. Halfway through, you could mistake it for a bucolic amble through rural nostalgia, but in the last third there is shouting, running, bravery, a race in time to save two lives. It is about children galvanised into responsibility, even into taking charge and forcing change sometimes. It’s about a renewed connection between children and their elders and their own youth, between a village’s past, present and future – and if it’s about anything, it’s about storks.

Lina is the one who first introduces the idea, raising her hand during a maths lesson to interrupt it with her (entirely unsolicited) essay on storks. She explains what a stork looks like, that they bestow good luck on the houses they nest on, and that they no longer next in the little coastal village of Shora. Where have they gone, these exotic creatures, and why won’t they come back?

As far as it is from my experience – perhaps from anyone’s experience in the book’s lifetime (DeJong, an emigrant to America, was recalling the Holland of his childhood in the 1910s) – this eccentric situation speaks with a strange resonance to our historical moment: when artists are striving to call back the lost words from children’s experience of wildness, and children’s voices are raised against climate change inertia.

Lina’s school only has one teacher (in fact, it only has six children) but he is happy to drop the maths lesson and send his students out into the village, the dike, the neighbouring farms, to think, or rather, wonder about the question. ‘Will you wonder and wonder why? […] For sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen.’

And so the search begins for an answer, for a project, for an adventure: apparently small in scale, but transforming everyone it touches, awakening memories and unknown strengths within them. It could easily be a sentimental, naïve novel, but perhaps the thing that really distinguishes it is that unquantifiable wildness of the birds. They are alien, unknowable, not conventionally beautiful; they cannot be bought, manufactured, captured. When we draw nearest to them, we find they are far from tame.

A touch of Edward Ardizzone in Sendak here

DeJong won the glittering Newbery medal for writing this book, but less than a decade before it he was struggling to write at all (reading between the lines, I think he was shaken up by wartime and military service). He was encouraged to keep at it by, among others, children’s editor Ursula Nordstrom. In summer 1947, she wrote to him and said, ‘It is absolutely unnecessary for you to be discouraged. I admit it is a bad time for you in your writing life, but it won’t last forever. You know and I know that you can write and feel and think better books than any of the poor bloodless competition and you must remember that and get back to work and sooner or later it will once more come out right and warm a good DeJong.’ (Qtd. Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, ed. Leonard S. Marcus.)

It’s a good letter. Fascinating to think, too, of DeJong as a man who knew he was missing something unique, faintly dangerous, beautiful in an unconventional way, that could not be bought or captured for him. Perhaps he felt it could come back to him if he made conditions right for nesting, that if he wondered and wondered why, he could make something begin to happen…

The Wheel on the School is not currently in print in the UK, but The Evenings was recently reprinted by Pushkin Press in a very nice edition: buy it from Waterstones or your local independent.