Critical Context

Meindert De Jong had established his reputation for creating novels that are true to children’s experiences and emotions long before The Wheel on the School won the Newbery Medal. Although another of his best stories, The House of Sixty Fathers (1956), is set in China, where De Jong served during World War II, most of his books that are still read today—for example, Far out the Long Canal (1964) and Journey from Peppermint Street (1968)—are set in The Netherlands, where the “tower rises out of Wierum right beside the dike . . . rises out of my childhood soul . . . strong and eternal, set forever.” These words come from his acceptance speech for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1962, when he became the first American to win the international award. All of his books explore themes of friendship and family—sometimes in the negative form of rejection—or the human bonds that extend to animals, for whom De Jong also feels great empathy.

That these emotions are distilled rather than sentimentalized can perhaps be attributed to the hardships and prejudice that De Jong’s family faced when it moved to the United States during World War I. Unrelenting poverty, illness, and discrimination caused De Jong to become especially sensitive to those who are mistreated. The second part of his childhood, at least, was not to be sentimentalized, although De Jong himself said in his award speech that the move also allowed him “a few more stolen years of . . . dreaming and imagining” about the years in Holland “as if set in amber.”