Form and Content

Excitement mounts from the first page of The Wheel on the School, which was written by Meindert De Jong and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. When Lina reads her essay about storks, the teacher asks the class to wonder why there are none in Shora. He gives them the afternoon off to discover something about storks, telling them that “sometimes when we wonder, we can make things begin to happen.” Some students take their assignment more seriously than others, but something does begin to happen when Lina learns from Grandmother Sibble both that storks had nested in Shora when she was a girl and that an old woman can be her friend. The children conclude that storks would need trees in the long run and, more immediately, since the birds are returning from Africa, a wheel so that they could nest on a sharp roof. School is again dismissed early so that the children can look for a wheel “where one is and where one isn’t.”

The following chapters are structured like spokes as the children fan out from Shora looking for wheels. Jella, the biggest boy, “borrows” one from a farmer but is caught by the irate man. The twins Pier and Dirk, having no luck on their road, decide that a closed-off courtyard that hides Shora’s cherry tree and its mean, legless owner, who keeps boys away with his pile of stones, is “where a wheel isn’t.” Their scheme, failing when Janus catches them, is transformed as they learn from the man how he lost his legs....

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Setting

DeJong establishes the setting in the opening lines of the novel. A fishing village on the North Sea protected by a dike, Shora is located in the province of Friesland. The village of Ternaard is located south of Shora, and the next village along the dike to the northeast is Nes. A canal road connects Shora to Hantum.

The novel's depiction of Dutch village life may at first appear out of step with the rushing modern world of rapid travel and instant communications. The story probably takes place around 1912, when DeJong himself could have been one of the pupils in the village school. At this time, before the two world wars, people in Shora dress as they have for centuries, wearing native costumes and wooden shoes. Almost no events from the world at large seem important in this small village, which depends on fishing for its livelihood. The sea and the sky provide topics of conversation that vary only with the weather.

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Literary Qualities

DeJong creates suspense by giving the children a goal that may appear unattainable. What seems a trivial matter at first becomes an all-consuming passion for them and for the rest of the village. Suspense is heightened further when DeJong shifts the action in times of crisis. For example, while Lina and Douwa wait to be rescued, the narrative suddenly jumps to the legless Janus, the teacher, and the boys who are trying to fish a wheel rim out of a canal. Similarly, the raging storm described near the book's end continues unabated for five days, forcing the village to wait to find storks.

The focal object of the story is, of course, the wheel, which begins to symbolize the effort that goes into finding it. All the children and some of the adults work as spokes that will support a hub—or central "dream"—around which they turn. This one dream seizes the imagination of the villagers and leads all of them to work together. The concept of the wheel also encircles the community, bringing the village inside its circumference. Perhaps it is this clearly developed symbol of a simple idea that makes The Wheel on the School so believable.

The novel's omniscient narrator concentrates on the children, telling what each one thinks. Because the narrator never provides similar insights into the adults' thoughts, the tale belongs to the children. The children's language includes American colloquialisms, making it easier for American readers to...

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Social Sensitivity

The children's goal of getting the wheel on their school becomes a project that includes the participation of the whole community—the aged, the disabled, the toddlers, and the middle-aged parents. The project provides everyone with a chance to do something important for the village and for themselves. If the children, with help from all the others, are able to achieve their goal, they can take pride in something they started. Teamwork is all-important, and the villagers have a collective sense that they are doing something for the common good. Even if storks are supposed to bring good fortune, it is not luck that unites the village, but rather the effort with which everyone—from legless Janus and ninety-three-year-old Douwa to the tots in the tower—contributes to the cause. The villagers are rewarded when they learn to tolerate one another's differences and to value and respect the contributions that each individual is able to make. DeJong stresses the importance of tolerance and cooperation, and The Wheel on the School teaches its readers a positive lesson as a result.

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Topics for Discussion

1. Janus is thought of as the meanest man in the village, at least until the children get to know him. What general and specific ideas emerge from DeJong's treatment of Janus's character?

2. The teacher is an important person who helps transform the children's thoughts into action. Why do you suppose that DeJong never gives the teacher a name?

3. How do the children encourage adults to become interested in their project?

4. How important is the setting to the events of the novel? Could the story be elsewhere?

5. What have you learned from The Wheel on the School about the Dutch countryside and village life in the early twentieth century?

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Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. One scientific method for solving problems is as follows: 1) select an area for research, 2) define the problem, 3) gather data, 4) organize and test data, 5) formulate a hypothesis, 6) test the hypothesis, and 7) accept or reject the hypothesis. Although this specific method may not have been the model the teacher had in mind, this process seems applicable to the way the children discover the solution in the book. Show how the villagers use each step in this process to bring storks to Shora.

2. Consult some nonfiction books about storks. How would an ornithologist— a scientist who studies birds—view the events in The Wheel on the School? How accurate is the information about storks? Consider, too, the superstition that storks bring luck.

3. The story begins on a Friday and concludes the following Friday. Explain what happens on each day and discuss the novel's structure.

4. Water plays an important part in the action of the novel. Why does DeJong use this one element so frequently? Are the repeated rescues at sea the only pattern DeJong creates from the ever present water?

5. Trace how Lina, Jella, Eelka, Auka, Pier, and Dirk each contribute to the process of getting the wheel on the school.

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For Further Reference

Cianciolo, Patricia Jean. "Meindert DeJong." Elementary English 45 (1968): 725-730. Biographical and critical commentary.

Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research, 1972. Contains a brief sketch of DeJong's life and works.

DeJong, David Cornel. "My Brother Meindert." Horn Book 31 (August 1955): 247-253. Biographical information about Meindert DeJong by his brother.

DeJong, Meindert. "For the Love of the Word." Horn Book 60 (September/October 1984): 569-577. The author discusses his beginnings as a writer of children's books.

"Newbery Award Acceptance." Horn Book 31 (August 1955): 241-246. In his speech, DeJong talks about the...

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