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the wheel on the school

25 january 2016

The Wheel on the School is one of the longest, slowest-moving, and most prolix of all the Newbery Medal winners. Plenty of its contemporaries, even many of its predecessors, still make for vital children's fiction, but this one has dated badly and my comments here will be as brief as the novel is tedious.

The plot is simple. Somewhere in the historical middle distance or the fantastic present, a small Frisian village, untouched by the larger world, with just six schoolchildren, is afflicted by the absence of storks. Literal ones – none of the great birds nest there, though they frequent nearby villages. The six schoolchildren, spurred by an investigative teacher and elders' stories of long-ago storknesting in the vicinity, set about finding a wagonwheel to set atop the steep-pitched schoolhouse roof. This detail too is literal; it's not a charm. Storks apparently like contraptions shaped like wagonwheels to build their nests on.

It takes the kids 300 pages to find the wheel and get it mounted and receive some storks. This is nice enough, but the story is very much "told," in a garrulous voice that's partly the narrator's and partly the repetitive free-indirect style that represents the children's own thoughts in the third person. Everything's sort of sleepy-fey and gentle. Actually, that kind of atmosphere has not gone out of fashion in children's books, but the recent books that employ it are equally dull. And the narrative voice of The Wheel on the School has definitely aged poorly, as more modern sleepy-fey books about villages and suburbs have gone in much more for modernist "shown" narrative.

The best thing about The Wheel on the School is Maurice Sendak's drawings. The novel was a major project for Sendak, then in his late 20s, and there are more images by him here than in most of his own books (which of course tend to be for younger readers and are infinitely shorter). Sendak's oblique, understated approach complements the sleepy text but remains somehow much more contemporary, 60 years later.

DeJong, Meindert. The Wheel on the School. 1954. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. New York: HarperCollins, 1972.