Newbery Medal-winning author Meindert DeJong (pronounced De-Young) immigrated to the United States with his family as a young boy. The family came to America so that his older brothers would not be drafted to fight in World War I. The DeJong family had a difficult time in their new country. The family was poor, and the children were sent to a private, religious school where the children were bullied for being immigrants. Meindert DeJong never forgot the experience of being a lonely child, and he wove that perspective into many of his books.
Mr. DeJong remains one of the most published and most honored children’s authors of the 20th
century, although today he is not as well-known. He should be. His Newbery Medal-winning book, The Wheel on the School
, may move quietly and somewhat slowly as it tells a story set in his boyhood country but its themes are timeless and important. In Shora, a very small village bounded by sea walls, the school children have decided to bring the storks back to nest on the school’s roof. To have a stork on the roof is a wonderful, amazing thing. Other villages have the gigantic birds as seasonal visitors, but for some reason, the birds pass Shora by.
It’s a puzzle. Why no storks for Shora? What can they do to bring them back? Unlike many modern stories where the kids war against the adults to bring about the change they want, in DeJong’s book although the children are the ones spearheading the project, it literally takes the entire village—from the oldest to the youngest—to make their plan a success. Along the way they learn to appreciate each person in their community, including ones they had completely misunderstood or cast as villains. This book was ahead of its time in subtly opening discussions on respecting individuals and the environment.
Meindert DeJong loved animals, and they featured prominently in many of his books. Both Hurry Home, Candy
and Along Came a Dog
follow the lives of animals that are lost and looking for a home. What complicates the simple story of Along Came a Dog
is that DeJong does not sugarcoat the adult realities of farm life. Farmers are supposed to be unsentimental. They can’t make their livings any other way. Everything must be practical—and useful, or out it goes. An abandoned dog will surely be useless on his chicken farm, so the man drives him away and leaves him to fend for himself—over and over again. But, over and over, the dog comes back. He has a strong heart and is determined. He WILL find a home, even if he has to live in the barn under the farmer’s nose.
Another DeJong character who is set on finding his way home is Tien Pao, a Chinese boy who has become separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of his country in the 1940s. He very nearly dies before he becomes part of The House of Sixty Fathers
, his name for the American airbase that takes him in. Tien Po shows determination to survive—not only for himself but also for his pet pig, “Glory of the Republic.” Again, there is not a lot of sentimentality here—just enough to keep it from a child’s perspective.
The plot line would not be out of sync with a M*A*S*H* episode, and its verisimilitude comes from DeJong’s own experiences. In World War II, he was assigned to be the company historian at an Air Force base in Peishiyi, China. He became the “special father” to a Chinese orphan and tried to adopt him and bring him stateside, but the Communist takeover disrupted the adoption. The real boy had to be left behind, provided with some money, and DeJong never knew what happened to him once communication with the West ceased. The House of Sixty Fathers
was written while the author was in China in the 1940s, but it had to wait to be published because it was considered to be too harsh and realistic for a children’s book. Once more, Meindert DeJong was ahead of his time.
Born: March 4, 1906, in Wierum, Netherlands
Worked as: a college instructor, farmer, writer
Died: July 16, 1991, in Allegan, Michigan
On the Web:
Calvin College interviewed their famous alum in 1986. Clips of the video interview can be seen here as well as solid biographical information.
A quick biography that includes a memorable quote from his Newbery acceptance speech.
A very thoughtful essay on important themes in this work.
Sources for this article:
“Meindert Dejong.” Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. Gale, 2002. Gale Biography in Context. Web. 8 Feb. 2011.
“Meindert DeJong.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Gale Biography in Context. Web. 8 Feb. 2011.