From my other blog, a lengthy post about Meindert DeJong (April 2010):
DeJong’s writing is so honest and true, I wish I could come close to it in my own work. His stories are simple: a chicken farmer tries to get rid of a stray dog, some Dutch children collaborate to bring storks back to their town, a boy’s pet rabbit disappears. No fantasy here, just real people living their lives with humor and determination.
DeJong (1906-1991) was born in the Netherlands, but immigrated with his family to Michigan when he was eight. He began writing in college, published his first book just before the start of WWII (where he eventually served in China), and continued writing until the early 1970s. All his works were for children, and he won several honors: one Newbery Medal, four Newbery Honors, and the Hans Christian Andersen Award for lifetime contributions to children’s literature. Many of his books are still in print, so I’m happy to think he has readers out there.
Then a little red hen squeezed out of the long white row, hopped down from the roost pole to the front edge of the roost, and opened her wings as if to fly out to the man. She did not quite trust herself to make the plunge into the darkness over the floor. She weaved and teetered, a small rusty blob against the dim, chalky whiteness of the row of chickens behind her on the roost pole.
The matte color palette (rust red, chalk white) is fitting for dim early morning, and the hen’s unsteadiness hints of troubles to come, within just a few pages.
DeJong’s animals don’t talk, but he still puts us into the animals’ heads. The dog who befriends the red hen, the rooster and other chickens who torment her for being different, the hawks that hope to catch a meal in the barnyard — we know what they’re thinking, but only because the writer has observed these animals and clearly drew on careful observations when writing this book. Their thoughts are natural and dog-like (always following his nose), chicken-like (easily distracted), hawk-like (piercing, hungry).
When you learn DeJong’s history, you learn the sources of his stories: his early childhood in the Netherlands (The Wheel on the School, Journey from Peppermint Street), his chicken farming experiences (Along Came a Dog), his tour of duty in China (The House of Sixty Fathers). His eye and memory for detail serve him well.
In Journey from Peppermint Street, Siebren, the hero, leaves his small town for the first time, to walk with his grandfather to visit relatives. Here’s the moment that Siebren understands what he’s about to do:
The way Grandfather laid [the cane] over his shoulder, he was now a wounded soldier with his gun still in his wounded, bandaged hand. It was even better than that, because this was Grandfather’s journeying cane. Of course he, Siebren, wasn’t really journeying yet. You weren’t honestly, truly journeying when you were still in your own village. But the moment he stepped beyond the farthest wall of the farthest house in Weiron his journeying would begin. That moment, that step. And it was going to be the biggest step he could possibly take.
The Wheel on the School (the 1955 Newbery Medal winner) is my favorite DeJong book. At first attracted by Maurice Sendak’s illustrations, I bought it knowing nothing about DeJong and then later felt I’d discovered a treasure. The first paragraph sets things up beautifully:
To start with there was Shora. Shora was a fishing village in Holland. It lay on the shore of the North Sea in Friesland, tight against the dike. Maybe that was why it was called Shora. It had some houses and a church and tower. In five of those houses lived the six school children of Shora, so that is important. There were a few more houses, but in those houses lived no children–just old people. They were, well, just old people, so they weren’t too important. There were more children, too, but young children, toddlers, not school children–so that is not so important either.
It isn’t a particularly memorable first line, and there aren’t any hooks in the first paragraph. Only much later in the story do you see the dike, the North Sea, the church tower, the old people, and the toddlers all become important, as the school children organize everyone to put a wheel on the school, so that storks will return to the village to build a nest there. The understated cleverness of this first paragraph always astonishes me, and you don’t even know how it sets up everything until you’ve read the book.
One last excerpt. In The House of Sixty Fathers (1956), young Tien Pao has to cross Japanese-held territory to find the family from whom a storm has separated him. Of course, he gets unexpected help (from guerillas, for instance), and must travel through dangerous areas. Here, he is trying to get through a town under attack:
Tien Pao picked himself up, too numb with weariness to care or understand. People were running in the night. They ran by him, bent under bundles and straining at heavy carts loaded with household goods. They wheeled by in rickshaws almost buried under their household belongings. The wheels of rickshaws grazed Tien Pao. Everybody was running out of the town, only Tien Pao went into the town. He stumbled under the weight of his buckets. The surge of the crowd pushed him to the side of the street into the shadows of the buildings. Nobody noticed him.
The repetition of words (running, rickshaws, household) adds to the sense of the chaos around Tien Pao. He stumbles, is pushed aside, feels numb — alone and going the wrong way, yet it’s the direction he must take to reunite with his family. This is a powerful book, not quite anti-war, yet it realistically depicts war’s effects on villagers caught between two armies.
DeJong’s themes are basic — human relationships with humans, with animals (Tien Pao makes his dangerous journey with his pet pig), and with nature. But the joy of being in the world comes through everything, and the experiences of discovery and learning are a vital part of every story.