The Wheel on the School (1954) by Meindert de Jong, Maurice Sendak (ill.) for the #1954Club

This book is marvellous, full of warmth and humour. It’s all about children getting behind a project and energising the local community to help each other. It’s about making new friends, connecting generations and removing misconceptions about old people and the disabled. There is enough incident and adventure to make it exciting as everyone works together to attract storks to nest on the rooftops of the tiny Friesian village of Shora.

“First to dream and then to do – isn’t that the way to make a dream come true?”

The backstory

Apart from fairy tales, I thought this was probably the first translated full book I ever read or, to be more accurate, had read to me on school radio. I know exactly where I was sitting in the classroom, aged about nine or ten, twisted sideways on my chair, staring up towards the ceiling where the loudspeaker was. That year the BBC had a radio programme called Man that had a few shows about the Netherlands and the polders. They may have talked about the North Sea Flood of 1953, but I don’t remember for sure. I do remember my teacher telling us that in Margate the wind was so strong that you could lean into it and not fall over. Living so close to the sea, the story of the 1953 floods had a huge impact on my imagination. Even if we did live on top of a small cliff, my biggest nightmare was a tidal wave. After all, the sea was only 200 metres away.

In any case, presumably at the same time as Man, we listened to a story about some Dutch children who wanted to attract storks to their village, The Wheel on the School. I was entranced and remembered the name of the book all my life, but had never seen a copy. Then, several years ago, somebody in the 6 Continents, 6 Countries, 6 Books reading thread at BookCrossing.com wrote that she had read it. When I told her about my fond memories, she was kind enough to send it to me. Since which time it has languished on my shelves with only the odd aborted attempt to read it. But last November I was slightly ill in bed, waiting for the antibiotics to kick in, looking for a comfort read and this fitted the bill for my BookCrossing ‘schools’ theme as well as #NovNov. The plan was to stay awake long enough to finish it in a day.

The Penguin edition I have has blurry little black/white/grey illustrations by Maurice Sendak (he of Where the Wild Things Are) that look like they may originally have been coloured watercolours. Only on the back cover are the stripes on one boy’s shirt blue, and the floor tiles alternating with white ones are coloured in the same blue as the cover itself; very subtle and I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been focussing on the illustrations for a moment.

The translation that wasn’t 

My first thought was that the translation is rather stilted. No translator is mentioned, so it’s entirely possible that the author translated it himself…. But wait one moment! When I looked up Meindert de Jong, I discovered that he emigrated to the USA at the age of eight, so he must have written the book in English. It wasn’t translated at all! That would also explain why it isn’t a classic in the Netherlands. In fact, it doesn’t appear to have ever been translated into Dutch, if I look at the editions listed on Goodreads.

Because of this book, I’ve spent my entire life believing that the Dutch believe that having a stork on the roof is good luck. Not that I’ve ever noticed any reference to lucky storks here, except for the traditional baby-delivering storks. There is a tradition in the Netherlands to put a board with the name of your new baby in your front garden to announce the happy news to the neighbours. In the past, this was generally in the form of a stork. They are still around but eclipsed by all sorts of animals, birds and prams. One day I will post a blog post on my expat blog about this tradition. Amusingly, due to more environmentally friendly farming practices, stork numbers have increased. At the same time, so has the birth rate. Spoilsports may be inclined to use this as a good example of correlation not proving causality.

A tribute to childhood in the Netherlands 

Even if De Jong spent the majority of his life in America, he was obviously determined to make this book a tribute to Dutch childhood. One of the things he described was the Dutch sport of ditch-jumping (polsstokverspringen or, in Friesian, fierljeppen).  It is similar to pole vaulting, but the pole is planted in the centre of a ditch and the jumper swings across rather than trying to clear a high bar. Of course, if they don’t get it right, they end up wet and muddy in the ditch.

I note that the spelling of the children’s names has been adapted so that English speakers pronounce them properly: Jelle becomes Jella, Auke becomes Auka, Eelke becomes Eelka. The village itself is Shora, based on the real Friesian village of Wierum, De Jong’s birthplace and the village where he spent the first eight years of his life.  

The plot

The only schoolgirl in the tiny village, Lina, realises that their village is the only one that has no storks on the village roofs and starts to wonder why. She takes her task of wondering about storks very seriously, so seriously that the oldest lady in the village, Grandmother Sibble III, notices and asks what is worrying her. She tells Lina that there used to be storks in the village and why they had left. More magical still, she has a sweet tin with storks on it: “Pictures of storks in high sweeping trees were all around the four sides of the candy tin. On the lid was a village, and on every house there was a huge, ramshackle stork nest. In every nest tall storks stood as though making happy noises with their bills into a happy blue sky.”

“Because it was so impossibly impossible, it was so.” 

When they put their minds to it, the children realise that the reason the storks have left may be that the old trees blew down in a gale. After thinking a little longer, they realise that the village roofs are too steep for storks to nest on. What they need is a cartwheel to make a base for the storks to build their messy nests of sticks. But there are no cartwheels to be had; people still need them for their carts. The children go out in search of old cartwheels. As in the best stories, this is not at all easy. The children will have to use all their powers of stamina, communication skills, cooperation and daring. Sometimes it’s dangerous. And sometimes their parents just don’t understand why it is so important to them.

Three small boys in clogs push an old man in an old-fashioned wheelchair.
Janus helps out. A grumpy old man transformed into a hero.

I read this several months ago and yet I can still remember some of the incidents. A grumpy old man in a wheelchair threatens the children, but when they explain themselves, he agrees to help and receives a new lease of life. I also remember the storm where the whole village is battered and a daring rescue saves a man trapped under an upturned boat, but I can’t remember the exact details. In any case, I enjoyed it as much as I did as a child. It is packed with incident.

A horse-drawn cart full of children wades into the sea to rescue two people from a small boat
The tin man’s cart to the rescue

The tin man’s horse “could hear ‘whoa’ ten feet under water. But ‘gee-up’, that he doesn’t understand very well.”

Dutch sayings

De Jong also used literal translations of Dutch sayings. Every so often I noticed another one of these Dutchified comments:

  • “Tomorrow morning […] they’d sit stupid and with their mouths full of teeth”. This comes from the Dutch saying ‘een mond vol tanden’, speechless, at a loss for words.
  • ‘I can’t any more’ (Ik kan niet meer) where we would say ‘I can’t carry on. I’m exhausted.’
  • ‘What a work!’ (Wat een werk!), where English would be ‘What a lot of work (for nothing).’
  • ‘The tin man wouldn’t have a red cent to pay me to boot’ uses the Dutch phrase ‘geen rooie cent’, not a single red cent. Apparently this phrase is also used in American English. I wonder if it comes from the Dutch.
  • Incidentally, it strikes me too that, for publication in the UK, the tin man should have been changed to tinker.
  • ‘Storming’ used as a verb is very Dutch; in English I would say ‘it was stormy weather’, ‘the storm was raging’, ‘it was blowing a storm’ or something similar.
  • ‘I had to argue myself warm to get someone to do something’ is not a phrase I recognise, but an English equivalent would be ‘argue until I was blue in the face’.
  • In ‘The real trek has still got to come’, the word ‘trek’ is straight from Dutch. It means migration; the main body of birds is yet to come.

I’m beginning to wonder if an English editor ever saw this before it was published! Sometimes I think that it’s deliberate, to give a flavour of the language, for instance he uses the word dominie instead of pastor (though it would have been better in italics, in my opinion). In standard Dutch it’s dominee, which rhymes with day. However, this is set in Friesland which has its own language, Frisian and they use the word dûmny. Of course, the author didn’t have the wonders of internet to check this sort of detail.

Stork conservation in the Netherlands

The natural population of storks in the whole of Europe had virtually died out due to intensive farming. Now that pesticide use has been reduced, they have been successfully reintroduced from zoo-bred birds. I have seen them nesting on wheels on houses or on special tall stork poles with a platform where they can nest. There’s a very good article on Wikipedia that includes information about reintroduction, and  wonderful photos that are worth looking at on ooievaars.nl, even if you can’t read the explanatory comments in Dutch.

-0-0-0-0-0-

For me this was a pleasant trip down memory lane, with the added bonus of recognising the Dutch expressions. Of course, I couldn’t have done that as a child because I didn’t speak Dutch then. In fact, I don’t remember anything clunky about the language, so I wonder if the BBC ironed it out for their broadcast. Does anyone else remember hearing this on BBC Schools’ Radio?

#1956Club – The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

Ian Serraillier’s 1956 children’s adventure book about child refugees travelling from Poland, crossing Germany to find their parents in Switzerland remains as relevant today as ever, though today’s refugees come from different countries.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

This was a book I had on my BookCrossing wishlist, so I was delighted when a Finnish Bookcrosser sent it to me as a so-called RABCK (random act of BookCrossing Kindness) in 2011. 

Somehow I had expected this to be about knights and probably Arthurian. I remembered the name Ian Serraillier from shelving books in the school library and thought I had either read this or another of his books. Now I’m certain I didn’t read this and I’m not sure I read any others of his, unless the hated Beowulf the Warrior was the version of Beowulf we had to study in the first year of secondary school (horrible story!). But this is something quite different.

One of the extraordinary things about this particular book is that only one edition of it is listed on Goodreads, not the Puffin edition I have. There is, however, also a script version for the radio adaptation and it was serialised twice by the BBC in 1957 and 1971. Yet everything I have managed to find about Ian Serraillier says that The Silver Sword is his most popular book and I have found multiple blogs online where this is listed as a favourite childhood book. Looking at his other books, the only one I could imagine having read as a teenager is Beowulf the Warrior which we studied in the first year of secondary school, much to my horror; I’d never read anything where a creature’s arm had been ripped off before. Perhaps that’s why I remember his name. The Silver Sword is definitely more enjoyable, even if the story is grim in other ways.

A WWII refugee tale

This is the story of an epic journey undertaken by three siblings from war-torn Warsaw (Ruth, Edek and Bronia Balicki), accompanied by another boy, Jan, who they take under their wing. The children’s father was deported to work in Germany and after being dragged from her home, the children’s mother has fled to Switzerland, her home country, leaving the children alone. Their house is then bombed flat so they live in the rubble. Jan, a wild, thieving boy, presumably an orphan, becomes attached to them because the children’s father gave him a paper knife as a talisman, begging him to tell the children to head for Switzerland. The book is the story of their adventure, the people they meet along the way and the setbacks and strokes of good luck that befall them.

In spite of everything that happens, I can’t say it’s the most exciting children’s book I’ve ever read, but that may be due to my advanced age. Plenty certainly happens; there are numerous incidents that ought to be full of tension and places where it could all have gone horribly wrong.

Nuanced and humanised cameos

Later on in their journey, the children meet a range of adults: a British officer, an American officer at a military tribunal who is sympathetic to Jan’s antics when stealing food, a German farming couple who give them farming work. All these encounters give the opportunity to present a nuanced picture of the post-war landscape. Farmers exploit refugees for their labour, but provide them with food and sometimes shelter. The allied military forces are helping keep order, organising relief efforts, running refugee camps and helping repatriate displaced people.

People like the children in The Silver Sword don’t fit into the grand scheme of things. They are travelling against the flow to a country that is not their own, following the dream of being reunited with parents who may very well have gone back to Warsaw to look for their children or may not even be alive. And it’s worth pointing out, these children aren’t Jewish, so they are allowed more hope than those whose families have been sent to prison camps or have been in hiding. As such, the Balickis and Jan can more easily be accepted by the German farmers.

The military personnel are also humanised: the British officer writes home to his wife and is missing his baby daughter, Ivan the guard in Warsaw is helpful and compassionate, the farmer and his wife have lost their two sons in the war. Nobody is unscathed by the years of war. They pass convalescing soldiers (presumably German) who wave from their sunny balcony as they pass. Everyone is trying to resume life and return to something resembling normality.

Animals

Jan has a great affinity with animals. When the other children first meet him, he is carrying a scrawny chicken which he protects against all suggestions he might be eaten. There are other animal encounters along the way. I suspect it’s one of the reasons so many people have such fond memories of the book. While in the transit camp in Berlin, Jan tracks down a chimpanzee that escaped from Berlin Zoo during the aerial bombardment. This reminded me of something else that I read where someone had seen an unusual bird – a stork or a swan perhaps – in somewhere like the Reichstag just after the war. Annoyingly, I can’t remember which book, but I did save this link to Storks in Berlin Zoo, 1936. If anyone knows which book I read it in, I’d love to know.

A personal connection

One particular incident mirrored an incident in my grandfather’s wartime experience. While in Germany, Edek is stopped on the road by the local mayor, who has the job of sending Polish refugees back to Poland. During the war, Edek had been sent to work as a labourer in Germany and could therefore convincingly speak the language. Jan, on the other hand, cannot and so has to pretend to be deaf. This is very like one of my own grandfather’s wartime tales. He had become detached from his unit in France and had to hide in a cave until forced to rely on the generosity of a local family. In return, he helped around the farm. One day, when he was sawing wood with a big two-handed saw, a German soldier came along and offered to help. My grandfather had to pretend to be deaf-mute so the soldier didn’t realise he wasn’t French. I’m sure it’s a ruse that has come in handy for many people in many similar circumstances.

An unexpected Dutch phrase

Just a little aside: something that surprised me was that Ian Serraillier uses the phrase ‘to make a long nose at someone’, in other words, to thumb your nose. I have never heard this in English, but it is a ‘false friend’ translation of ‘een lange neus maken’ in Dutch. I wonder where he picked up that phrase!

Switzerland at last

Even when the children finally reach their destination, the situation is still nuanced. After reuniting with their parents with the help of the Red Cross ITS (International Tracing System), they all have the good fortune to live in an international village, with the Balicki parents becoming house parents to the Polish house. Yet all is not perfect after the traumas of war and their refugee experience: Jan has to unlearn his thieving ways and remains wild, Edek has to recuperate from TB in a sanatorium – of which there were many in Switzerland due to the pure air – and perhaps most tragically of all, the formerly decisive Ruth loses all her self confidence and clings to her mother for security. Only Bronia, too young to really understand and always protected by her substitute mother Ruth, finds it easy to readjust, though at first she can draw only scenes of destruction and escape.

Serraillier doesn’t name the international village in Switzerland, but it is obviously the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen, overlooking Lake Constance. This sent me scurrying to my bookcase because I have a book about this very village, bought from my school library around 1975. The Children’s Village: Village of Peace by Mary Buchanan. More about that in my next post.

I’m very glad the 1956 Club gave me a good reason to read The Silver Sword, as who knows when I would have got round to it otherwise. I’m not sure if today’s children would find it that exciting because of the way it’s written, but I’m sure a screen adaptation would work very well even today. And sadly, the issues about refugees are just as relevant today as they were back then. It’s still a story worth telling.