Monday, June 25, 2012

Hungry for a Good Story?

When asked to tell his life story, Meindert DeJong wrestled to find something interesting enough to record. To most of us, the events of his life are far from ordinary. He basically described his life as divided between the writing part and the non-writing part. I contend that the non-writing part made the writing part remarkable. His simple storytelling is powerful in its simplicity and there is nothing dull or unremarkable about the stories he crafted.

Actually, his first story was produced as a desperate attempt to keep his family from starving. It is another example of how adversity produces good things. Let me tell you a little about his life, and you tell me if you think it was unremarkable.

The North Atlantic is famous for its tempetuosity. During one of its furious storms, on a cold dark night in 1906, in the village of Wierum, Friesland, Netherlands, a weak little baby boy was born. He had pneumonia three times in the next few years and his entire community prayed for his survival. His father, a successful architect, made the decision to emigrate to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I to protect the family, especially his older brothers from service in the army. It was a good thing they were staunch Calvinists grounded in their faith, because that move was a battle for the family. Not speaking a word of English, in an unwelcoming community, his brothers and he were forced to begin school at the beginning grades though they had been well educated in Holland. Eventually his older brothers had to leave school to help support the family. His mother gave birth to a little boy who died. The family sacrificed to keep Meindert in school and send him to Calvin College from which he graduated just as the Great Depression began.

Meindert found himself in the battle to find a job along with the rest. Working at tinning, grave digging, and whatever he could find to do, he ended up at a small college in Iowa where the pay was in scrip, resulting in his early retirement from teaching and an effort at poultry farming. That was dismally unsuccessful also. At this critical point (you know I love this part) the heroine enters, and yes, it is a librarian.

"I was starving on that depression farm," he relates, "There were no jobs to be had for love or money - there was no money." Because his local librarian was highly entertained by his anecdotes about his pet goose, she suggested he write a children's story. He had tried his luck at submitting short stories to magazines before, but they were all going out of business during those lean years. With nothing to lose, he wrote The Big Goose and the Little White Duck describing his own pet goose's "interesting personality, high intelligence, and ornery temperament." It was immediately accepted by Harper Brothers. Here's his modest response to this early success:
"It was acceptable and I've been writing children's books ever since...Now I'm still writing children's books and not starving, a decided and most comfortable improvement."
He was successful enough to support his family for the rest of his life from his writing. We are the ones made rich by his efforts. His failure as a farmer was transferred into the entertaining material for many of his books for younger children: The Little Cow and the Turtle, A Horse Came Running, Nobody Plays with a Cabbage. In 1959, he won the Newbery Award for The Wheel on the School, and was a three-time runner up for it for Shadrach, Hurry Home, Candy, and The House of Sixty Fathers. The latter resulted from his stint in the Air Force during World War II. Thinking his services would be critical as a Dutch translator, he instead found himself assigned to China functioning as official historian. Nevertheless, that experience later bloomed into the intensely gripping tale of the little Chinese boy and his pet pig "Glory-of-the-Republic", separated from his family by Japanese bombs and running for his life alone. Naturally it is his rescue of a downed pilot that turns the tragedy into triumph. That book is one of the best historical fiction stories written for children on World War II.

Besides great fiction, he also wrote some excellent children's Bible books. My favorite is The Mighty Ones: Great Men and Women of Bible Times. His solid theology and skill at depicting characters sheds a vivid light on the familiar stories of people and events from Genesis through David and Goliath. They are fresh again.

His books are rich with details of immediate interest to children. Full of deep conviction about the necessity of faith, sympathy with the thinking of children, his books do not shrink from the reality of pain and loss. These ideas are balanced with a rich fund of amusing scrapes, adventures, and mishaps all told with charm and sense of humor. The result is pure joy to the reader. Though many of his dozens of books are scarce and out-of-print, every one of them deserves to be hunted down and treasured. They will provide a rich store of memory and lessons to live by for you and your children.

As a matter of fact, at the upcoming Homeschool Librarian's Conference this weekend, when discussing how to find treasures such as these by DeJong and other valuable children's literature worth rescuing for another generation, I quote from The Wheel on the School in my advice: "Look everywhere a wheel might be found and everywhere it might not be found." Of course, we're searching for lost books not wheels, but this common sense advice applies, just as his supposed common place life laid the foundation for his precious stories. He admitted that "when bored with my non-writing life, I up and wrote another book. It's one of the things that gives life spice and interest and meaning."

You can say that again.

For the joy of reading,

Liz

3 comments:

  1. I can still hear Susan Schaeffer Macaulay talking about his books. Journey from Peppermint Street and Tower by the Sea. The first living book we read was The Wheel on the School. I still love that book and collect his writings.

    Calvin College has a short clip on an interview and a DVD to order:

    http://www.calvin.edu/news/2008-09/meindert-dejong/

    See you for the conference!

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    1. In western Michigan where we're from there is a saying, "if you aren't Dutch, you aren't much." He sure had some grit. Can't wait to see you at the conference.
      Liz

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  2. Think I lost that comment:

    Dirk's Dog Bello , not Towers in the Mist, was a very favorite of one son. He had a habit of saying that. What is in every Dejong book is a child in covenantal community. We long for that. We are made for that.

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