The story of the most awarded writer ever to graduate from Calvin College, Meindert De Jong.
On Nov. 22, 1986, a man walked into a video studio at Calvin College and sat down to be filmed for an hour while being interviewed by a friend.
“He didn’t want people around. It made him nervous,” remembered Randy Nieuwsma, the man behind the camera that day. “I was trying to be careful not to overwhelm him or unnerve him … I was really focused on the experience he would have. He didn’t do interviews. He didn’t do media, so I knew this was the only one anyone would get out of him.”
Out of the shadows
The man being interviewed was the most awarded writer ever to graduate from Calvin College. Meindert De Jong— whose The Wheel on the School won the Newbery Medal, whose Journey from Peppermint Street won the National Book Award and whose collected works, 27 in all, won the Hans Christian Andersen Award—had come out of his long reclusion to talk about his work.
“He never had any children, but he wrote for children … . I don’t know what sort of connection that is, but he loved children,” said Clarence Hogeterp '68, the friend who interviewed De Jong. Their recorded exchange—about books and the writing process and authorial reminiscences—was released in 1986 as A Conversation with Meindert De Jong, a video that has recently been updated and re-released as a DVD.
“He would have enjoyed it, but he would have given it short shrift,” said Hogeterp of the video production. “He was not big on being recognized or any media attention or anything like that. He was very self contained. I mean, that’s how it appeared to be to me. I got to him late in life.”
Watch a clip from the 1986 interview with Newbery medalist and Calvin alumnus, Meindert De Jong.
De Jong was born March 4, 1906, in the Frisian town of Wierum on the North Sea. The village fishwives claimed he was born with a caul, which was a portent of early woe and later fame. A sickly child, prone to bouts of pneumonia, the future author grew up surrounded by loving parents, grandparents and residents of Wierum, said Richard Harms, the curator of the Calvin archives: “He was the apple of the town’s eye. There were farmer folk and fishing folk in Wierum, and anything he did was fine with them.”
The young De Jong did not experience as much goodwill in America, where the family emigrated in 1914, Harms said: “Being an immigrant is hard. They weren't treated kindly.” Meindert was one of four boys in his family. (Two other brothers did not survive childhood.) He was encouraged to write by a high school teacher and by his older brother David, who matured into a novelist and poet.
Both brothers attended Calvin College, and one of their contemporaries, John J. Timmerman, recalled in “As I Knew Them”: “Meindert moved through Calvin on little cat feet. He was at that time amazingly shy and uncommunicative.” Soon-to-be novelists Peter DeVries and Frederick Manfred were also contemporaries.
The De Jong brothers had a predilection for going places—the circus, for instance—that Christian Reformed boys weren’t supposed to go and for playing pranks. The two looked enough alike to take each others exams. “They challenged authority,” said Harms. “Back then, that wasn’t encouraged.”
Telling stories to children
After his 1928 graduation from Calvin, De Jong taught briefly, then turned to raising hens and selling their eggs to make a living. “One of his stops when he was selling eggs was the children’s library,” said Harms. “He loved telling stories to those kids.” De Jong turned one of those stories, The Big Goose and the Little White Duck, into a book, published in 1938 by Harper & Row. Several other books followed, all of them about animals or life in the Netherlands. “He had the uncanny ability to see from the point of view of a child … ,” said Harms. “That made him enormously popular with children.”
In 1944, the Second World War pulled De Jong from the writing life and from Hattie, whom he had married in1933. After his 1946 discharge, it took a while for him to find his way as a writer. De Jong worked manual jobs as he eased back into the profession. “He had a very regular routine as a writer,” said Harms. “Every morning, he would get up and pick over what he’d done.”
A string of honors
In 1954, two of De Jong’s books, Shadrach and Hurry Home, Candy were named Newbery Honor books.
And in 1955, The Wheel on the School, another book based on De Jong’s Netherlands childhood, was granted the Newbery Medal. The award, given by the American Library Association, is one of the highest honors in children’s literature. Two years later, The House of Sixty Fathers, a story of a Chinese boy and his pet pig adopted by a garrison of U.S. Army Airmen—a story based on De Jong’s wartime experiences—was named a Newbery Honor book. Two more years later, Along Came a Dog, earned the same prize.
By 1962, De Jong had written 20 books for children, and in that year, he received a signal honor, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, for his lifetime contribution to literature for young people. He was the first American to win the award. That same year, Disney bought the rights to translate Hurry Home, Candy to the screen.
The following year, De Jong divorced his wife and married Beatrice, a woman he had met in one of the writing classes he taught. It was an act that earned him excommunication from the Reformed Church of America. The couple moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and, briefly, to Chapel Hill, N.C., finally settling in Allegan, Mich. in 1973.
De Jong grew estranged from his family and from the Grand Rapids community. His father and David both died in 1967. In 1969, Journey from Peppermint Street won the National Book Award. He wrote his final book in 1974. Beatrice died in 1978, and the author gradually became reconciled with his family. De Jong married his third wife, Gwen, in 1989.
A literary tradition
Calvin English professor Gary Schmidt, whose Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars have both won Newbery Honor designations, remembers teaching De Jong's Far Out the Long Canal 20 years ago in one of his earliest children's literature courses:
“The scenes that I remember are him (the main character) skating back desperately along the canal, and it’s melting. There are holes, and it’s nighttime, and he can’t see them. That’s brilliant stuff,“ said Schmidt. “It’s a very Dutch story, but it’s also a very human story about a kid overcoming a circumstance that makes him feel like a jerk, and that’s universal.“
Schmidt believes that his work continues in De Jong's tradition of writing for a wide audience: “I wish we would work really, really hard as a college to establish a literary tradition that plays on a worldwide scale,” he said.
Return of the prodigal
Clarence Hogeterp befriended the author during his Allegan years as the representative of a publishing company. “He had fairly recently lost his wife and was not inclined to socialize with very many people,” he said. “We’re both Frisians, and that sort of cemented our relationship.”
Hogeterp, who now owns Redux Books, persuaded De Jong to sign books at his alma mater. “He and his brother David had written some things about Calvin that were not so complimentary, and so they weren’t highly regarded there,” he said. He also persuaded De Jong to sit for a taped interview.
The taping took about an hour. It wasn’t necessary to edit a lot, said Nieuwsma, the Calvin director of instructional resources. “Then I remember we all went over to Clarence’s house afterward and had a little celebration,” he said. “Then Clarence took him home, and that was it.”
Meindert De Jong died in 1991.
Meindert De Jong’s Newbery and Hans Christian Andersen medals and his National Book Award certificate have been donated to the Calvin archives.
Find the re-released A Conversation with Meindert De Jong online at Calvin's Campus Store.
Read about Calvin professor Gary Schmidt and his two Newbery Honor awards.