Onion John, Joseph Krumgold, Thomas Y Crowell, 1959, 248 pp
THE SUNDAY FAMILY READ
What a difference six years can make, at least in writing for children. Joseph Krumgold won a Newbery Award in 1954 for And Now Miguel, a book written in what I would call the old style of kid lit. In 1960, he won again with Onion John. Despite the somewhat off-putting title and a truly odd dust cover illustration, this middle grade novel is as hip as Beverly Cleary was in her day.
Andy Rush, Jr is coming of age in a small New Jersey town. His father owns a hardware store where Andy works after school when he isn't running with his gang of friends. The boys are into baseball and roaming the town. The tone is completely late 1950s and makes the story clip along.
Krumgold however is really following the same theme as he did in Miguel: that cusp of childhood dealing with the awareness of adults as people with their own flaws and worries.
Onion John is the community's nickname for a Polish immigrant who lives in a rundown house on the edge of town, barely speaks English, and survives by means of odd jobs and finding stuff at the dump. Andy learns how to understand what Onion John is saying and they become friends.
In fact, Onion John becomes a hero to Andy. The boy falls under the spell of this man's folk wisdom. Of course, Andy Sr, has big plans for his son and they don't include a weirdo like Onion John. Worse, Andy Sr enlists the whole town in a project to make Onion John into a "normal" guy, with disastrous results.
That is the conflict and Andy must work his way through his loyalties and love for two very different father figures. This is a well told story with great characters and no preaching. I liked Andy's friends as much as I liked Onion John. Actually Onion John rocks, both the man and the book.
(Onion John is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)