Shadrach by Meindert DeJong
Newbury Honor Award in 1954
Read Aloud for Lower Elementary
The love of a child, pursuing values
Two weeks to finish, reading one chapter a day.
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What I love about this book
Where this book really shines is in the writing, Meindert DeJong has a gift to make the experiences of childhood accessible to anyone because of how authentic the main character Davie is. As readers, we hear and see what Davie sees, and we get to hear his thoughts process everything. I’m someone who reads a lot of children’s literature, and this book is the best example of capturing the mind of a child that I’ve ever read.
Davie is an earnest little boy who has been promised a little black rabbit as a gift. Saturday is a long way off, a whole “six long waiting days still to wait”, and we experience that passage of time through the lense of this child. The days aren’t technically any longer than they were before, but to Davie, they are an eternity. (Coincidentally, at the pace I read the book to the class, it actually took six days!) You begin to feel, like Davie, that the rabbit will never come at all.
When the rabbit, named Shadrach, does arrive, he dotes on it and pampers the little beastie, but as he’s only a little boy, he doesn’t know that the fresh dandelions and clovers he’s feeding Shadrach are the equivalent of dessert, Shadrach gets ill and becomes frighteningly skinny. Shadrach is so thin, he slips out of the hutch and runs away! Davie wrestles with guilt and shame and fear over his beloved missing pet, until he finds the rabbit nibbling a bag of dried oats and realizes his mistake.
What I didn’t love
I’ve read another book by Meindert DeJong, The Wheel on the School, and it is now a favorite book of mine- I might actually be using it in an adult book club in the near future!- so I was a smidge let down from Shadrach.
This book is slow. It unhurriedly meanders into unimportant detours and seems totally unconcerned that a few pages went by that are of no consequence. I didn’t mind this in itself, it’s all very well written, but for read aloud I could tell my students got bored by these parts and these passages weren’t rich discussion topics.
The ability to connect literature to your own life is one of the most beautiful and valuable things about literature, it’s an important criteria for when I’m selecting books. Where this book really shines, and why I think it’s a Newbury Honor book, is how authentic Davie is. We hear his thoughts, concerns, motivations, emotions and they are so heartbreakingly real, you’d think an actual child wrote the dialogue. My students were able to relate to a lot of the emotions from Davie. His anticipation, his love for his pet, impatience, excitement, fear, worry, joy, love. They shared short anecdotes of anxiously waiting for baby siblings to arrive, getting new pets, waiting for a birthday and any of the other things that 6-9 year olds look forward to, but because the book takes it’s time and repeats the same idea of waiting over and over, our day-to-day discussions were minimal.
By contrast, in The Wheel on the School, underneath the obvious plot, the book is (secretly) all about the relationships the schoolchildren make with the adults in the community, and Shadrach has some of that, but not as explicitly. Shadrach is first and foremost about Davie and his rabbit, with small moments with each of his family members, mom, dad, grandma, grandpa and his older brother Rem, but these interactions are less obviously meaningful than the ones forged in The Wheel on the School because Davie and his family already love and care about each other. In The Wheel on the School the different people learn to love and value each other when they didn’t already. This distinction makes a huge difference in the depth of discussion I was able to have.
One student did make a really excellent connection with Farmer Boy though, how Almanzo desperately wanted a colt and would spent time looking at the horses and imagining how he’d train the colts when he got older.
My Personal Favorite Part
When Davie first gets Shadrach, he has this childish idea to pull a prank on his Grandpa, which he thinks will be great fun, but when he sees the little rabbit for the first time he’s completely overwhelmed with love for this small creature that’s ‘alive and his’.
“Fairest, fairest, fairest of ten thousand to my soul.” […] He was suddenly weak. He sat down flat on the ground in front of the hutch. “Mom, you tell Grandpa and Grandma,” he begged hoarsely. He couldn’t take his eyes off the little black rabbit “Mom, will you?” He urged.
“Must I tell them your story about the black animal that might be a rat, and tell him to bring a club?”
He shook his head. This was no time for baby jokes like that. This, this was- holy.
I’m pregnant with my first child and I’m feeling rather excited and anxious like Davie. This moment was so touching to me, how little Davie all but melted when he saw the “fairest of ten thousand” to his soul; Not unlike how I expect to feel when I look into my little babe’s eyes a few months from now.
I might try Shadrach again with students as a Literature Circle book (with 7-8 year olds), tie in some personal writing exercises and focus more on the relationships Davie has with each of his family members, but I don’t think I’ll use it for class read aloud again. This book would be well suited for more sensitive children or those who also have big feelings. Nothing bad, scary (or particularly exciting) happens throughout the book. I will read it to my own child for read aloud.
We read this book in two weeks, reading a chapter a day, but I would have preferred to spend three weeks on this book.
The book’s title has a religious origin which is mentioned explicitly, but this is not a religious book in any meaningful way.
See other books I recommend for this age range on the book list page!