The House of Sixty Fathers is a World War II historical fiction novel, written by Meindert DeJong, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and published in 1956. It follows the adventures of a young Chinese boy, who is separated from his family. To find them, he has to make a long and arduous journey across Japanese-occupied territory. The novel was based on the author's own experiences, as a soldier in the U.S. Army Air Corps serving in China. Simple pen-and-ink illustrations by Maurice Sendak add to the drama. The book won the Josette Frank Award in 1956. In 1957 it also won the Newbery Honor Medal, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and was named an American Library Association Notable Children's Book.
Tien Pao is a young boy in China during the Second World War. He escapes with his family when a Japanese bomb hits his village, but later he gets separated from them and spends most of the book with the family pig as his main companion. He encounters the American army and air force, as well as Chinese guerillas fighting against the Japanese enemy.
We thoroughly enjoyed this book as a family read-aloud. The writing style is very simple, with short sentences and Tien Pao's hopes and fears presented as statements of fact - even if the next statement is contradictory. This writing style is very effective because it makes you feel as if you really are seeing things from the perspective of a young boy who is bewildered by the sudden intrusion of the wider world into his hitherto simple life. The book has all the classic highs and lows you would expect as Tien Pao searches against all hope for his family, yet the predictable happy ending doesn't seem too contrived. Full marks to Meindert DeJong for a well-written, enjoyable and realistic adventure story. Recommended.
The House of Sixty Fathers may, at first glance, appear to be a simplified and standard children's book. Certainly, it is very simple; the sentences are all kept to an absolute minimum of length. But this simple style hides an absolutely brilliant exploration of war that adults will enjoy every bit as much as children, if not more.
The book opens with very little introduction. Meindert DeJong immediately thrusts his readers into Tien Pao's world, a world being torn apart by the horrific war between China and Japan. Bullets and bombs rain down within a few pages, and this very much sets the tone for the book. From the first terrible attack on Tien Pao's village, to his meeting with the Chinese resistance, to his sight of a Japanese attack on an American force, all is described in wonderfully vivid detail.
Somehow, it is easy to tell that the book is based on the author's own experiences as an American soldier serving in China: the events are so wonderfully brought to life, and the emotions so brilliantly described, that only somebody who had witnessed these terrifying experiences could write about them in such a way. The emotional impact is massive. Tien Pao himself is perfectly developed as the main character; and despite being told in the third person, the emotions of Tien Pao are so well described that nobody could read the book without feeling a huge connection to him. You are right there with him as he gets shot at, as he eats leaves to stave off hunger, and as he desperately searches for his lost family.
This is the very definition of a family book, a book that both children and adults will hugely enjoy. And having read this as a family, I would recommend it, as it reads aloud extremely well.
The House of Sixty Fathers is as good an adventure novel as you could wish to read, but it's more than that. It superbly explores themes that many other books simply do not dare to, and touches the reader's heart and emotions deeply. It is unforgettable, and it will give you a deeper appreciation of the trauma of war and of refugees' plight than any amount of non-fiction accounts will.
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- Reading Age: 10+
- Reading Aloud Age: 9+
The book deals with some of the harsh realities of war, but not in a morbid way. Includes injuries, hunger, death and destruction.
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- Other books written by Meindert DeJong.