Shrek said it best when he declared that ogres are like onions (or was it parfait?). The outcasts of society have hidden layers that the well-meaning people of civilization cannot comprehend. Even if their intentions are good, their actions often are detrimental to those they try to save. Onion John by Joseph Krumgold, winner of the 1960 Newbery Medal, captures how good people can be led astray by their own righteousness - and how they can redeem themselves.
The story takes place in the sleepy town of Serenity, where the men are strong and the boys play baseball. After a winning game, Andy Rusch notices Onion John, the town's eccentric, and decides to befriend him. Onion John has many imaginative and fantastic ideas, such as a procession to make it rain, fumigating the basement against ghosts, etc. but Andy enjoys the wild ride that he shares with Onion John. Moreover, he actually believes in Onion John's ideas. Rather than dissecting Onion John and seeing the fragmented pieces of his past, Andy is innocent and compassionate. However, when the adults get involved in Onion John's life, they pass judgment on his living conditions and perspective. Onion John recycles old bath tubs to store his food, newspapers, and other miscellaneous possessions, but according to Andy's father, this is not "normal nor comfortable" (104). The entire city is enlisted to build Onion John a new house when his old one was mostly serviceable. The good people of Serenity sincerely believe that helping Onion John become like them - with their new ovens, one-bathtub homes - will make him happy. What they do not realize is that Onion John had never needed to be saved. He had been content with his atypical life and finally, he has to leave Serenity to find peace again. While Onion John's life is turned upside down, Andy experiences his own rite of passage to discover if he wants the future his father has planned, and if he still believes in Onion John. In the end, Andy has to let go of his friend and allow him to choose his own path. By allowing Onion John to be himself, Andy learns to accept who he is. While Andy and the people of Serenity may have made mistakes, they learn to open their minds to new possibilities, to the parfait among the plain vanilla ice cream.
As an aside, I wanted to mention one of the Honor books for 1960, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, which I read as a class assignment in 5th grade. While I didn't feel particularly connected to the book, the part that made the biggest impression on me was the newspaper assignment that we had to do to reflect on the book. Our teacher had us write articles based on the book, including features, recipes, interviews, advertisements, etc. This assignment introduced me to the idea that novels could be analyzed in different formats and creative styles. I am convinced that our Sam's Gazette gave me the freedom to create songs and fiction based on literature in later years.