Onion John joins the ranks of mediocre, not-terrible-but-not-amazing Newbery Medal winners. It is a coming-of-age story; Andy, through his friendship with Onion John, discovers new things about himself, his family, and life in general as the town strives to help Onion John through building him a house.
While the book is detailing Andy’s transition from unquestionable belief to skeptical uncertainty, Krumgold is fairly gentle with Onion John’s ways and culture. While Andy’s father, and eventually Andy himself, question Onion John’s methods and beliefs, Krumgold adds just enough detail for the reader to wonder, “Was Onion John right after all?”
Besides exploring interaction with people from different cultures, Krumgold also explores how it’s possible to help someone too much, as demonstrated by the town building Onion John a house. While this was unquestionably a good thing to do, there were, perhaps, better ways to help him than give him a house he didn’t understand or want. While Andy buys too much into Onion John’s beliefs, a reflection of his culture, the town doesn’t consider his culture enough. Onion John is really an exploration of balance, of not going so far in one direction that you leave the person behind. This is also explored in Andy’s relationship with his father.
In the moment, I enjoyed Onion John, but I doubt I’ll remember much of it a week from now. My desire right now is for books that pull me in immediately; Onion John didn’t do that. It’s a good exploration of coming-of-age and what that might mean, but it’s tame and bland and ultimately unsatisfying.