Friday, January 20, 2012


By Chris Van Dusen

(Puffin, 2005)

Fisher Price cars, Matchbox cars, model cars...boys love them. These speeding, crashing, even flying toys become characters, defined by a child’s ever changing imagination. Many a boy dreams of being a race car driver, a bulldozer operator or perhaps a Zamboni master. These are the boys who will love If I Built a Car.

As the book begins, Jack rides in the back seat of his father’s car. It is a vehicle that fails to impress.

This car is OK. This car is not bad.
But it’s just a car. Nothing great. Nothing grand.

Jack uses the ride to think about his designs for a truly remarkable car, a dent-proof, passenger-safe invention with a face, fins and a Plexiglas dome. Inside, this contraption offers comforts that exceed the perks of glitziest stretch limo. Who wouldn’t want to nap while Robert the Robert navigates the journey, especially when “he’s guaranteed not to hit telephones poles”? Ah, luxury without the irksome lawsuits.

There’s more to amaze the reader. Jack’s creation floats on water, dives below the surface and catapults into the sky. The feature that is my personal favorite is that noxious fumes are transformed into tantalizing smells such as just-picked roses or fresh-baked blueberry muffins. How nice of Jack to provide momentary pleasure to pedestrians who cannot have their own super-mobile!

There is much for intrigued readers to digest. Van Dusen does not water down the vocabulary as he refers to retractable wings, zeppelins, a catamaran and even a stickleback gar. On first read, the terms will be overlooked details as the illustrations serve as the focal point. However, on repeated visits, the inquisitive reader/listener will want to know more. I can see this book triggering rich discussion, online research and a search for more books about different modes of transportation.

The illustrations provide a retro-modern vibe reminiscent of the futuristic depictions on “The Jetsons.” In fact, the endnote about the author indicates that Van Dusen’s inspiration came from visions of the future portrayed in Popular Science magazine from the 1950s and 1960s. The shout-out to the past extends to the malts and aerosol cheese snacks stocked in Jack’s ├╝ber awesome invention.

The best part of reading If I Built a Car is the book can be a vehicle to the planning and drawing of the reader’s own fantasy car. Perhaps the child can create a whole new transport line, with sporty compacts, state of the art ambulances and truly magical school buses. Fifteen years from now, I may still be driving the same ol’ Civic, but what fun it will be to see a fleet of innovative inventions whizzing by me on the highway!


  1. I love reading what people in the 1950s thought the future would look like. I blog on this from time to time. I'll even Google futuristic images from the 1950s. I have a post coming up called Futurists and Visionaries that takes a look at what our future may hold. Fun stuff to knock around and think about.

  2. Hi Stephen. Thanks for following the blog and posting a comment. I love illustrations that have a retro vibe. I'll have to think of other books that might be retro-futuristic!