The Book That Readers Built by Chris Van Dusen
Sometimes I can be oblivious. Or maybe I just can’t take a hint. Or if I was to flatter myself, maybe I overthink things. I have a new book coming out this fall that I wrote and illustrated titled If I Built a School. It’s part of the “If I Built…” series which includes If I Built a Car (2005) and If I Built a House (2012). The first two books seem to have found a lot of fans in elementary schools, but it took some prompting and pushing to get me to create this new book. Here’s how it happened.
I live in Maine, and throughout the year I visit several schools, mostly in the New England area. During my presentation I usually talk about what it’s like being an author/illustrator. I show some of my sketches and original illustrations, and I often read a few of my stories. It’s a way for me to connect with my audience and it’s so rewarding to see kids get excited about a book. It reminds me why it’s worth all the time I spend alone in my studio creating books.
It’s the ultimate compliment when teachers use one of my books and turn it into a creative project with their students. This happens most frequently with the “If I Built…” books. I have visited countless schools where I have been shown “blueprints” of fantastic houses or decorated shoeboxes turned into amazing cars. I can’t remember which school it was specifically, but after my visit I received a copy of “If I Built a School” written and illustrated by the students I had seen a few days earlier. Each student had imagined a different class and had written a description and illustrated a picture of that room. It was pretty amazing! I marveled at the imagination the kids used to create their school. Soon, that wasn’t the only copy of this student-created “School” I received. The idea spread between teachers and pretty soon, I was receiving copies of “If I Built a School” after I returned home from most of the schools I visited!
My wife Lori kept urging me to write the book. Every time I received another version of “If I Built a School,” she’d say, “See? They want this book!” But (and this is where the “blind to the obvious,” “can’t take a hint” and the “overthinking” comes into play) I resisted. I somehow convinced myself that kids would absolutely NOT want to read about a school. No way! After all, kids don’t really like school. Or do they? Did I?
I started recalling my own experience in school. Even though I didn’t necessarily like going back to school in the fall, I think it was more nervous excitement than dread that I felt. I made new friends, experienced different teachers, and learned a lot about things I’d never heard of before. I didn’t love the tests and homework, but even today I still keep in touch with people I met way back in elementary school. Looking back, I realized I actually loved school.
Still, it wasn’t until I received about my tenth copy of “If I Built a School” written by students that I finally realized that I had to write this book. I’m sure my wife, Lori, thought, “it’s about time!” but I still needed verification. So I sent an email to my agent, Steve Malk asking him if he thought it would be a good idea. He immediately and enthusiastically agreed. “WRITE THE BOOK!” he said. Steve contacted Lauri Hornik, the publisher of Dial Books at Penguin Young Readers and she, too, thought it was a great idea. Lauri said that the Car and House books were stilling going strong in their backlist and a new “If I Built…” book would be great to have out in the world. So after all the hemming and hawing, I finally started working on If I Built a School.
Before I began, I went back and re-read all the students versions of their “Schools” to pick up ideas, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t duplicate what they had already come up with. Even though the ideas were clever, in several cases kids had created rooms that didn’t necessarily function as a school. In other words, they wrote about things like the “puppy room”, where you would go into a classroom and play with puppies all day. Now that may be cute and charming, but it wouldn’t really be a working part of a school. So I borrowed some of their ideas (yes, there are still puppies in my book!) but I made sure that this book wasn’t just an extension of If I Built a House, it had to be an actual school.
I also thought, if I’m going to write about a school, and get kids excited about reading about a school, it had to be one crazy school! If you’ve read If I Built a Car or If I Built a House you know there are some pretty wild elements in those books (ie. swimming pool in a car, a room with no gravity). For If I Built a School, I’ve taken it to a whole new level. In writing the story, I’d think about something fun and different, then I’d push the concept a little farther, and bit beyond that, then one step more to come up with something that only a kid like “Jack” could dream up. I wanted kids to see that Jack’s school is special, but so is theirs! Schools are magical places. Even if they don’t have a puppy room, I wanted my readers to know that they can still use their imagination to create great things in the school they have right now.
My agent, Steve, thinks it’s the best “If I Built…” book yet! I hope kids get the chance to check it out. And if they do, I hope it stirs up their creative juices, fires up their imaginations, and inspires them to THINK BIG!
Chris Van Dusen is the author and illustrator of several highly acclaimed picture books, including the hugely popular Mercy Watson series. His book, If I Built a Car won the 2006 E.B. White Read-Aloud Award presented by The Association of Bookesellers for Children. He and his family live in Camden, Maine.