Do Mercy Watson and the gang from Deckawoo Drive, Mr. McGee and his little dog Dee, and stand-alone titles like The Circus Ship and Hattie and Hudson have permanent places in your classroom read-aloud rotation? We love author and illustrator Chris Van Dusen’s bright and exuberant illustrations and witty, engaging rhymes. When we heard that young Jack, from the delightfully imaginative If I Built a Car and If I Built a House, would be starring in If I Built a School just in time for back-to-school season, we couldn’t resist catching up with Chris to talk about his own childhood and school experiences, how much he values kids’ opportunities to be creative and spend time in nature, and more.
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Chris, we adore If I Built a Car and If I Built a House. Can you tell us more about what inspired the series?
The first book, If I Built a Car, was originally inspired by Dr. Seuss. I’m a huge Dr. Seuss fan! I was thinking of two of his books in particular when I started working on it: If I Ran the Zoo and If I Ran the Circus. Both books start with a boy dreaming of what he would do if he created a zoo/circus. I loved that format and decided to create a story in that style, but I wanted the theme to be something from my childhood. I remembered loving the futuristic concept cars that were featured on the cover of magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, so I decided to write about a fantastic car. The Jetsons were also a big influence for both If I Built a Car and and If I Built a House (and even more so for If I Built a School!).
What made you want to add a school-themed title to the If I Built … collection?
The idea for If I Built a School came from school students directly. I started to receive copies of “If I Built a School” created by students shortly after I’d visit their school. A lot of times, one student would write and illustrate about a different fantasy classroom, then the pages were either stapled or bound together to make a book. Still, I was reluctant to write about a school because I thought kids wouldn’t want to read about a school. But after I received several copies from different schools and I saw the imagination that the kids had used to create their dream schools, I decided to write the book. I should also say my wife, Lori, had urged me to write this book for years! Moral: Listen to your wife!
Tell us a bit about yourself as a child. How do your books reflect what you think childhood should be like?
I guess I was a bit of a dreamer like Jack. As a kid, I spent a lot of time playing outdoors in the woods behind our house. My brother and I would create towns in the stonewalls and make roads for our Matchbox cars. We were constantly using our imaginations. And I loved to draw! I drew all the time!
I think it’s important for kids to think creatively and let their imaginations run wild! Dream big! And go outdoors and play in the fresh air. Exploring nature is perhaps the best thing a child can do.
Miss Jane listens attentively to Jack’s fantastic vision in If I Built a School. What are your own favorite school memories?
If I had to pick my all-time favorite teacher, it would probably be Mrs. Mannix, my second-grade teacher. I loved her! I still specifically remember some of the things we did in her class. We studied Japan and held a Japanese tea party, her husband came in and cracked a coconut for us, and one of the best things she did for us was to read aloud. I remember we’d spread our blankets on the floor, she would turn down the lights, and she[‘d] read the original Peter Pan to us in her great Scottish accent. It was magical!
What do you like most about spending time in schools now as a visiting author/illustrator?
I love spending time with school kids. It’s a chance for me to reconnect with my audience, and it reminds me why it’s worth spending so many hours alone in my studio creating stories. But to see a child get excited about a book, with all the screen distractions they have in their lives, that’s probably the most rewarding thing of all.
If you were to help design a real school, what would your top priorities be? Would any of the features of Jack’s imaginary school make the list?
That’s an excellent question! I think it’s important for kids to be surrounded by things that stimulate their minds. That’s why I added the zoo in the lobby in If I Built a School. Wouldn’t that be cool? What kid wouldn’t want to welcomed to school by a bunch of big friendly animals and several happy puppies rushing up to greet them? It would put students instantly in a good mood, and it would be a great way to teach compassion.
But I think one of the simplest ways to create a better educational environment would be bringing the outdoors in. In Jack’s school, the roofs of the classrooms open up like giant flower petals letting in fresh air and sunshine. That might be my top priority for a healthy classroom.
When you send a book out into the world, what’s your favorite way to see it being enjoyed in classrooms?
I’m honored when teachers use my If I Built … books to create projects with their students. I have been to several schools where I have seen shoeboxes turned into amazing “cars” and studied “blueprints” for incredible houses. I hope that If I Built a School stimulates the imaginations of lots of young readers.
Can you give us a bit of insider information or fun detail to wow our students?
Some exciting news that was recently announced, is that a production company in LA is considering turning the If I Built … books into a movie or series of movies! I really hope it happens! I’d love to see Jack’s vivid imagination brought to the big screen!
What’s your favorite Chris Van Dusen title to use in the classroom? Do you have an awesome activity idea to go with it? Share your tips in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.