It never fails to surprise me when people have never even heard of a book I love. Even though I know that there are bajillions of books in and out of print every year, bestsellers and not, good and not, picture books and chapter books and nonfiction books and activity books, I am still surprised, every time, when I am head over heels crazy nuts for a book and encounter someone who has never heard of it. Especially if that person is involved in books somehow - a librarian, a teacher, an author, a fellow bookseller. So instead of continually saying "What? You've never heard of WHAT?" I have decided to just spotlight those books I'm crazy about right here in this blog. I'm calling the series "Gold Star Classics" because these are books that I think should be classics (or already are classics) and, well, that I'd give a gold star to if I could. (Upon further reflection, I'm pretty sure you all could have figured that out on your own. You're a pretty smart bunch.) Many of these will likely be picture books, because I don't review picture books here very often yet, but I'm sure I'll talk about longer fiction as well.
So, on to my first pick! (Which will not surprise...probably a lot of people.) In my opinion, IF I BUILT A CAR by Chris Van Dusen (author/illustrator of DOWN TO THE SEA WITH MR. MAGEE and A CAMPING SPREE WITH MR. MAGEE; illustrator of Kate DiCamillo's MERCY WATSON books) is the greatest boy-centric picture book of the last decade, minimum. I can say without ego that I "discovered" this at my old store - we'd had two copies sitting in a turnaround for two months before I picked it up and read it and then forced it into the hands of all of my coworkers. Somehow most of us hadn't read it in F&G (folded and gathered; a galley for a picture book). Once we'd all read it, we started selling it like mad. Seriously. It came out in May of 2005, and between now and then, Children's Book World has sold hundreds and hundreds of copies. It was book talked at every school book fair. It was sold to every young boy who shopped at the store. Then our customers took up the banner and came in to buy it for gifts for other people and recommended it to their friends, who came in for it. Families wore out copies and came back to purchase it a second time.
Then in 2007 it came out in paperback, and CBW sold hundreds of paperbacks...while continuing to sell it in hardcover. Which they continue to do to this day.
There is nothing about this book I don't love. Jack, from the backseat, said to his dad, This car is OK. This car is not bad. But it's just a car. Nothing great. Nothing grand. It's nothing at all like the car I have planned. From here, Jack proceeds to describe in wonderful detail the car he would build if he could. And what a car it would be! It would fly. It would go underwater. It would have an amazing aesthetic design and be super-safe. It would have a fireplace! A pool! A snack bar! And it would smell fantastic, as the following lines (which appear on what may be my favorite page, artistically) tell us:
A car that smells GOOD? Now that's something new.
But if I built a car, that's just what I'd do.
Inside the engine I'll add a machine
To capture the odor of burnt gasoline
And change it to something more pleasing to noses--
Like blueberry muffins or freshly picked roses.
The rhyme scheme, I think, is one of the finest I've ever read. So many "rhyming" picture books have lines that scan horribly, making them an annoyance to read aloud. That isn't the case here - far from it. One major review I read complained about the lot of a plot, but this isn't a plotted picture book - it's a flight of fancy, along the lines of what so many kids must imagine every day. And the art. Oh, the art. The fantastic, 50's-inspired art. Another reviewer thought it would appeal more to adults than kids, but I haven't found that. The colors are so vibrant, the expressions so cartoonish without being over the top. (Jack's dad's face on the last page kills me every time.) It's just so beautiful and awesome and angle-y and specific and great. (And if you're a Mr. Magee fan, which you should be, you can spot him and Dee, his dog, on one of the pages.)
I think I could count on just my hands the number of times we handed this book to someone and they didn't purchase it. It really is that good. I've never understood why it wasn't a New York Times bestseller. (I remember when we had passed the 200-sold mark my friend Sarah asked her roommate, a manager at a large local chain, to check and see how many their store had sold. TWO.) It completely deserved the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award it won in 2006. It is a joy to read aloud. It is an almost guaranteed surefire hit, and anyone who can't sell it should get out of the bookselling business. I hope it's in print forever.