From Hover Desks to Submarine Bikes: An Interview with If I Built a School Author Chris Van Dusen

If I Built a School is the perfect back to school read, and we got to talk to author and illustrator Chris Van Dusen all about his imaginative and super fun picture book. The story, about a kid named Jack who dreams up the most exciting, fun-filled school of every kid’s dreams, is sure to get your creative juices flowing and may have you wondering, what kind of school (or car, or house) would you build?

Jack has imagined the most outrageously fun school ever—it has a zoo, hover desks, and even skydiving! What kid wouldn’t be excited to go back to school if it were like this? Where did you get the inspiration for these awesome plans?
The ideas and features of “Jack’s” school are all from my childish imagination (most people would probably be insulted to be described as “childish”, but in my line of work, it’s a great way to think!). I tried to imagine the coolest things possible that could be built into a school. But I worked to push my ideas as far as I could. For example, there is a pool in the gymnasium. But a lot of gyms have pools. So I pushed the idea farther and farther until it became an oval pool that you race underwater on submarine bikes! It’s these outlandish ideas that I hope will inspire kids to let their own imaginations run wild.

Your illustrations are so vibrant and fun. How does your process work? Do you start with the images or the story? 
When I first start a book, the sketches and the writing go hand-in-hand. But these initial sketches are small thumbnails. I sketch them very quickly just to jot down some ideas for composition and layout. I really have to write the story completely before I go to the final sketches and final artwork. And all the illustrations are painted using a paint called gouache. There are no computers involved! A typical spread illustration takes 2 to 3 weeks. Longer if there’s more detail and less if it’s a simpler scene.

I love the rhyming text; this book is really fun to read out loud! It reminds me of the Dr. Seuss books I read as a kid—was he an inspiration for you?
Dr. Seuss has been an inspiration for all my books, especially the “If I Built” books. If I Built a Car, my first book in the series, was inspired specifically by Dr. Seuss‘s If I Ran the Zoo and If I Ran the Circus. I still love those stories! They’re perfect!

Did you like school as a kid and do you have any tips for encouraging kids who may be reluctant to go back this fall?
I DID like school. I had a lot of friends and a lot of fun! I think kids who are reluctant to go back to school should be reminded of all new things they’ll learn and all the new friends they’ll make. How exciting is that?!

Jack has built houses, cars, and now a school! Do you have any plans for what Jack is building next?
I do have a few ideas kicking around but I haven’t started anything yet. The School book just came out! But I’ve been asking kids at school visits for their suggestions and I’ve heard everything from planet to flying swimming pool. I’m thrilled that their creative juices are flowing!’

If I Built a School is on B&N bookshelves now.

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