Friday, May 19, 2017

Chris Van Dusen's books for budding engineers

H and W are the initials for HotWheels. We love cars. A dream job for the eldest one is to be a HotWheels designer. We play cars, we race cars, we build homemade ramps, we have two crate-loads of tracks (official and knock-off glow in the dark stuff). H teaches me about all the different stunts that each car can do. Once in a while,  we get to "unlock" a new car. My favorite so far is just learning different car features--and how they compare against other cars.  Some of those HotWheels cars are pretty imaginative (e.g. rocket boosters and impossibly small engine footprints).  H (age 7)  has all his HotWheels memorized-- knows the name of every one, and our duplicates. W (age 3) has a  family set of cars --the Purrfect Speed models. Although we've gone through many HotWheels story books and catalogs out there-- my favorite book by far is Chris Van Dusen's If I Built A Car.

The lyrics describe one kid's dream car design. Each kid takes turns marveling at the imaginative features they like (such as the conveyor belt kitchen and underwater mode). We also scrutinze the myriad engineering drawings-- isometric, exploded views, and napkin sketches. I like talking with the kids about technical concepts like retractable wings, polymer gels, and autonomous driving. (I  worked as an driving robot engineer once, so I reminisce about the idea in kids media. ) So refreshing to use grown-up vocabulary and prose when we're reading together.

Van Dusen has written quite a few gems that keep us conversant about engineering design, such as Randy Riley's Really Big Hit and the similarly styled If I Built a HouseThere's plenty of turn-taking when it comes to discussing what one's dream design car or house would be. It can also be fun to admire the old-school style of Van Dusen's drawings.  I read that he paints the pictures in huge canvases and then shrinks them into the book. No digital touch ups-- everything is painted by hand. There's a lot to gawk at-- the contextual details are very well composed on each frame.  Also, each subject's features are well proportioned (no awkward looking noses or nightmare faces) and the styling is consistent throughout the book. You could definitely spend a lot of time just pointing out the different levels of detail on each page., from fixtures, to countenances, to shine spots on foreheads. We've gotten to the point where we even read the sketches on the inside cover-- and discuss the tradeoffs of different proposed concepts in If I Built a House. One thing I appreciated when the kids were younger was the word-image correspondence-- making my job of teaching literacy easier.

Of all the Van Dusen books, I think If I Built a Car is my favorite. I just love hearing the kids talk about how mechanical features like spoilers, fenders, and profile can affect performance (drift, drag, and speed). Then, seeing all the creative ways these ideas manifest in their cars and contraptions (garages, ramps, rings of danger) out of Lego, pen and paper, clay, and even recycling.

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