a Cinderella story at the European Grand Prix…and other bracing, racing stories

Neal Bascomb is an extraordinary author of nonfiction who manages to interest me in topics I never, ever dreamed I’d give a second glance.  Atomic bombs, for one. And now — auto racing!  What?! Friends, I have never paid a whisker of attention to auto racing. It does not register on my conscious brain whatsoever. I’ve rarely even known the make or year of my own car.

But when I see a new title with Bascomb’s name on it, I know it will be impeccably-researched, engagingly-written, and that even with no foundational knowledge on my part, he will spool out the information in such a way that I can easily track with the story. And — at the book’s end I will have discovered something else fascinating in the world.

Today I’m here with another of his fabulous middle-grade reads that makes a perfect choice for adults as well.  Following it up, I’ve got some snazzy automobile tales for younger members of your household so you can all roar down the racetrack together.

The Racers: How an Outcast Driver, and American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Challenged Hitler’s Best
 by Neal Bascomb
published in 2020 by Scholastic
323 pages

As Hitler rose to power in the early 30s, he was obsessed with proving the greatness of his Nazi empire and the Aryan race in every endeavor from the Olympics to motorsports. Europeans had been staging Grand Prix and Rally races since the early days of the automobile. Italian, French, German, British, and Belgian car makers employed drivers willing to literally sacrifice life and limb, who drove like wild bedlam on hairpin-turn-strewn routes and over thousands of miles of wretched roadways across the continent.

In order to gain utter mastery over these events, Hitler and the Nazi party threw a boatload of money into the development by German automakers of virtually-unbeatable cars. They were called Silver Arrows. In race after race, their cars and drivers bested all others.

Meanwhile, an American heiress with more grit and determination than a dozen bulldogs, a formidable rally driver in her own right, decided she was going to take Hitler down a notch. Pouring her own millions into a French Delahaye car whose design she supervised meticulously, she hired a highly-competitive French, Jewish driver who had been deemed an Undesirable by Hitler, a man named René Dreyfus. Dreyfus and the Delahaye team resolutely pursued the chance to defeat Hitler’s top driver and they had their chance finally in an epic David-and-Goliath showdown in the spring of 1938.

Bascomb takes us through the ins and outs of automotive technology, then straps us in the seats of these wild, screaming machines and sends us out on hair-raising rides in this fascinating, incredible account that gets two thumbs up from both my husband and I. It’s a surefire hit for anyone with an interest in cars, racing, or WWII, but you can take my word for it, if you just want to read some great nonfiction and expand your world you will find plenty here to keep you engaged! Recommended for ages 14 and up.

For younger readers, try one of these juicy, bracing, racing reads:

Digby O’Day in the Fast Lane, by Shirley Hughes and Clara Vulliamy
128 pages
A spritely, heavily-illustrated first chapter book about Digby, his pal Percy, and their zesty adventures in their sweet, red car during an all-day race from Didsworth to Dodsworth! Ages 4 and up.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming and John Burningham
111 pages
If you’ve seen the movie, trust me — you don’t know the real story! Written by the creator of James Bond, it’s a jolly, thrilling tale full of smugglers, caves and confections! I read this aloud with my kids several times. Ages 5 and up.

Around the World in 100 Days, by Gary L. Blackwood
345 pages
Harry, the son of world-famous Phileas Fogg, enters himself and a couple friends in a promotional gimmick, attempting to drive his newfangled horseless carriage — Flash — around the world in 100 days or less. It’s a relentless series of mishaps, narrow escapes, and one wild adventure. For middle grade readers or as an elementary read-aloud.

And here are a dozen wheel-y good picture books!

Honk! Splat! Vroom!, by Barry Gott
Five little mice let ‘er tear on a race through the countryside. Obstacles abound, vrooming becomes splatting, and Mortal Danger threatens to sabotage the drivers, but teamwork wins! Ages 3 and up.

5 Nice Mice and the Great Car Race, by Chisato Tashiro
In which five daring mice — Bon Bon, Whisk, Teeny, Nibble, and Abby — team up to design and build a prime roadster, enter The Great Car Race, and win The Ultimate Piece of Cheese! Flamboyant! Ages 4 and up.

Mama Lion Wins the Race, by Jon J. Muth
Drawing inspiration from Italian motorcar races, this brilliant tale of speed, strategy, and friendship is one you’ll love to read over and over again. Ages 4 and up.

If I Built a Car, by Chris Van Dusen
If you could dream up any features you please for a new automobile, what would they be? This young lad has got some out-of-this-world ideas! Ages 3 and up.

The Tooth-Gnasher Superflash, by Daniel Pinkwater
This quirky book is sadly out of print. It’s one of our all-time family favorites, an old Reading Rainbow selection, and worth checking for in your library. The Popsnorkles are in the market for a new car, but can anything rival their old Thunderclap Eight? The buttons on the dashboard of this lovely blue number sure make some crrrrazy things happen! Ages 2 and up.

Cars Galore, by Peter Stein and Bob Staake
Care for some more outlandish cars? This imaginative catalog is jammed full of the craziest contraptions you ever saw. Ages 2 and up.

Mrs. Armitage: Queen of the Road, by Quentin Blake
Mrs. Armitage is a first-class tinkerer and her shabby car needs improving. Off go unnecessaries such as fenders and hood, and on go juicy tidbits like a pennant and brassy horn. We love the silly Mrs. Armitage stories! Ages 3 and up.

Gus’s Garage, by Leo Timmers
Even the best of cars is bound to break down…but never fear! Gus and his garage full of bits and bobs will send you on your way with something better and certainly odder than before! Ages 3 and up.

Motor Miles, by John Burningham
Miles is a “difficult” dog. His long-suffering owners are a bit at their wits’ end until their neighbor offers to build Miles his own little car. Miles adores his spiffy roadster and sets off on some grand adventures! Ages 3 and up.

Our Car, by J.M. Brum and Jan Bajtlik
Bursts of juicy color flaunt their way through this flashy portrait of one family’s car, a little red roadster that gambols through seasons and tears down roadways.  Original, festive, and absorbing for ages 2 and up!

All the Way to Havana, by Margarita Engle and Mike Curato
Drive through the countryside in one of the many cool, vintage autos humming along Cuba’s roadways in this warmhearted tale. Ages 4 and up.

Mr. Gumpy’s Motorcar, by John Burningham
I cannot make a list of children’s books about cars without a special place for dear Mr Gumpy, his jalopy, and the much slower adventure he and alllllll his friends have one fine day. Preschool perfection.

Hope you find something spirited for your reading stacks!

Later this week I’ll have a batch of short chapter books for young readers and listeners.
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