Why We Took the Car

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
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Dark humor, edgy details elevate teen road trip.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids will learn a bit of geography about Berlin and the German countryside and that there's an area of Romania called Wallachia. They'll learn how to use an analog watch as a compass and might be interested in learning more about World War I sea captain Count Luckner. The plot involves car theft, and the story offers details on hot-wiring cars and opening some kinds of car door locks with a tennis ball. Translated from the German, the book uses metric measurements; parents might encourage kids to look up how far some of the distances mentioned would be in miles and compare them to trips they've made themselves.

Positive Messages

Main character Mike Klingenberg, an eighth grader, learns he's actually got a pretty good life that, despite the problems he has, could be a lot worse. He also discovers in his travels that people aren't really as bad as elementary school "stranger-danger" training and even just watching the nightly news might lead us to believe. In fact, most people are quite nice when it comes down to it. Mike's been told many times that violence isn't the answer, and he isn't violent himself, but when his father beats him he acknowledges, "When you get a smack in the face, you know damn well it's an answer."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Eight grader Mike Klingenberg, 14, is a good kid at heart. He's capable of exercising restraint but, as is normal for his age, lacks the foresight needed to exercise better judgment. His loneliness and social isolation, thanks mostly to a highly dysfunctional home life, provide the framework for an underage, unsupervised road trip through the German countryside. He and friend Tschick try to avoid the notice of police, more because they're too young to have driver's licenses than because they've taken the car without its owner's knowledge. Their lack of experience driving causes a spectacular crash with a tractor-trailer on the autobahn. A few adults are kind and responsible, but most are hostile toward the young teens. Mike loves his mother and has a good relationship with her, but she's an alcoholic who's not always physically or emotionally available. Mike resents his dad for flaunting his extramarital affair and for abandoning Mike, and the dad gives Mike a severe beating once.


Violent incidents are few and far between, but they're important and powerful when they do occur. Mike's father hits him hard in the face twice and then beats him pretty severely. The beating isn't described in detail, but the pain is. One chapter opens with a first-person, apparently real-time description of killing and blood spraying, which turns out to be from a video game. There's mention of blood from an injury but no gory detail. A man shoots at Mike and Tschick with a rifle and damages their car, but no one gets hurt. After Mike and Tschick get in a crash with a livestock truck, it's mentioned that there are dead pigs and blood in the road.


The infrequent sexual incidents are somewhat sophisticated. From a distance, a girl taunts Mike and Tschick by opening her legs and shouting about "f--king." Isa proposes to Mike that they have sex and kiss, which he doesn't want, so they don't. Eighth graders hear rumors involving orgies and pimps. Isa strips to wash in a lake and remains topless for a while afterward. Mike sees her breasts, but they aren't described. Mike and Tschick have a conversation about homosexuality and what they think about it. Mike mentions that he enjoys being able to see what kind of underwear nurses wear under their uniforms. A man is seen masturbating in the distance.


Strong language comes up often. Most frequent words are "ass," "a--hole," "crap," "piss," and "s--t." Other strong language includes "c--ksuckers," "damn," "f--k," and "hell." Name-calling includes "dumbass," "faggot," "fag," "retard," and "p---y." "Jacking off" and "spanking it" are each used once.


Products mentioned once or twice each include Adidas, Red Bull, Coke, Grand Theft Auto IV, Lada (a Russian car make), Doom, Wikipedia, Rollerblading as generic for in-line skating, Snickers, Fanta, Aramis, Valium, Google, and Facebook. Singer Beyonce is mentioned several times; other artists whose names help create a mood include Pink and the White Stripes.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Mike's mother is an alcoholic and is always depicted drinking alcohol or going to rehab. She even gets "tanked" right before leaving for rehab because there's no alcohol there. Once she offers some alcohol to Mike. Mike's dad drinks Jägermeister once. Tschick and Mike drink beer on two or three occasions but not to excess, and Mike doesn't particularly like it. Tschick comes to class smelling strongly of alcohol a few times. A minor character drinks moonshine. In the hospital, Mike is given Valium, which makes him feel happy. Eighth graders are mentioned smoking at a party, and Tschick is depicted smoking twice.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Why We Took the Car tells the story of 14-year-old Mike and his classmate Tschick as they take an underage, unsupervised road trip (in a car they've appropriated without its owner's knowledge or permission) through the German countryside. Violence is infrequent but important, although there's not a lot of detail or gore. Sexual incidents are rare but fairly sophisticated and more matter-of-fact than romantic. There's lots of wide-ranging strong language, with "ass," "crap," "s--t," and "piss" being most common. Lots of brand names are mentioned once or twice, without suggesting any particular benefits or superior qualities. Mike's alcoholic mother is frequently depicted drinking or drunk; alcohol is mentioned on a few occasions, and Mike drinks beer a couple of times but doesn't like it. Teens smoke at a party, and Tschick is seen smoking twice.

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What's the story?

Left alone for two weeks during the summer after eighth grade, 14-year-old Mike befriends his mysterious classmate Tschick. Against his better judgment and with nothing better to do, Mike agrees to go along with Tschick on a road trip to Romania in a "borrowed" Russian wreck of a car, without a map. Taking back roads to avoid attracting police attention, the boys encounter colorful characters and spectacular scenery. Despite their best efforts to lie low, they can't seem to avoid trouble. When it all comes (literally) crashing to a halt, Mike and Tschick have to face serious consequences. Mike returns to the next school year with a whole new reputation and a newfound ability to endure, and even appreciate, the craziness of his dysfunctional home life.

Is it any good?

WHY WE TOOK THE CAR, by German author Wolfgang Herrndorf, is a funny, intriguing, and absorbing coming-of-age story. Fourteen-year-old hero Mike Klingenberg is likable and relatable, with an authentic voice that rings true. Other characters are colorful and well developed, from the ones, such as Tschick, we come to know well, to the oddballs and good Samaritans met only in passing. But don't be surprised if your favorite character turns out to be the Lada, the old Russian hunk of junk the boys "borrow" to hit the road.

These edgy details, the dark humor, and a narrator who doesn't hate everything shift the focus away from run-of-the-mill teen angst, elevating it to a solid buddy adventure that's more about friendship and finding your place in the world. Firmly rooted in its German setting, yet universal in its themes of growing pains and dysfunctional families, it will broaden​ kids' horizons as they gain a better understanding of how much we all have in common. Tim Mohr provides a deft, smooth translation from the German that reads as though it were written, with only a slight German accent, in English in the first place.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about feeling alone and isolated, even in the midst of a classroom. Almost everyone feels that way sometimes, so how do you know when someone might need help?

  • In the original German, the book was called Tschick. Do you think the U.S. title is better or worse? Why would it be so different? 

  • Mike says he went along on the trip because he didn't want to be boring anymore. Have you ever tried to change something about yourself? Were you successful? Why, or why not?​

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age and travel tales

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