Favorite Picture Books about Creative Play

Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions. ~ Albert Einstein

Children seem to be extraordinarily gifted when it comes to being imaginative. Just look around a playground, school yard or perhaps your own home, and you’re likely to notice cheerful and enterprising children, not yet bound by logic and common sense, using their limitless imaginations.

It’s a good exercise to intentionally try to observe children at play and ponder about the importance of their activities, in particular in this day and age, when we have recess coaches in some schools and city workers at public playgrounds to help(!) kids learn how to play.

Below I list eight picture books that show some of the highly imaginative ways children engage in play. I believe that these books, by encouraging us to live and love our dreams and to jump the fences of reality and circumstances, speak to children and to the child’s heart inside all of us. After reading them, we are absolutely convinced that anywhere can be a playground, anyone a playmate, and anything a toy.


SomedayEileen Spinelli, illustrated by Rosie Winstead,
Dial, 2007.

In Someday, a young girl dreams about all the things she might be when she grows up: archeologist, scientist, gymnast… The pages of the book alternate between “someday” and the present time, between her dreams and the reality of digging, counting and doing cartwheels in preparation for the future. The latter may look to others like she’s “just playing”… but she knows better.

RoxaboxenAlice McLerran, illustrated by Barbara Cooney,
HarperCollins, 1991.

Inspired by the experiences of the author’s mother, Roxaboxen is “a celebration of the ability of children to create, even with the most unpromising materials, a world of fantasy so real and multi-dimensional that it earns a lasting place in memory.”

In Yuma, Arizona, a group of friends play on the empty hill across the road from their houses. Over the years, and out of sand, rocks, desert glass and old wooden boxes, they build houses, a bakery, two ice cream shops, a cemetery for dead lizards, and even a jail. They named their town Roxaboxen, and in it they “lived”, fought wars, rode horses… and expanded their realities to include their dreams. This is an unforgettable story. (Roxaboxen still exists, preserved as a Park by the city of Yuma, still true to its original no-swing, no-grass, imagination-only state.)

GalimotoKaren Lynn Williams, illustrated by Catherine Stock,
HarperCollins, 1991.

In Galimoto, Kondi, a young and resourceful Malawi boy is determined to make a galimoto — a push toy car made of wire. His brother thinks he’s too young for the project, but Kondi proves him wrong. After going around his village asking children and adults––who aren’t always friendly or sympathetic to his cause––for scraps of wire, at the end of the day, his galimoto is ready for him to play with and to give his friends a turn.

MyStepsSally Derby, illustrated by Adjoa J. Burrowes,
My Steps
Lee & Low, 1999.

Backyards and residential neighborhoods are great to play at. But what if you don’t have them? In My Steps an African-American girl and her friends have many adventures on the front steps of her big-city home: they hop up and down; they ride horses on the low walls; they play school; they create a cave with the help of a blanket; they sit down to have popsicles in the summer… Their experiences will sound familiar to many urban kids, who must be creative when it comes to finding outdoor spaces to play in.

AcrossTheAlleyRichard Micelson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis,
Across the Alley
Putnam Juvenile, 2006.

Set during the time of segregation, Across the Alley introduces us to a Jewish boy and an African-American boy who, in spite of being next-door neighbors, aren’t allowed to play together. What people don’t know is that they have become good friends by opening the facing windows of their city apartments every night and throwing a ball back and forth between them–something they do until they realize it’s time they bring their friendship–and their ball game–out into the open.

NothingToDoDouglas Wood, illustrated by Wendy Halperin
Nothing to Do
Dutton Juvenile, 2006.

Nothing to Do is a good book to bring out when your hear the infamous “I have nothing to do!” cry from a chid.

“Once in a while, along comes a day when there is nothing to do,” is how the books opens. “I have heard wonderful stories about taking off your shoes and walking through green grass… Or making toy ships… and sailing them across a puddle”, it continues. The many activities mentioned include climbing a tree, building a fort, catching and releasing fireflies, watching the clouds change shape, finding a quiet spot to read a good book… A diverse group of children is portrayed in the illustrations, which celebrate all the wonderful things that can happen when little ones have “nothing to do”.

WeslandiaPaul Flieschman, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Candlewick Press, 1999.

Wesley is an unusual kid who, unlike the other children in his suburban neighborhood, doesn’t like pizza, football or the latest haircut trend. One summer, he finds that an unusual plant ( “a flowering, fruit-bearing plant that tastes of peach, strawberry, pumpkin pie, and flavors he had no name for”) is growing in his backyard. He names it “swist”… and that is the beginning of a very elaborate summer pastime. He discovers that swist’s fruits are good to eat and that he can barbecue the root tubers; that the fruit rinds make good cups from which to drink… He realizes that hats can be weaved from the plant’s fibers; that the oil from the seeds can serve as suntan lotion and mosquito repellent; that a flower stalk can be a sundial… Soon he has created a civilization–Weslandia–with its own crop, language, counting system and national sport, and the neighborhood children who used to tease him now want to join in on the fun.

Children’s imaginations are likely to run wild after reading this one! Not that they need any help in that department…

ABoxCanBeManyThingsDana Meachen Rau,
A Box Can Be Many Things
Children’s Press, 1997.

Oh the good ol’ cardboard box… Still one of the best toys in the world. With spare text and lovely illustrations, A Box Can Be Many Things alternates between the reality and imagination of two siblings who ride a car, go into a bear’s cave, sail on a boat and get trapped in a cage after rescuing a big cardboard box their mother has thrown in the garbage–and after the box is in pieces from all the fun, they discover yet more uses for it.

RegardsManInTheMoonEzra Jack Keats,
Regards to the Man in the Moon
Simon & Schuster, 1987; reissued by Viking Juvenile in 2009.

The classic Regards to the Man in the Moon is one of Ezra Jack Keats’ salutes to children’s ingenuity. Louie’s spaceship, which he calls “Imagination I”, may be made of junk, but all the kids in the neighborhood want to go for a ride. He’s learned the magic that will allow that to happen from his dad: “All a person needs is some imagination! And a little of that stuff can take you right out of this world!”


Old Turtle’s Timeless Wisdom

"Old Turtle" by Douglas WoodTwo of the books I gave my 8-year-old daughter for Christmas were Douglas Wood‘s  Old Turtle (illus. by Cheng Khee-Chee) and Old Turtle and the Broken Truth (illus. by Jon J Muth). I had heard much about these modern-day classics over the years and was looking forward to sharing them with her. I read the books once, before wrapping and putting them under our Christmas tree, but it wasn’t until we read them together, snuggled up in bed, that I realized how truly special they were. Their plea for unity, acceptance and understanding between people and nature got two thumbs up from my daughter.

"Old Turtle and the Broken Truth" by Douglas Wood In Old Turtle, when all creation starts arguing over who or what God is, Old Turtle, their wise and ancient leader, is the only one who accepts and incorporates the beliefs of all the creatures: “‘God is indeed deep,’ she says to the fish in the sea, ‘and much higher than high,’ she tells the mountains.” In Old Turtle and the Broken Truth (Muth’s image of the Truth falling from the sky and breaking in half being an especially poignant one), it’s up to a young, determined girl to help humans see that the truth they are fighting over is broken, and that there is not just one truth, but “truths all around us, and within us.”

The very important ideas these books convey add dimension to our website’s current focus on Respect for Religious Diversity, and the following quote from Old Turtle and the Broken Truth perfectly captures its essence:

Remember this, Little One… The Broken Truth, and life itself, will be mended only when one person meets another—someone from a different place or with a different face or different ways—and sees and hears herself. Only then will the people know that every person, every being, is important, and that the world was made for each of us.

African Library Project “Harambee” a success!

Harembee!- African Library Project fundraiserIt was an honor—and a great joy—to attend Harambee, the African Library Project‘s party and fundraiser event that happened this past Saturday in Menlo Park, CA in celebration of the project’s 5th anniversary.

The very well-attended evening of wonderful African food, music and dance included many highlights, such as founder Chris Bradshaw‘s speech about the project’s mission and accomplishments as well as the work still ahead (they have built over 500 libraries to date, in different countries in Africa, and hope to build countless more). Also inspiring were the testimonials from an African woman about what it was like to grow up in Rwanda without books, and from Becky Banton, from the African Library Project in Lesotho, who told us about the direct impact of ALP libraries in the lives of the children she has come to know and love. She told us, among other things, about one girl who has just started college: the same girl featured in one of the videos they showed in the beginning of the evening reading at her ALP school library (some years ago) and saying she would like to be able to go to college one day.

The evening also included the awarding of three Compassion Award plaques in recognition of individuals, one of them a 13-year-old boy, who have gone above and beyond in their commitment to help ALP build libraries and promote literacy in Africa.

Congratulations to Chris Bradshaw and to all who helped organize such an inspiring evening. We wish you continued success in your efforts to promote literacy and give children in rural areas of Africa a chance of a better life.

“Claiming Face” on Hispanic Heritage Month

Hispanic Heritage Month 2010 PosterThis year we welcome Hispanic Heritage Month by pointing you to Children’s Book Press‘ guest blog post by  Maya Christina Gonzalez, the first of a series highlighting the author’s “Claiming Face Educator’s Guide” curriculum, published by her own Reflection Press (Maya has published several books with Children’s Book Press). In this first post, which went live on Sep 7, Maya gives us a little background to the project, whose goal is to help children learn to use creativity on their journey to developing a strong sense of self. She says:

I’ve had the opportunity to work with many children over the years. Since I work almost exclusively with children of color, I naturally began sharing with them how art had supported me growing up. This evolved and deepened over the years into a full curriculum I call Claiming Face.

The series will go on for a few months, with one post per month, so head on over to read the first installment now—and, while you’re at it, make sure to bookmark the Children’s Book Press’s website and blog, as you will want to visit often to keep abreast not only of new posts in this series, but also of their new releases and 35th anniversary festivities happening this month and next.

Just released: The Good Garden, by Katie Smith Milway

The Good Garden, book coverFirst came the very special One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference, which taught kids about microfinance. Now, Katie Smith Milway brings us another powerful book: The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunger to Having Enough (Kids Can Press).The Good Garden tackles the topic of food security and is the inspiring story of a Honduran young girl and her family’s journey to growing enough food to meet their needs (you can watch a book trailer here). The book is accompanied by a Good Garden Enrichment Program, an online resource developed by One Hen, Inc.

A portion of all book sales go to fund One Hen, Inc.’s programs in disadvantaged communities.