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!”


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