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!”


Children as Change-Makers: On and Off the Pages


One Peace, book cover


The success of our individual and global attempts to build a world where tolerance, respect and openness to cultural differences prevail relies heavily on the ability of our children to carry on these ideas and ideals into the future. And their ability to perform such an important job relies partly, and very importantly, on them being exposed to books that introduce them to experiences and world views different from their own.Given the chance and the education, children are a powerful force for positive impact and change: for they are open to think about, explore and engage with the world beyond themselves. Their prospects of growing up capable of exercising and experiencing empathy and altruism is directly related to their ability to “read the world” in all its complexity.The books mentioned below are just a few examples of stories where children take a step toward a better world for themselves and/or for others. They echo problems that children face now or have faced in the past in the countries and communities described in their pages. They show the resilience, creativity, determination and sense of justice of their young protagonists/subjects in the face of unwanted realities.

SéLaVi, That is Life: A Haitian Story of Hopeby Youme Landowne (Cinco Puntos, 2004)
ages 9-12

Inspired by true events, SéLaVi is the story of a group of homeless kids in Haiti, who learn to navigate their country’s political and social upheavals by sticking together and speaking up about their needs via the radio station they create at a rebuilt orphanage. The children’s radio station was in operation for nine years, broadcasting their plight and demanding that their voices be heard.

Mud City, by Deborah Ellis (Groundwood Books, 2003)
ages 9-12

The third is Deborah Ellis’ fascinating “The Breadwinner” trilogy,Mud City introduces us to the rebellious and cunning-by-circumtances 14 year-old Shauzia, an Afghani refugee living at a camp in Pakistan. Longing to take charge of her life, she embarks on a perilous and misguided journey from camp to city and back again, when she finally realizes her strength and determination can be used for the greater good of her people.

Ryan and Jimmy and the Well in Africa That Brought Them Together, by Herb Shoveller (Kids Can Press, 2006)
ages 9-12

Part of the Kids Can Press series of books that address issues related to global awareness and citizenship, Ryan and Jimmy is the story of Ryan Hreljac, a first-grade boy from Canada who, after learning about the devastating plight of those with no access to clean water, decided to raise money to build a well in Africa, developing, in the process, a life-changing friendship with a Ugandan civil-war orphan. An epilogue tells readers what happened after Ryan built the village well: since 2005, his Ryan’s Well Foundation has built hundreds more wells in Africa and other developing countries, bringing clean water to hundreds of thousands of people. And it all started because of one boy’s desire to help those less fortunate than himself.

Rickshaw Girl, by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Jamie Hogan (Charlesbridge, 2007)
ages 9-12

Set in contemporary rural Bangladesh, Rickshaw Girl is a story about Naima, a ten-year-old girl who defies tradition and risks much in order to help her struggling family overcome poverty. By testing and questioning the limits imposed by her culture, she finds a place for herself in a world where the recognition of women’s rights and their empowerment is still a slow-coming process. The book’s afterword also introduces children to the concept of micro-finance and its particular impact in rural communities and on women’s lives.

Tire Mountain, by Adrea Cheng, illustrated by Ken Condon (Front Street, 2007)
ages 4-8

Tire Mountain narrates young Aaron’s attempt to avert change. Unlike his mom, he doesn’t want to move to a “better place.” He likes living next to his father’s tire shop, surrounded by all the piles of rubber. While trying to solve his problem creatively – even if moving seems inevitable – he transforms the empty lot across the street into a playground, leaving his neighbors a gift that will allow them to enjoy “seeing flowers and the community bloom in a space where there had been nothing.”

Maggie and the Chocolate Factory (A Kids’ Power Book), by Michelle Mulder (Second Story Press, 2008)
ages 9-12

A work of historical fiction, Maggie and the Chocolate Factory is inspired by “a historical moment that united children from British Columbia to the Atlantic coast,” in Canada. The book tells us how one girl, Maggie, reacted to the dramatic increase in the price of chocolate bars, during the days of a struggling post-war economy. Nationwide, children-led protests ensued, and Maggie joined in to boycott the high prices and protest outside grocery stores, including her family’s own. The book has been deemed “a great introduction to critical thinking and political activism for young readers.”

One Peace: True Stories of Young Activists, by Janet Wilson (Orca, 2008)

A beautifully illustrated homage to the accomplishments of children from around the globe who have worked to promote world peace, One Peace is a moving testament to the courage and initiative of youth.

So, now you tell me. What CAN kids do?… Judging from these books, I’d say, a lot more than we sometimes think. When determined, informed and inspired, they can truly be agents of change, big and small, and ambassadors of hope.


Refugee Children and Their Stories

SuitcaseOfStoriesI recently found out, via the Library Boy blog, that the UN Refugee Agency has teamed up with Google maps to allow internet users to locate refugee camps in remote areas of Chad, Iraq, Colombia, Sudan’s Darfur region, and more. Now, with a few clicks, one can “see, hear and start to develop an emotional understanding of what it’s like to be a refugee.”

Reasons for displacement and relocation, as history and the news show, can be various (war; religious and cultural persecution; intolerance on grounds of race, sexual orientation, etc) and the challenges facing refugee children, in particular, are many, since they find themselves swept up in the consequences of adult conflicts and intolerances they don’t necessarily understand. World Refugee Day, coming up on June 20, is a good reminder for us to do what we can to educate others about these issues and to support efforts to lighten the plight of refugees around the world.

The term “refugee” is one that, unfortunately, still carries many negative connotations for both governments and individuals, being often associated with distrust, rather than distress. Books, as usual, can help counteract stereotypes and promote true understanding, so here are some titles that come to mind on this difficult topic – because the earlier we start children on the path to empathy, the better:

Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed (Eerdman, 2008). Ages 4-8

This book was inspired by a refugee girl’s question to co-author Khadra Mohammed about why there were no books about children like her in the US. You can read our review here. And on the author’s website you can read about how the book was received by a group of children at a refugee camp in Pakistan.

Refugees by David Miller (Lothian, 2004). Ages 5-8

In this gentle introduction for very young children to the plight of dislocation, two wild ducks become refugees when their swamp is drained and they have nowhere to swim, eat or sleep. Their search for a new home takes them to areas where they are not welcome or where they cannot find shelter or food. The ducks are close to giving up when “the intervention of an unknown person changes their fate.”

The Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis (The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey and Mud City. Groundwood Books, 2000, 2002, 2003). Ages 9-12

The Breadwinner trilogy, set in Afghanistan, is inspired by the author’s experiences helping at an Afghan refugee camp at the Pakistan border, in 1997, when she had a chance to interview many women and children. Royalties from the book go to the Canadian not-for-profit organization “Women for Women” (formed just after the Taliban take-over of Kabul), which promotes education for women and girls in refugee camps in Afghanistan.

The Suitcase Stories: Refugee Children Reclaim Their Identity by Glynis Clacherty (Double Storey Books, 2008). Ages 12+

To help a group of unaccompanied refugee children deal with the trauma of their flight and arrival in South Africa, the author, who is a researcher specialized in participatory work with children, provided them with suitcases on which to paint their personal stories and recent history. Photographs of the painted suitcases and accompanying accounts of hardship, resistance and hope make this a touching and important book.

This slideshow, from a 2007 National Geographic Museum exhibit called “Through the Eyes of Children: Refugee Life in Pictures” presents sixty photographs taken by children and young adults ages 12-20 at a refugee settlement in Uganda. These images capture the pain and struggles of life as a young refugee and, by seeing things through their eyes, we come closer to understanding what it means to walk in their shoes and what we can do to help.