We're Reading: 3 Children's Books About the Power of Imagination

The recent winners of the "Again, again, Mommy!" book awards have been three books on highly imaginative kids: Red Wagon by Renata Liwska, Tiger on the Wall by Annette Flores Garcia (illustrations by Joanne de Leon), and The Zoo by Suzy Lee.

Red Wagon and Zoo are both books where the beautiful illustrations are meant to speak louder than the minimal text, making them perfect leave-behind books for pre-readers to flip through. I'm always looking for books like these to encourage E to make up her own stories and explore these worlds on her own.

Red Wagon

Wagon's Renata Liwska is the New York Times bestselling author-illustrator of The Quiet Book, whose fanciful style features talking woodland creatures having the best of times together (#squadgoals). In Red Wagon (Philomel Books), little red vixen Lucy wants to play with her little red wagon, but Mama Fox has an errand for her to run first. It doesn't sound like much fun, but in the company of her equally wild-minded friends, the chore becomes an adventure more fun than playtime. The little red wagon becomes a vehicle for imaginative play, becoming a stagecoach, a rocketship, a circus wagon, and more. What a great way to talk to kids about finding the fun in every situation, even chores!

I love how detailed Liwska's illustrations are (see her early Moleskine sketches for the book, on 36pages). There was a lot to spot and find in each page, which gave us a lot to talk about. E found the characters' expressions funny and because there was no specific dialogue to go with most of the illustrations, we made up our own. "'I'm coming, too,' said the bunny. 'But let me pack a snack!' Silly bunny!"


Lee's illustrations for Zoo (Kane Miller) are not so much adorable as they are ah-mazing. In Zoo, we follow a mom, dad, and child on their trip to the zoo. But when the child spots a colorful peacock, she follows it and finds an alternate reality (or, possibly, dream world) where she is able to play with the zoo animals in bright technicolor. Meanwhile, mom and dad are stuck in a drab, monochromatic, animal-less reality, frantically searching for their daughter.

To me, this book speaks to the fact that people can have drastically different experiences of a place. We see the zoo's other visitors looking distracted, taking photos, or looking bored; the girl's mom's arms are crossed as she looks at the animal enclosure. Only the girl's eyes are open to wonder. It reminds me to enter into my child's world when we are experiencing things together, especially when we travel. I wouldn't want to live in black and white; would you?

The Tiger on the Wall

Seeing things through a child's eyes is also the theme of The Tiger on the Wall (Adarna House). The most text-rich of the three books, this book comes in two translations, English and Filipino. (I've written before about how much I appreciate Adarna House's bilingual books, plus four other reasons we love Adarna House books.) I can't speak for the Filipino text, but the English text is beautifully written, with vibrant poetic language and wonderful words to build a child's vocabulary: "twitch", "preen", "fast as a crook", "weaving in and out".

In the book, a little girl wonders and hypothesizes about the tiger she sees on the wall of her father's garage. How did it get there? Is it frightening or friendly? And other child's mind mysteries. No one else in the house can see it, so how come she can?

When do we lose our ability to see? As E began to become more verbal, she started to entertain us with her creative interpretations of the shapes of the food on her plate (or in her mouth) at mealtimes. Who needs bento boxes when a pancake with a bite in it can, to her, be a giraffe, an elephant, and a monkey being eaten by an alligator—all at once?

Even now, as she paints, she tells me a splotch is something, obviously. This morning: "It's a shark, Mommy. I drew the tail. Please draw the head and teeth. No, that's not the head. You've drawn a house. Okay, it's a shark in a house. Thank you, Mommy! It's beautiful." Um, you're welcome? 

I confess I'm sometimes a tiny bit jealous of parents who show their kids' artwork and the images are instantly recognizable. There's the head and eyes. That's the sun and trees. But then I hear her the fascinating stories behind the globs and splatters and I remember why I adore her. Maybe our walls were not meant to be a gallery of da Vincis but of Kandinskys (I like him better anyway).

(From L to R) A shark in a house, a flying horse, the tiger mommy's blood and water when the baby is born (tiger by Mommy).

How to Raise Imaginative Kids

Truthfully, these books probably won't make your childen more imaginative; frankly, they don't need  your help or your coaxing. What kids probably need more (my kids included) is for us to get out of their way and allow the magic that's already in them to flow freely. With our constant nos and be carefuls, we risk being seen as policemen, rather than as playmates and partners in invention. I know I'm guilty of that and I've had to learn to watch my tone; to change my normal suspicious "What are you doing?" to the genuinely curious "What are you doing?", throwing in a "May I join?" for good measure.

That's what books like these can do: unlock the imagination and creativity that your child already has in abundance. Reading the stories together sends the signal that the world of pretend is very welcome here. Don't be surprised if, after seeing how one thing can in fact become another thing, you come home to find your dining table is now a space station or your youngest's play gym is now a tent. 

With that in mind, I heartily recommend these imaginative books not just for kids but for parents as well. Don't just read to your child; read with your child. Join him and wonder. Ask her questions, then answer them, too. We can never be children again, but maybe, through our kids, we'll get a free visitor's pass into that wonderful land where all things are possible.
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.
albert einstein

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