J is a fury of imaginative storytelling. He is equipped with an impressive vocabulary that includes words like ginormous, a well-developed sense of song, and an imaginary friend named Lucy. Lucy can do everything and does frequently, bending time and space to her and J’s will to combat dinosaurs, walk with wolves, and fly to mars. Watching this imagination develop has been a joy, we encourage it as much as possible, asking follow-up questions about his travels with Lucy. We help him as best we can as he turns a box into a house, a cave, and a turtle shell through the course of a single hour. He can spend half a day in a dragon costume and the rest of the day in regular clothes pretending to be an entire menagerie of animals. I love books where children are encouraged to build a world out of their imaginations, and so does J, so here are the top three I have found so far.
Weslandia by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes was one of the very first children’s books I bought brand new. I was probably 20 and the story of a boy who creates an entire culture from a plant that grows in his backyard was beautiful and exciting. Stories of invention and creativity are stories of hope. It is about a lonely boy, Wesley who, through his own creativity and spunk triumphs over the adversity of bullies and oblivious parents. The illustrations by Kevin Hawkes are rich and luscious, full of the vibrant reds and greens of the ‘swist’ plant. What I love best about this book is that while Wesley creates his own culture and is true to his own interests and desires, he converts the other mean children over to his imaginative backyard paradise. I love a book about overcoming one’s enemies by finding respect and forgivness.
Next is a book written in 1967 by Doris Burn, Andrew Henry’s Meadow. I found this on a shelf at my Dad’s house and we read it every time we visit. It is about a boy inventor, Andrew Henry, whose inventions get him in trouble with his family. Needing some place to build, he heads out to the nearby meadow to build his own home. Other children of the town follow, bringing with them the things that make them unique and strange and that their parents have told them to get rid of. Rather than giving up their passions, they build a community in the field with a unique house built for each child, one for bird-watching, another insulated for playing instruments. Eventually the families come to find the children, embrace them and bring them home, along with their quirky hobbies. It is illustrated in simple pen drawings, but the detail makes it very magical, especially with the complex inventions Andrew Henry builds.
Finally a recommendation from my sister, Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This book tells the story of a group of neighborhood kids in Arizona in the early half of the 1900’s who build an imaginary city and playground on a hill covered with rocks, cactus and trash. Children love trash, especially the kind that can be made into treasures. These children use rocks and boxes to build homes and shops, cars and horses. This book is told like a memory, and although the oil paintings are muted and the writing quiet as well, J and I love it. We got it from the library and it is one of the top requests this week from the library stack that sits on the floor next to the couch. I think he is fascinated by the way children play and the rules they create between each other to build their imaginary games. It’s a hard thing to learn and takes a lot of trial and error to get other small children to agree on a game. Roxaboxen gives him a model of what play should be, can be, once he figures out how to communicate it. In Roxaboxen there is even a boy’s against girl’s war described, with forts and bandits whooping. Despite J being a very sweet, loving, kind, imaginative little boy, he loves more these days than a pretend fight with swords, “gunnins” and perhaps even a dramatic death scene.
Burn, D. (1967) Andrew Henry’s Meadow. San Juan Publishing
Fleishman, P. (1999) Weslandia. Cambridge, Mass: Candlewick Press.
McLerran, A. (1991) Roxaboxen. New York: Lothorop, Lee & Shepard Books