The Best Picture Books that Celebrate the Imagination
There’s nothing more important to me than doing my part to provide a magical childhood for our kids. I think that setting them up for happiness by building up their imagination is basically my number one duty. After all, that’s why we share so many books with our kids and play so many games together. And it’s basically why DadSuggests.com exists at all.
It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for childhood nostalgia. And there’s probably a lot of reasons for that. I was lucky enough to have a very happy childhood, and I want that for my kids - and for as many kids as possible. The very sad reality, however, is that not every child is granted the opportunity to have a childhood full of imagination and magic.
And, perhaps surprisingly, the barriers to such a childhood are typically not economic at all. More often than not, the true culprit is a society focused on academic achievement and busy schedules. And it doesn’t help that far too often we can be caught with our noses stuck in a phone. With barriers like that, I think that parents actually have to be proactive - and actually consciously fight back against society for the sake of our kids.
I want nothing more than to grant all children the opportunity and the time to simply be kids. The importance of having time to imagine is not something that should be taken for granted. It’s the secret source of magic in life. Imagination provides a spark of excitement that can help you pursue the things you love and give your life meaning. And it’s something we should fight for.
Many of our favorite picture books of all time feature a central theme of imagination. It’s a popular theme because it cuts to the core of the childhood experience - and the major difference between kids and adults. For that reason, books about imagination are just as important for adults as they are for kids. We’ve collected our favorite picture books about imagination not just for the little ones - but also as a reminder to us (and to all parents, grandparents, and teachers) that we have the distinct honor of nourishing our children’s imaginations and their hearts.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links that will lead you to view the books’ listings on Amazon.com or IndieBound.org.
12. Ruby’s Sword
Written by Jacqueline Véissid and Illustrated by Paola Zakimi
Ruby is a little girl with two older brothers. It’s actually just as much a story about sibling relationships as it is about imagination - which works quite well for our 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter. In the story, Ruby discovers three sticks to use as swords, and shares them with her brothers. But they don’t really include her in the battle, so she goes off to entertain herself.
Ruby’s Sword is a very beautifully illustrated book that does a great job reminding me of the innocent times of childhood - when sticks had the potential to be a real treasure. Our son has literally shed tears for lost sticks in the past, and I think it’s important to remember why that might be.
Written and Illustrated by Leo Lionni
Leo Lionni’s classic tale of the mouse who’s not very interested in helping collect food for the winter is the perfect fable for showing kids that there is room in this world for many different talents. Active imaginations and the ability to make beautiful art are just as important as any other skillsets - and they can be used to bring happiness and meaning into life.
Instead of collecting food, Frederick prefers to collect colors and sun rays during the last days of fall. That way he’ll be able to bring the images to life for his family and friends during the dark days of winter. Underneath the surface, Frederick is a great lesson on the importance of being yourself, and a celebration of individuality. And it’s a very important reminder for all of us how lucky we are to have artists among us.
You can also find Frederick on our list of The Best Picture Books for a Snowy Day.
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
I’m a big proponent for letting your kids believe in Santa Claus - and my feelings on the subject are very much rooted in my belief that the magic of childhood should be cherished and nurtured for as long as possible.
There are many amazing picture books about Christmastime, but The Polar Express has always been my very favorite. And a big part of that is because of the beautiful and tragic reflection on growing up at the end:
"At one time most of my friends could hear the bell. But as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me. As it does for all who truly believe."
I’ve always thought that this ending was about much more than belief in Santa Claus. In fact, I think it’s really the best depiction of the tragedy of losing that magical spark of childhood ever made. Every Christmas I’m reminded by this book that the child’s imagination is something to be treasured.
Written and Illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna
The illustrations in this book are one of a kind - and they do a fantastic job creating that magical, dreamlike atmosphere of exploring the outdoors as a kid. I have a deep appreciation for the message in this book. I particularly like that it starts out with a nod to that ultimate barrier kids face today - the one thing that keeps them from exploring the outdoors like they used to: technology.
Not all technology is bad by any means, but it’s undeniable that it has changed a lot of things for the worse. Far too often it’s used by kids and adults alike to simply waste time. And it’s a tragedy when it’s used as a mere time-filler when there are so many beautiful things to explore. The message in this book is an important topic for modern parents to reflect on - and as a dad I certainly think it’s my duty to set our kids up to have as many “magical do-nothing days” outside as possible.
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg
If there is any author that deserves to show up twice on a list about imagination - it has to be Chris Van Allsburg. His picture books are the very definition of imaginative - and his illustrations always provide so much ominous atmosphere. I can’t imagine much better fuel for a kid’s creativity.
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is a very interesting book that basically serves as an exercise in imagination. Inside you’ll find many creepy and creative images straight from the imagination of the incomparable Chris Van Allsburg, but you won’t find any story to go along with them.
I can’t think of a better collection of story starters for kids. What better way to exercise the child’s imagination than by starting with a little inspiration from the King of Imagination. And big bonus points for the spooky atmosphere found in this one.
Written by Alice McLerran and Illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Roxaboxen tells the tale of childhood friends who built an entire imaginary village - complete with their own houses, their own jobs, and their own laws. Not one single picture book does a better job reminding me of my childhood spent exploring the ravine behind my parent’s house, building clubhouses, and playing make-believe.
The very best thing about Roxaboxen is that it’s a true story, based on the real-life experiences of the author’s mother and her friends. McLerran and Cooney even interviewed some of the former residents of Roxaboxen, now much older. And it’s incredibly powerful how much the memory still means to them. The image of returning to Roxaboxen many years later and still finding their rocks on the ground is enough to move me to tears.
6. The Whisper
Written and Illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
Pamela Zagarenski is a remarkable artist. The details on these pages come straight from a dream - and it’s mesmerizing to flip through this story whether you’re a child or an adult.
The Whisper is about a girl who borrows a very special book from her teacher, but on her way home all of the words fall out. At first she’s distraught at having lost the stories, but then she hears a small voice telling her that all is not lost. She can make up the stories herself.
What follows is a collection of magnificently beautiful artwork with short story starters. When we read it with our kids, we flip through it very slowly and tell our own ideas for the stories. It’s a true work of art and it comes packed with very useful imagination practice. And ultimately it delivers a very important message that even our kids need to hear every once in a while: there is no right or wrong with imagination.
Written and Illustrated by Renato Moriconi
The Little Barbarian is a wordless picture book that captures the magic of a childhood imagination better than almost any piece of art I’ve ever seen. Specifically, what The Little Barbarian does so well is to highlight how very important the art of play can become for kids. I can relate to the message inside this book, because we’ve seen time and time again how incredibly invested in his activities our son can become when he’s playing.
And because The Little Barbarian is wordless, it allows plenty of room for interpretation as well. After the surprise ending, it will probably come as no surprise to you that my interpretation focuses on the beauty of the child’s imagination. A child can transport themselves into another world at the drop of a hat. An adult might not give it a second thought - but for a child it can become the most important thing in the world for a moment. And that’s something very special.
4. Imagine That
Written and Illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss
Imagine That features the duo of Hoot and Olive - a little girl and her stuffed owl friend. In the story they’re trying to figure out why Hoot’s imagination has stopped working. And, during their search, Hoot utters one of the very best quotes about the imagination that I’ve ever heard:
“Why is it, when my imagination is the thing that’s broken, it’s my heart that hurts the most?”
These words do a wonderful job conveying just how vital a sense of wonder can be - and they certainly give a nod towards the tragedy of growing up and losing that spark. Imagine That is also full of beautiful illustrations that do a wonderful job highlighting Olive’s active imagination. And the combination of the art and the beautiful message makes me very excited to discover more Hoot & Olive stories in the future.
For more on Imagine That, make sure to read our featured article.
Written by Davina Bell and Illustrated by Allison Colpoys
I’ve been singing the praises of this wonderful picture book a lot recently, and for very good reason. All the Ways to Be Smart is a reminder for kids and adults everywhere that creativity is just as important as math, science, spelling, or anything else. You’ll be hard pressed to find anything on earth that does a better job delivering that message than this book.
I absolutely love that All the Ways to Be Smart makes it clear to kids that telling stories and being kind to others is just as important as anything that your report card says. I’m sorry to say that it’s a message that many kids really need to hear. At the end of the day, All the Ways to Be Smart is a very much about the meaning of life - and helping kids and adults refocus on what’s truly important during childhood and beyond.
For more about All the Ways to be Smart, make sure to read our featured article.
Written by Sara O’Leary and Illustrated by Julie Morstad
This is Sadie will always be one of our very favorite picture books of all time. It’s the story of an imaginative little girl who is excited about life. She turns cardboard boxes into giant boats, she pretends she has wings, and she gets lost with her best friends that live in the pages of her books. I feel like if our kids feel about life the way that Sadie does, then we have truly succeeded as parents.
"The days are never long enough for Sadie. So many things to make and do and be."
Sadie is the ultimate example of an ideal childhood - completely surrounded by childlike wonder. Just the innocent way that she talks to her dresses is enough to see that this is happiness. And the absolute highlight of the story for me is the way she transports herself into classic literature like Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book. This is Sadie is an amazing advocate for imagination, because it’s a celebration of the stories that shape our world and make us happy.
For more on This is Sadie, make sure to check out our featured article.
Written and Illustrated by The Fan Brothers
Ocean Meets Sky tells the tale of a boy who recently lost his grandfather. During the story, the boy recalls how they promised to take a trip together - to the place where ocean meets sky. After his grandfather’s death, the boy sets off in a boat and takes the trip by himself. Along the way, he comes across the most wonderfully imaginative things - brought to amazing life by the jaw-dropping art of Terry and Eric Fan.
As it turns out, everything the boy comes across on his journey is built from the stories his grandfather used to tell him. The place where ocean meets sky is a magical place - a place you can only reach with your imagination. But it’s a trip I very much want my children to be able to take.
And that’s the gift the grandfather gave to his grandson. The stories he told made a very important, lasting impression on his grandson’s life. He nourished his sense of wonder, and he set him up for a happy life. If there’s one thing that Ocean Meets Sky has done, it’s made me realize how much I want to help my children dream.
For more on Ocean Meets Sky, make sure to check out our featured article.