“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Albert Einstein once told an interviewer. “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Stretching a child’s imagination through reading does so much more than entertain them. It engages them, inspires them, and prepares them for life. Imagination is the foundation of creativity, innovation, and problem-solving. It also supports personal growth and social-emotional development. If we can’t envision success, it becomes infinitely more difficult to maintain the motivation needed to reach a long-term goal. Meanwhile, the ability to imagine how another person feels is what makes us compassionate and empathetic. (And reading fiction directly builds empathy, too.)
The fast pace of modern life doesn’t always leave much time or energy for creative play, however. Kids can be too overscheduled, overwhelmed, or exhausted to stretch their imaginations when they get home. But you can spur your child’s imagination (and help them soar away from everyday routine or troubles) simply by reading picture books to them. Reading to children triggers higher activity in the area of the brain responsible for cultivating mental images, among other things. And, really, what’s more absorbing than getting drawn into a magical, fantastical, or wonderfully wacky story?
To help, we’ve curated a selection of twelve diverse, modern fairy tales and whimsical picture books that foster imagination and encourage kids to expand their point of view.
More Than a Princess
by Delanda and Terrence Coleman
This fanciful tale inspires young readers to imagine their possibilities. When a princess named Kiana muses about how boring her life is in her castle, a fairy godmother appears to give her a chance to explore career paths beyond the castle walls. Together, they explore Kiana’s ideas for her future, including being an astronaut, a doctor, an engineer, and an artist. Before Kiana goes to bed, her godmother reminds her that with vision and dedication she can become anything. The bright, cheery illustrations are well-suited to the rhyming content and uplifting message.
Dave and the Tooth Fairy
by Verna Allette Wilkins
This delightful and lesser-known picture book by Verna Allette Wilkins tells the story of a young boy named Dave whose loose tooth goes missing when he sneezes at breakfast. Worried that he won’t be able to get a kite he wants without the money from his missing tooth, Dave comes up with an imaginative solution, one that confuses the tooth fairy when she comes to collect the tooth. Fortunately, with a little help from Grandpa, the story has a happy ending for everyone, including the tooth fairy! Warm, realistic illustrations bring both Dave’s and the tooth fairy’s homes to life, making it easy to envision how each character feels.
by Marc Martin
Martin’s A River is a beautifully told story that starts with a young girl watching the river outside of her window. She imagines what it would be like to follow the river and see where it goes. In her mind, the river flows past her street, then into the city, farms, jungles, and finally out to the sea, as she follows along. The bright, active illustrations and buoyant message bring young readers along for the journey as the quickly flowing river carries them through various landscapes.
Tallulah the Tooth Fairy CEO
by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli
Pizzoli shares with us the story of Tallulah, the CEO of Teeth Titans Incorporated, one of the largest tooth collection companies in fairyland. Tallulah, like many executives, has a very full schedule. She makes time each week for pilates, yoga, and mental health, as well as training new tooth fairies and giving talks about what it’s like to be a tooth fairy. When she encounters a problem that doesn’t have an answer in the Teeth Titans Incorporated employee manual, she sets up a meeting with the board of directors. This book, illustrated in bold, bright patterns, allows your child’s imagination to soar to hilarious heights.
Imagination Like Mine
by LaTashia M. Perry
Part of Perry’s Like Mine children’s picture book series, Imagination Like Mine depicts the magic and power of imagination both through enticing rhymes describing a little girl’s rich inner life and the vibrant images that illustrate them. Like the other books in the series, this volume has a strong message about self-appreciation, reminding young readers that they’re each unique and valuable.
by Andrea Davis Pinkney
The title character Cutie is normally an exceptionally well-behaved and pleasant child—except at bedtime. (Sound familiar, anyone?) Cutie doesn’t like going to bed; there’s too much to do! But at last, Cutie’s mom and dad find the solution in a stuffed owl that shows Cutie imaginary nighttime adventures that make her eager for bed each night. Parents of active children will relate to the exhaustion when a child that seems to need less sleep than they do, and the joy of finding a solution. Kids will delight in the engaging storytelling and colorful illustrations. After reading it to your child, prime their imagination by asking where their favorite stuffed animal might take them for an adventure.
Sam and Eva
by Debbie Ridpath Ohi
This charming tale is reminiscent of Harold’s Purple Crayon, but with a twist. When Eva happens upon Sam drawing a velociraptor on the wall, she tries to join in, but Sam resists. She continues drawing on a different section of the wall, but eventually, the drawings crowd one another. Will Sam continue working stubbornly alone, or will he see the value in collaboration? This book not only sparks children’s imagination but also fosters communication by reminding them that imaginations can work together to create even more!
by Pamela Zagarenski
This nuanced and magical story highlights the creativity of the reader as they explore a new book. A little girl is elated when her teacher offers to share one of her favorite picture books, one given to her as a child. When the girl gets home and finds that the book has no words, she is dismayed and disappointed—until she hears a whisper in her mind. The whisper urges her to look again at the pictures, to use her imagination and create her own stories. This picture book is filled with charming, soft-edged images, giving it a dreamlike quality that makes it easy to imagine new and delightful stories for each page.
by Thao Lam
Wallpaper, like the book described in The Whisper, is a wordless picture book, perfect for igniting the imagination. Thao Lam’s colorful cutout illustrations are rich and layered, providing plenty of creative storytelling opportunities. Try looking through the book and discussing what you see before asking your child to invent a story, but don’t stifle them if ideas for a story arise. When reading a wordless book with your child, remember there’s no right or wrong way to tell the story. Encourage your child to add extra details to their telling, though, by bringing their attention to background elements or asking “W” questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why?
Off to See the Sea
by Nikki Grimes
This bubbly story places an imaginative toddler and his family at the center of bright, whimsical backgrounds during bath time. Over the course of the amusing and relatable tale, the toddler’s imagination takes him to distant shores and the bottom of the sea, with his mother joyfully playing along as she gets him cleaned up and ready for bed. Read this story to your child before bathtime, then encourage them to come up with their own ideas about what’s under the waves.
Books for Advanced or Older Readers:
Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door
by Lola Morayo
Aziza’s Secret Fairy Door is ideal for imaginative first-grade and second-grade readers. Aziza receives a mysterious gift on her birthday—a door with a jeweled knob that gives her access to a magical world of fairies, unicorns, and princesses. When someone takes the doorknob, however, Aziza becomes trapped in the fantasy world and has to find her way home with the help of two new friends.
Dragons in a Bag
by Zetta Elliott
The first in a series of fantasy books that take place in an urban setting, pitched for kids in third grade and up, this tome introduces readers to nine-year-old Jaxon. Jaxon’s mother drops him off at the house of a woman he’s never met before—one that his mother calls “Ma.” Eventually, Jax discovers she’s not his grandmother at all, but a witch. A witch who needs help transporting baby dragons to a magical land … This fantastical tale will transport elementary readers into a world of imagination and fun.
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