Storytime: Play

When I was young, I’d spend the day at the pool and then come home to Tang and cheese popcorn. Or me and my friend would pretend we were horses. Or I’d read until my mom told me to go play outside, so I’d go read outside. There were birthday parties where you tied a balloon around your ankle with a piece of string and then ran around trying to pop everyone else’s balloon while protecting your own. There were trees to climb and frogs to catch and the days were full of play. May the last few weeks of summer break find the kids in your life playing games and imagining and reading and noshing on cheese popcorn, washed down with a swig of Tang.

Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle

Can you play with a flamingo? Absolutely! In this wordless book a darling girl decked out in a pink swimsuit, big black flippers and a yellow swim cap mimics a flamingo who is at first aloof, and then laughs when she tumbles over, but then feels bad and helps the girl back up. Together they dance, finally leaping and cannon-balling into the water. The expressions are classic, from shyness to hurt feelings to utter joy. This book makes me smile.

I’m Bored by Michael Ian Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

In an odd twist of fate, this book has a flamingo in it, too! But that’s where the similarities end, because it also has a bored potato (who’s pretty much not going to be happy unless he’s with a flamingo) and a scruffy little girl wearing yellow barrettes who was also bored, until she came across the insolent potato who refuses to be entertained, no matter what she does. Escalating from cartwheels to grand feats of imagination, the potato remains bored but the girl doesn’t. Finally, she says:

And then she storms off just as a flamingo comes on the scene. The potato says now they can finally have some fun, but the flamingo says, wait for it . . . I’m bored. I love a funny picture book, and these illustrations are just as funny as the text, capturing expressions perfectly.

The Field by Baptiste Paul, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara

Set on a lush Carribean island, this picture book about the local kids gathering for a soccer game is told with spare text interspersed with Creole words. There are things that are the same the world over, like making a goal, but also different. Here they heft some bamboo strung together for a goal as they shoo sheep and cows off the field. Wherever they are, kids pass and shoot and race to get that ball. A rainstorm comes, but they play on, score goals, and there are:

High fives.

Fist bumps.

Happy tackles.

And all the world over, mamas call their kids in from play to take a bath before bed. “Bonswè. Good night.” The illustrations capture motion using colors as saturated as the green, green forest and fields and the bright painted houses. Don’t skip the author’s note in this one! Paul Baptiste, who was raised on St. Lucia, has a lot of good things to say about play. “The way we keep playing through challenges makes us who we are today,” and “I love the concept of play: everyone cheering together, forgetting about whatever challenges life can bring.

Clap Hands by Helen Oxenbury

My grandson is sixteen months old, and he loves this book, and the other three Oxenbury board books in this series (All Fall Down, Tickle, Tickle and Say Goodnight). With only four double page spreads it can be quickly read, turned over, and read again (which we do, again and again and again). In Clap Hands, babies of different ethnicities clap and dance and spin, blow a paper towel roll trumpet and wave to their parents. We act it out, playing while we read, fun for both of us. I love, love, love these illustrations where all the world is happy babies, four of them, with round heads and plump arms and legs. My mark of a good board book is one that baby loves and readers don’t mind returning to again and again. It’s usually one with spare text and simple illustrations. This is it.

The Brave Cowboy by Joan Walsh Anglund

This one is a classic. My kids loved it when they were young, and it still sits on my shelf, waiting for my grandson River to get old enough to love it, too. It opens with a great line, Once there was a cowboy, and we see a small boy in a cowboy hat. The text goes on to tell us that he was strong and brave, not afraid of coyotes or mountain lions or ornery rustlers. In the illustration, the boy and his “real” world is drawn with black, and what he imagines throughout is drawn in red.

Each day he does ordinary things, like brushing his teeth and feeding his cat, and we turn several pages of black ink drawings, until we enter his world of make believe where all sorts of exciting scenes play out. The stick he carries has a captured angry mountain lion hanging from it, and though he’s actually perching on a stool, we see in his imagination it’s a galloping horse. Any book that encourages imaginative play is a win, and I love how this blends the real and imaginary worlds together.

If you’d like a cumulative list of the picture books I’ve recommended, you can find it at my Picture Book shop on, where every purchase supports independent bookstores. I receive a small commission if books are purchased through my link. Honestly, in a very small way it gives me a chance to be a bookseller again, my most favorite job ever.

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