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Books to Spark Creativity

By Lesley Colabucci, Kirsten Hoover, Selda Cavus, Valerie Sherts, Katie Gentile, Jessica Heindel, Marlene Weaver, Karen Oulahan, and Rebecca Kremer
 | Apr 22, 2015

The best books invite and nurture creativity. In his 2011 Zena Sutherland Lecture, Mo Willems asks, “What if the thing that makes books great, that makes them essential, is that books need us? They’re simple. You invest in them and become part of them. You contribute. They can be read, but they can also be played. I’m not really interested in you guys reading my books a hundred times; read it twenty times and then make your own story. Go from consuming a story to creating your own. This is a magical thing to me.”

The books featured in this column have the potential to work that kind of magic. On the pages of these books, readers will meet children who dwell in fantasy realms, a dog who is an amazing inventor, talented musicians, and even a few pranksters. The characters model creativity while the writing and art open spaces for imagination as readers make inferences, take leaps of faith, and bring their own personal twists to the stories.

Ages 4–8

Agee, Jon. (2015). It’s Only Stanley. New York, NY: Penguin.

One dark night, Stanley (a beagle) hears a beautiful and haunting howl from far, far away. The Wimbledons are sleeping soundly when they are awakened by Stanley’s reply. The family believes Stanley is simply howling at the moon. They go back to sleep, only to be awakened again by another sound. And then another. Each time, Walter (the father), follows the sound to Stanley, who appears to be working feverishly to complete rather bizarre tasks: fixing the oil tank, making catfish stew, and clearing the bathroom drain. The family feels relieved each time and returns to bed. Yet, as the book concludes, the Wimbledons realize their very creative dog has actually invented a way to take them all to another place entirely. This is a fun and intriguing book to read. The detailed illustrations show the reader the depth of Stanley’s ingenious work as well as the growing exhaustion of the Wimbledons. The reader feels mystified by Stanley’s creative genius as he finds a solution to reach the far-off sound and arrive at happiness. The surprising finish delights!


Andrews, Troy. (2015). Trombone Shorty. New York, NY: Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, a little boy with a big dream, is from the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans where music can be heard at “any time of day or night.” He has an immense passion for music. Little Troy and the rest of Treme celebrate Mardi Gras each year by filling the streets and listening to the brass bands’ music fill the air. Inspired by the parades, Troy started off by creating his own instruments from random materials, but then found a broken trombone he could call his own. He took his trombone out to the parade and played for the crowds. The trombone was twice the size of Troy, and he became Trombone Shorty. This inspiring and uplifting autobiography of Trombone Shorty provides the reader with a taste of the culture of New Orleans and teaches young children that despite the odds, anything is possible if you have a dream.


Thong, Roseanne Greenfield. (2014). Noodle Magic. Illus. by Meilo So. New York, NY: Orchard.

Every evening, Grandpa Tu slapped, kneaded, and stretched dough into coils. He magically created noodles, jump ropes, and strings for kits. His granddaughter, Mei, wished she could spin magic like Grandpa Tu. As the Emperor’s birthday approached, the village buzzed with excitement. Everyone was busy making something special for the Emperor. But where was Grandpa Tu? Who would make noodles? This year Mei was going to “make noodle magic.” Mei was terrified. Does she have the magic like Grandpa Tu? Will the Moon Goddess help her? There are more than words in this colorful book. Written in the style of Chinese folk stories, the colorful illustrations show the reader Grandpa Tu’s art and creativity. This picture book is filled with imagination and will spark yours as well.


Walker, Sally. (2015). Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

This book sheds light on a unique relationship between a soldier and a bear cub. As a veterinarian and soldier, Harry Colebourn came across a bear cub for sale at a train station and it soon becomes his. She was named Winnipeg and called her new home a training camp in England. Winnie and Harry developed a close bond as they shared many special moments. With a war overseas getting worse, Harry was soon shipped to France. A war zone is no place for a bear, so he made other arrangements for Winnie care in his absence. Winnie was taken to the London Zoo, where a young boy by the name of Christopher Robin came to see Winnie frequently. A new friendship emerged, as well as the inspiration for the well-known and much-loved character, Winnie-the-Pooh. This is a heartwarming account that illuminates the idea that a creative spark can come from just about anywhere.


Ward, Lindsay. (2015). Henry Finds His Word. New York, NY: Penguin.

Author and illustrator Lindsay Ward demonstrates the path toward human speech in this creative story that tells how one child starts to talk. Henry is a young toddler looking for his first word. Though he originally thinks that his communication, saying bbbghsh for no, book, and ball is completely sufficient, he soon realizes there must be a better way of getting what he wants. He starts to look for his first word on his own. He looks in many places and asks his friends—the cat, bird, and bunny—for help. He is baffled and getting a bit frustrated until the day he desperately needs his mama. When that happens, he realizes he already had the word inside! This book gives children an opportunity to reflect on creative ways of communicating and shows the power of words and the importance of having the ability to use them.


Ages 9–11

Harrold, A.F. (2015). The Imaginary. Illus. by E. Gravett. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

It takes a “really sparky” kid to bring imaginary friends to life. Only Amanda can see Rudger, but her mom generously humors the relationship. Amanda needs Rudger because none of her real friends want to go on the kind of creative adventures she wants to have. When Amanda is hit by a car because of an incident with the dreaded Mr. Bunting, Rudger discovers much more about what it means to be imaginary. Mr. Bunting poses a terrifying threat to all imaginaries, but Amanda and her mom’s devotion to their imaginaries help to save the day. The Imaginary features design elements throughout that add to the mystery and suspense of the story: red and white endpapers with skulls and sharp-toothed creatures, framed chapter headings, carefully placed illustrations, the cat’s shadow on the last page. The book ends with a spread showing Rudger and Amanda; one side of the spread is black and white, while the other side shows the children riding a bright pink dinosaur into yet another adventure.


Lean, Sarah. (2015). Hero. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

In his imagination, Leo is a heroic gladiator. Fairly quiet and reserved, Leo has two main friends: Jack Pepper, his neighbor’s little white dog, and George, a friend from school. When an accident at school gains him the attention of the popular kids, Leo abandons George and attempts to gain their acceptance and approval. Leo is pressured by the group to misbehave, and he soon is caught in a lie. A story spread in the community that Leo rescued Jack Pepper from the pond, when in fact he trashed his neighbor’s scooter and did not save the dog. When a meteor strikes and forms a sinkhole, Jack Pepper gets trapped. The time comes for Leo to be a hero in real life, redeeming his errors and, this time, saving the dog. This story captures the journey of a boy creating in reality what he has created in his imagination: a personal identity, one of integrity.


Nolan, Nina. (2015). Mahalia Jackson: Walking With Kings and Queens. Illus. by J. Holyfield. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

This sweet story follows the footsteps of little Mahalia Jackson from her childhood to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the day Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech. Mahalia walked through life with music on her mind, even though she was living on the steps of poverty. She moved, worked, and occasionally went to school, but she sang with each new change in her life. During her grandfather’s sickness, Mahalia made a promise to God that she would never sing in a nightclub. Upon her grandfather’s recovery, Mahalia kept this promise as she joyfully sang gospel music at many churches throughout the south. Her faith kept her singing, and her singing lifted everyone’s spirits. The beautiful, rich colors that paint this story tell a tale of how one little girl sang her way from her stoop in New Orleans to the stage at Carnegie Hall.


Ages 12–14

Barnett, Mac, and Jory John. (2015). The Terrible Two. Illus. by K. Cornell. New York, NY: Amulet.

Miles’s family moves to Yawnee Valley, the town where a cow was once the mayor, and Miles is unhappy, to say the least. Yet there is one glimmer of hope for Miles: the possibility of becoming the best prankster in his new school. When Miles arrives at his new school, he realizes that Yawnee Valley Science and Letter Academy already has a prankster who somehow got Principal Barkin’s car up a flight of stairs and in front of the school’s entrance! Miles begins a pranking war with the school’s resident prankster, Niles; in order to obtain status as the school’s prankster, Miles has to be imaginative with his tomfooleries. Infused with comical illustrations and peculiar facts about cows, readers will be giggling from page 1 until the last sentence, and they may become a little more creative with their pranks, too!


Clements, Andrew. (2015). The Map Trap. New York, NY: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Alton Ziegler’s life is consumed with maps. He collects maps to learn about the world, follows maps to discover geocaching treasures, and even creates maps to put a creative spin on the world. Unfortunately, not all maps should get out! Some of Alton’s more creative maps include a map of his science teacher’s brain, a map of who has a crush on whom, even a map of which tests get the most kids cheating. When these maps go missing, Alton is forced into a mystery full of so many twists and turns, even reluctant readers will be hooked. Cartography is no longer a complicated study of coordinates and fractions for scaling, it is a creative way to show all of the world’s wonders...from Ancient Egypt to the sixth-grade cafeteria.


Ages 15+

Hooper, Emma. (2015). Etta and Otto and Russell and James. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

In this book, readers get to know Etta Vogel, an 83-year-old woman who intends to walk the 3,200 kilometers from her home to the ocean. Etta leaves her husband, Otto, behind, but Russell (his friend and Etta’s admirer) attempts to follow her. Etta dismisses Russell’s company, sustained by her coyote companion, James. Although the story centers on Etta, back stories from Otto and Russell overlap and help illuminate the history and tragedy revealed in this novel. As Etta walks, she finds herself supported by strangers, and her journey inspires those she is closest to. Otto writes her letters, and Russell begins his own quest. Although these three characters may not be typical in young adult novels, they offer adolescents a glimpse into the roles love, friendship, and memory play on our own personal journeys.


Sedgwick, Marcus. (2015). The Ghosts of Heaven. New York, NY: Roaring Brook.

Originally published in the United Kingdom, this book opens with vocabulary, diagrams, and an author’s introduction. The book features four narratives, but the author states that “the four quarters are assembled here in just one of twenty-four possible combinations; this order makes one kind of sense, but the reader should feel free to choose a different order, a different sense, if desired.” This is a demanding piece of fantasy that invites readers to suspend disbelief as they travel alongside an array of diverse characters across a range of times and contexts. The first portion of the story is told in narrative verse from the perspective of a young girl during the Paleolithic era. The next three quartets blend historical fiction and time travel as we meet witches, priests, poets, and a sentinel on a spaceship destined for new earth. The stories intertwine, but there is no neat and tidy ending. As the spiral staircase on the cover indicates, readers may find themselves feeling challenged and even a bit dizzy.


Lesley Colabucci is an associate professor in the Department of Early, Middle, and Exceptional Education at Millersville University in Pennsylvania where she teaches courses in children’s and young adult literature. Teachers in her graduate-level children’s literature course selected books and reviewed for this column, including Kirsten Hoover, Millersville University of Pennsylvania; Selda Cavus, fourth-grade teacher, Conestoga Valley School District, PA; Valerie Sherts, School District of Lancaster, PA; Katie Gentile, third-grade teacher, Eastern Lancaster County School District, PA; Jessica Heindel, Millersville University of Pennsylvania; Marlene Weaver, sixth-grade teacher, Conestoga Valley School District, PA; Karen Oulahan, ELA Teacher, Elizabethtown Area School District, PA; Rebecca Kremer, English teacher, Wilson School District, PA.

The review contributions are provided by members of the International Literacy Association’s Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group.


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