16 Books That Play

By Lela Nargi

Summer reading doesn't have to be a hard-sell for kids, especially when it involves playfully engaging books like the ones we've rounded up here. Some of them are physically interactive; some rely on wordplay; and some ask children to consider the world around them in new and unusual ways. A few of these books are stand-alones, but for the most part they're series—proving that good things can come in multitudinous packages!

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In this beautiful and vibrant group of books by award-winning French author and illustrator Hervé Tullet, children must use their fingers: to stand in for worms, to trace squiggles and lines, to mix and match patterns and situations. They are simple enough to appeal to young children, but also intricate enough to keep them interested—and keep them coming back for more (ages 3+, $13 each). 

Tomi Ungerer is the beloved author/illustrator of such childhood classics as Crictor, Adelaide, and The Three Robbers, and the subject of a recent exhibit at New York City's Drawing Center. In this bright and silly little tome, they must find the snail shape among pictures of balancing pigs, sledding old ladies, and caterwauling court jesters (ages 2-5, $15).

This superbly illustrated and wordless debut picture book takes place underwater—which makes it a perfect pick for the hot months. But although the over-crowded pool at the center of the tale is based firmly and uncomfortably in reality (what child doesn't with for a pool without the hoardes?), it is the imagined possibilities beneath the surface of the water that create summertime magic for a young boy and his friend (ages 3-5, $17).

Children just beginning to know something about the stars and the seasons will delight in these books, which make the learning into a game: trace your fingers to make the stars of the Big Dipper come to life, or to make the leaves on the trees come and go with spring and autumn (ages 4-8, $16 each).

The late Scottish poet Alastair Reid was a master of the cheerful irreverence, and these two books for children are no exception, In Supposing, Reed sets kids up to imagine all sort of possibilities: finding treasure under the couch, living close to a circus, having fur instead of skin—but leaves it to them to determine what the outcomes will be.  Ounce Dice Trice proposes nicknames for nitwits, previously uncategorized sounds, and insects and whales, which is merely an open invitation for children to catalog even more of their own. Seriously enlivened by pen-and-ink illustrations by Bob Gill (Supposing...) and the legendary Ben Shahn (Ounce Dice Trice) (ages 5-9, $16 each).

Everyone knows the stories of Humpty Dumpty, Little Bo Peep, Jack and Jill, and Little Miss Muffet. But what do the Kingsmen, the Sheep, Jill (as opposed to Jack), and the Spiter have to say about the events that unfold in these classic nursery rhymes? Kids will delight in reading the original tales, then flipping the book over and getting a whole new perspective (ages 4-6, $10 each).

These books are just straight-up amusing. Flip the pages and hold them to your face to give yourself the beard of a lumber jack, the hat of a pirate, the mask of a fighter pilot, and the teeth of a shark (ages 3-5, $8 each).