“Imaginary friends are like books. We’re created, we’re enjoyed, we’re dog-eared and creased, and then we’re tucked away until we’re needed again.”
from Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate
Here’s something that I love: finding similar characters in very dissimilar books, and mentally comparing them. I’ve been thinking about this recently in regard to a very specific type of character; that of the imaginary friend. What a brilliant creation! Imaginary friends can provide dialogue, companionship, and plot movement, but they don’t have to look like real people or behave like them, and no one else in the story can even see them. So much potential for fun and creativity! Here are some imaginary friends I’ve enjoyed meeting in stories recently:
Beekle. The Adventures of Beekle is a 2014 picture book by Dan Santat, and the winner of the 2014 Caldecott Medal. It features Beekle, a sort-of marshmallow-y imaginary friend who looks very huggable. But there’s something different about Beekle; his friend hasn’t found him yet! Tired of waiting with all the other imaginary friends for a child to imagine them, Beekle sets out on a journey to find his child. Beekle is just the kind of friend that I think I would imagine; he looks soft and puffy, and his gold paper crown is held together with two pieces of clear tape. His wobbly smile and pinpoint eyes are simple enough to re-create in drawings, as his friend eventually does, in pictures that cover her bedroom. I could see kids reading Beekle and then filling pages with drawings of their own imaginary creatures. I like how the story, somewhat like The Velveteen Rabbit, honors the principle that the love of a child makes an imaginary or inanimate being “real” in some way. It’s fanciful and embraces the imagination, but doesn’t patronize. And it ends in the best way possible, with Beekle and his new pal Alice playing with some other children along with their own imaginary friends. I love the view of community along with the special, private friend for each child.
Crenshaw. Of all the imaginary friends I’ve encountered lately, Crenshaw might be my favorite. Featured in the book Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate, Crenshaw is human-sized cat who is wise, witty, and loves bubble baths. (One scene has him calmly constructing a beard out of bubbles. If the image of a human-sized cat wearing a bubble beard doesn’t make you chuckle, I don’t know what would.) Crenshaw is the imaginary friend of Jackson, a fourth-grader who is somewhat surprised at Crenshaw’s sudden appearance. They were buddies back in first grade when Jackson’s family was living out of a van for several months, but then second grade started, they moved to an apartment, and Crenshaw disappeared. Now Jackson’s parents are having whispered conversations in the kitchen, holding a garage sale for lots of their stuff, and Crenshaw is back. Jackson thinks he’s gotten too old for an imaginary friend; what’s Crenshaw doing there? I love the way that Applegate addresses financial troubles and potential homelessness in this story in a way that’s accessible for younger readers; Jackson is concerned for his family, but the situation isn’t too scary or presented in a way that’s overwhelmingly sorrowful. Crenshaw is a good friend to Jackson, and helps him gather the courage to talk honestly with his parents. He’s funny and supportive and challenges Jackson to be his best self; just what a true friend should do. I love the idea of an imaginary friend being around when you need him; in that way, Crenshaw reminds me of another popular imaginary friend…
Bing Bong. Of course, the imaginary friend that has most recently been in the popular consciousness is a gift to us from Pixar, courtesy of their movie Inside Out. A crucial behind-the-scenes role in this film is played by Bing Bong, the childhood imaginary friend of now eleven-year-old Riley. Like Beekle, this story is told more from the perspective of the imaginary friend rather than their human; Bing Bong reminisces fondly about his and Riley’s special made-up song and their plan to visit the moon together. And like Crenshaw, Bing Bong appears at a time when Riley needs him, although she doesn’t know it. He is wholly original to Riley; every part of him is a product of her whimsical childhood imagination, including the fact that he cries candy instead of tears. By the end of the film, although we sense that Riley has “outgrown” Bing Bong in some ways, the relationship between these two becomes one of the most meaningful of the whole movie. Bing Bong represents a strong connection to Riley’s childhood that viewers can all resonate with.
I love the potential for uniqueness and fun that these imaginary friends represent, and that they teach us some of the values of friendship despite their being make-believe. Any other literary imaginary friends out there that you have enjoyed? Let’s hear about them! Bonus points if you can comment with the name of an imaginary friend you had in childhood.
Featured image by Paul Boekell