imaginary friend

Kevin by Rob Biddulph

Reading is so satisfying because it’s one of the closest ways we have of getting inside someone else’s brain – and I don’t mean just inside the characters’ thoughts, but also the author’s. It’s fascinating to see how someone else’s mind works, how they deal with a particular situation, or even simply the fluffy rainbows and unicorns that bounce about in their head.

One of the most striking ways some children have of utilising their imagination is in the creation of an imaginary friend. I’ve looked at this a little bit here to explore the whys of this phenomena – and trust me I think it’s something that can pervade adulthood too, especially for writers – I know my characters certainly live with me in one way or another.

Rob Biddulph’s latest picture book character explores this phenomena with a very clear motive. Sid Gibbons invents his imaginary friend as a scapegoat – someone to blame when Sid himself messes up. His mother, wisely, demands evidence of this guilty persona, and Sid draws Kevin (his imaginary friend) in quite acute detail, and his mother, wisely again, doesn’t ‘disbelieve’ in the friend – only in the premise that Kevin, not Sid, is to blame.

By the end of the story, empathy with Kevin shows Sid the error of his ways, (through a delightful little twist in the middle of the story), and before long Sid not only starts behaving, but enjoying his time with Kevin – and Biddulph sneakily lets the reader into the secret that Sid’s not the only child to have invented an imaginary friend.

Biddulph brings his distinctive rhyming style to this picture book, but has expanded upon it, so the sentences are longer, but still retain the rhythm and bounce of his previous books. The illustrations though, are exquisite. Freed from the animals of Penguin Blue, Biddulph not only portrays his humans with style and personality – from Sid’s trapper hat to his mother’s slippers – but also crafts the most appealing make-believe world, complete with a vast array of colourful flowers, spotty rainbows, and daft made-up beastie creatures. Shot through with a wide colour palate, they are nostalgic for adults used to 1970’s fashions, and vibrant for young children. Biddulph has a certain talent for images that appear simple, but are layered with detail. It’s fun to try to copy them – many children do (and for those with adults on twitter, you can follow his work on #drawwithRob).

What’s more the moral messages throughout – not blaming others, saying sorry, understanding others, cherishing friendship – aren’t spelled out in a pompous saccharine way, but carefully dripped through the story so that they are gently absorbed.

My only quibble is the portrayal of the Dad behind a newspaper and the mother with takeaway coffee and ugg boots, although in Biddulph’s defence perhaps it is just an accurate reflection of UK middle-class suburbia. Full marks though for the diversity of the children on the last pages – there’ll be much fun for children in spotting the different children, different beasties and familiar playground equipment. Watch out too for allusions to prior Biddulph picture books, and the final image, which suggests that sometimes Biddulph too escapes to his own imaginary world. You can buy your own copy here.

Illustrative Wonders

hello-mr-dodo

Hello, Mr Dodo by Nicholas John Frith
Frith’s second picture book arrived in September, just as he picked up the Klaus Flugge Prize for most promising newcomer to children’s picture book illustration for Hector and Hummingbird. With the same technique and a similar style, Hello Mr Dodo! also comes across as being thoroughly nostalgic in look and tone, as well as startlingly fresh and new.

Hello, Mr Dodo! uses a colour palate that looks decidedly retro, with its bright orange front cover contrasting with the blue line boundary, but also the vividly crayon-esque inside, which depicts a house and garden in bright yellow and orange. Already warmed by the illustrations, the reader is tickled by the text, which smiles from the first sentence:

“Martha was cuckoo about birds.”

Cleverly considered, this little girl’s retro name matches the illustrations, and the joke is tucked in for charm. Martha is lovable. She talks to the birds every morning, but then the author uses a typical story construct to add in the excitement – one morning she spies something new with her binoculars. It is the biggest bird Martha has ever seen.

She finds out more by looking in her books – which Frith illustrates in black and white for the reader to see – slotting in much non-fiction about the Dodo. Nestling behind the enlarged pages of the reference book though, is Martha in her bedroom. And this is where Frith shines too – for his attention to detail is exemplary. Martha has modern ‘bird-shaped’ slippers, but a retro trio of flying ducks on her wall. She has bird skeletons and anatomy drawings, but also arrows poking from her toybox, a kite and skipping rope too.

She keeps the Dodo secret, until one day, her secret slips out. The worry on Martha’s face as she scoots to find her Dodo is lusciously drawn, but readers shouldn’t worry too much – the ending not only illustrates Martha’s cleverness, but also gives hope to the Dodo’s future.

There is so much to love about this book, from the small incidental details, such as the squirrel camouflaged on the tree, by which Frith gives a good nod at nature, to the overarching plot, in which the pacing is superb. It feels good to read aloud – the rhythm of the text works brilliantly, and the illustrations fit seamlessly. Already a firm favourite in our house, this is a fantastic picture book with a simple story illustrated to award-winning perfection.

Filled with fun for children, including doughnuts for a Dodo, clues about friendship, bird watching and keeping secrets, I have no doubt this is one to slip into your shopping basket. You’ll love it as much as they do. You can buy it here.

midnight-at-the-zoo
Midnight at the Zoo by Faye Hanson
Another second book, this time from acclaimed illustrator Faye Hanson. Mia and Max are excited – they are going on a school trip to the zoo. But when they arrive, all the animals are asleep or hiding. Max and Mia dawdle in the hope of seeing something that no one else does, and they get left behind, and spend the night in the zoo. Luckily for them, this is when the zoo really comes alive.

This is another exquisite picture book – so different in style from Mr Dodo – this one is utterly contemporary, jam packed with detail and minute pencil and pen marks, giving everything a different texture so that each page looks like an artwork in its own right.

The plot is well handled. Hanson builds the expectation, and also slight trepidation of the young children going on a school trip. The excitement on arrival, followed by slight disappointment, and then she addresses a teacher’s worst nightmare – leaving children behind. Of course, this is where the fun starts here because Max and Mia have an amazingly surreal time at the midnight zoo.

There is a wonderful contrast in terms of colour and light between the zoo in day time and the zoo at night time. In the day, the pages are greens, yellows, reds. At night, the pages positively pulse with spots and flares of almost fluorescent colour – a muted dark purple turquoise background behind the colour injections of a host of colourful butterflies, the incandescent red  of the flamingos, and the shining lights and confetti of the following pages – making a carnival atmosphere. It’s a little like the Disney Electric Light Parade – a feast of light.

Hanson also plays with her language; using a plethora of similes to describe the children’s emotions before the visit – they trundle like elephants, cling like monkeys before scampering excitedly. At the midnight zoo, she uses alliterations; “flouncing flamingos and fabulous fountains,” “loud, laughing lemurs with lanterns alight”.

But for this reader, the most exciting part of the visit to the zoo, in daytime or night, is the attention to detail – the mimicking of the small child’s eyes, which often see the incidentals. Hanson has furnished her book with a wealth of illustrations, which convey depth of characterisation and make Hanson stand out, just as she did with her first book, The Wonder.

Max and Mia’s bedroom is a paean to zoos, with an animal mobile, a striped light switch, toy animals, wallpaper, animal print bed sheets and more. The small vignettes at the zoo need careful inspection to spot where the animals are hiding (look out for the meerkats holding hands). The other school children too – shown on the bus, in the zoo, and at the end when they find Max and Mia, are fabulous – each one with a different personality – each one identifiable throughout. Even the endpapers, one showing a map of the zoo by day, the other by night.

And there’s even a happy ending. Check it out here.

The Secret Life of Daisy Fitzjohn by Tania Unsworth

Daisy Fitzjohn

Tania Unsworth has written a most compelling thriller for children, using a mixture of tense suspense and magical realism to tell a story of depth, mystery and adventure.

Daisy lives with her mother in a huge, crumbling mansion called Brightwood Hall. She has never left the grounds, so when her mother goes on a shopping trip and doesn’t return, Daisy is left completely alone. She has to make a crucial decision – should she venture into the wider world or wait at home in the house and surrounding gated grounds until her mother returns.

Then a stranger arrives, and secrets in her family, and those contained within Brightwood Hall, begin to be revealed and cast Daisy into more danger than she could possibly have imagined. She must decide again whether to protect the mansion and her ‘friends’ within, or whether to find help outside the gates.

As well as a weaving a spellbinding tale, Tania Unsworth has threaded immense depth into the book, with themes of memory and the power of imagination. Daisy’s mother is a hoarder – she keeps objects from each day as memories inside ‘Day Boxes’, which stack up inside the mansion. Added to this are Daisy’s own conversations with an imaginary friend, and her belief that the objects that make up the mansion are living and can talk with her – from the portraits lining the walls, to the topiary hedge shapes in the garden, to the animals roaming the grounds.

This magical realism enables her to explore her own mind and memory, and prepare her to battle the dangerous stranger who invades her space.

Of course, as with all great books about a character being alone, the protagonist has to resonate extremely strongly with the reader, and gain their sympathy – and Daisy does. She is likeable, introspective but interesting, and brave despite her increasing vulnerability. Her fears of abandonment, her anger at her mother, then her despair and loneliness, are tangible and realistic – as juxtaposed with the ‘magic’ of things around her. The two concepts spar brilliantly with each other – and the reader is left to decipher what is real and what isn’t – and what the mind does when left to its own devices, and how it deals with the world when it is fighting for survival.

The setting itself is striking and highly visual – the expansive grounds, some wild some tamed, the house with its towers of ‘Day Boxes’, old artefacts, and plentiful rooms – some shrouded and hidden – others open and comforting.

Yet despite the depth within the text, this is a thrilling adventure/mystery story that is easy to read – the plot skims along at pace, the characters are well-drawn and identifiable, and it promotes thought. It’s a highly memorable book, and one of my top reads so far this year. For age 9+. You should definitely read this book – and if you want to, you can buy it here.

 

I was sent a copy for review by Orion publishers, but also worked on some readers’ notes for this book.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

beekle

You know how you wait for a bus, and then two come along at once? Or even three? The Adventures of Beekle was published last year in the States, and went on to win the Caldecott Medal (most distinguished American picture book). Dan Santat, when interviewed, mentioned that he wanted to tell the story of the imaginary friend from the imaginary friend’s point of view rather than the child.

The book is published in the UK this week, pipped to the post by Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers (see here for my review) and Confessions of an Imaginary Friend by Michelle Cuevas (review here), both of which also tell stories from the imaginary friend’s point of view.

But Beekle stands out for me, and the Caledcott judges, for more than its premise. From the cover illustration onwards, the prominent feature of the title is the artwork, and the colour.

Looking almost like a Pixar movie, each spread is magical not just for the detail imagined, or the extensive colour palate, or the depiction of urban reality versus the imaginary world, but for the mood it projects. Rarely have I seen a picture book that instils a sensory experience just through its pictures – I think Shaun Tan is the other artist who manages this – particularly in Rules of Summer.

Beekle is an imaginary friend who hasn’t been picked yet by a human child, and so, having given up on waiting to be picked, sets off from the world of the imagination to the real world to find its child friend itself.

For children, there is much to adore. Beekle is a cute white blob, reminiscent in texture of the marshmallow man, although simpler and likeable, rather than destructive. His adventure from the imaginary world into the real world takes courage, and means being active not passive. But above all it leads to friendship.

For a young reader, the step-by-step double spread feature of making a friend is winning. Beekle and the little girl are unsure, and then talk, and then laugh, and finally through various facial expression and body language postures, hug and become friends.

The older reader will savour different touches. The first view of the ‘real world’, dull in tone, large and expansive and imposing. The muted palette and wry text explaining that this was a place where “no children were eating cake”, and the depiction of the underground train where “everyone needed a nap.” Dan Santat pointing out that adults aren’t looking around enough – aren’t appreciating the colour and music in the world. It takes an outsider to see what they’re missing.

Beekle doesn’t find his friend easily – and settles into a tree, where the leaves are portrayed as red falling stars. These few pages are dreamy in their simplicity and their beauty – but what they carry with them, as the rest of the book, is the mood – solitude, melancholy – an underlying sadness.

Even on positive pages, showing imagination and friendship, Dan Santat carefully uses shadows to impose a slightly sinister air, a slight expectation that things could go wrong. It’s masterfully rendered and makes each page resonate in a different way.

So I think I understand why it won the Caldecott – not for the premise, which is not as unique as it could be – but for the execution, which appeals on so many levels – to the young child with its rainbow of colours and surprises – to the older child who will question each page and each detail, and to the adult – who will be surprised that a picture book could capture a mood so acutely. You can purchase it here.

 

 

With thanks to Andersen Press – please note this book was reviewed from a proof copy only.

Confessions of An Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier, as told to Michelle Cuevas

confessions of an imaginary

Don’t be fooled – although the cover looks rather young, with doodled drawings of personified socks and plants and a dog, with letters scribbled on and made to look pretty, this is a far deeper book than first appearances suggest.

It purports to be the memoir of Jacques Papier. Unfortunately for Jacques, everyone seems to hate him, from the family dog who barks incessantly at him, to his classmates who fail to pick him for a team, from his teacher who ignores his waving hand when he knows the answer to the question, to even his parents who need to be reminded by his sister Fleur to set a place for him at the dinner table.

But then suddenly he discovers that he’s not who he thought he was. He’s not Fleur’s brother at all, but her imaginary friend. Amid Jacques’ existential breakdown, lots of questions arise, some from Fleur, some from other imaginary friends, and some from within himself. Questions that arise with all of us, but especially children – some of whom may feel somewhat invisible themselves:

“The truth is,” she replied, “you’re only as invisible as you feel, imaginary or not.”

The actual author, Michelle Cuevas, goes deeper than that though, and weaves philosophy into her book with her magical way with words, making the reader think as much, if not more, than Jacques about what it means to be real and what our imagination enables us to do:

“There’s lots of real things you can’t touch or see,” replied Fleur. “There’s music, and wishes, and gravity.”

Reminiscent of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, Cuevas manages to ask the difficult questions whilst telling a witty and clever children’s story:

“I think it’s like the earth and the moon,” I explained. “The light of the moon is an illusion. It’s actually just reflecting light from the sun, bounding it back like a mirror. We’re like that moon, and without the people who imagined us, it’s all darkness.”

Cuevas questions theories of the self, in that Jacques can’t look in a mirror to see what he looks like, he is only seen through someone else’s eyes. This is funny for children, as Jacques becomes other children’s imaginary friends – changing shape into what they imagine – for instance he does end up as an imaginary dog at one point.

Some of the humour is aimed directly at the adult reader though – the imaginary friends have their own ‘Imaginaries Anonymous’ support group, into which Jacques is recruited while waiting in a psychologist’s (who deals specially in imaginary friends) waiting room. He also has a stale cookie and fruit juice at the end of the meeting. Other more adult wit includes Fleur’s father’s attempt to get Fleur to discuss her feelings using puppets, and the Office of Reassignment where imaginary friends go to fill out forms and find a new ‘real person’ to imagine them. The office has its own helpline too.

Jacques goes through quite an adventure to reach a satisfying conclusion, staying with various children in different imaginary friend guises, including staying with a boy called Bernard who feels more invisible than his imaginary friend. This gives Jacques a raison d’etre – he can help someone else become more visible. Bernard’s father also introduces a further facet – interesting facts about animals being able to see more than us, because they have more cones within their eyes.

In the end this book really gets you thinking – who are we, which bits of us are defined by others, or never seen by others, what makes something real? As Cuevas puts it:

“Who are you when there’s nobody around to remind you of your role, and no memories to regret or keep you warm.”

A fascinatingly humorous book that makes you question yourself and the world around you, and employs a rather jolly plot to do it. An excellent read. For 9+ years. You can buy it here. Thank you to Simon and Schuster for sending a review copy.

 

Imaginary Friends

If you include the premise that an imaginary friend can be based on an object – a very special stuffed animal for example, as well as the completely made up illusion of a friend, then about 65 per cent of children have had one*. Take out the stuffed animal, and that leaves about 37 per cent. It’s a common phenomenon.

Not all imaginary friends are born out of loneliness. According to Marjorie Taylor from the University of Oregon, author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them, children make up imaginary friends for many different reasons. Interestingly, girls tend to create characters who need nurturing, some boys create aspirational characters who are born from their own sense of who they want to be.

Imaginary friends abound in children’s books, from Hobbes and Soren Lorensen, to the Wild Things and Beekle. Two recent additions to the canon are:

imaginary fred

Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers
A picture book for older children, this explores friendship and transience. Imaginary Fred moves the imaginary friend centre stage. Fred, our imaginary friend depicted in small turquoise dots by Jeffers, in comparison to the ‘real’ people who are in black and white, floats in the wind and waits for lonely children to summon him. Of course, what he longs for most is permanence, as most of the time he is discarded when a ‘real’ friend comes along. In the end, he gets his happy ending, but not as the reader first envisages.

Colfer’s message at the end is that all friendship is real, in whichever guise it comes. And also that friendships shift and change during childhood, as do a child’s interests. Interestingly, the real children in this picture book are often depicted as being cruel to their imaginary friend in the pictures Jeffers draws, although not necessarily in the text. Colfer imagines that Fred tries to be the best friend that he possibly can, with Jeffers drawing in what Fred has to put up with – from being imagined as a witch with the little boy stabbing him with a sword and yelling ‘Die, Evil Witch’, to another boy imagining Fred naked and laughing at his humiliation. It’s an interesting twist and can lead to discussion on how far we go to be a friend, and what that entails. Of course, it also shows great comedic potential.

The children’s use of ‘imaginary Fred’ displays their vivid imaginations, but perhaps, as with all our imaginations, allows us to do things that we wouldn’t do in ‘real’ life. This is where the book gets really interesting.

Because Colfer and Jeffers have turned the premise around so that the reader sides with the ‘imaginary’ person – the one who demonstrates emotions, as opposed to the ‘real’ children. In fact, Imaginary Fred fades a little bit each time  he is discarded – he wants a forever friend, and needs the illusion of permanence.

As always in Jeffers’ books there is much added detail in the illustrations, from the wonderful attitudes of the couple on the bench in the first scene, to the eyebrows on Frieda. Check out also the author references in the books that the boys read. And when Jeffers plays with the pictures, so Colfer plays with the text. The whole story is told very much ‘to you’ the reader, as if the reader is alone. It’s a neat device, and by the end the reader has a friend – because the author is calling you and all the other readers friends:
“And this, dear friends, is the interesting thing that happened.”
So you aren’t alone any more either.

There is also wonderful comedy for adults throughout the book, from the depiction of the teachers at the school concert, to the audience in the Carnegie Hall. Trademark Jeffers abounds with his famous noses and his squigglish captions. The pen-inked drawings contrast beautifully with Colfer’s full-bodied lively text.

Not for the very small, but a book to be treasured by all. If you find it lying on the sofa, it’s probably because your imaginary friend was reading it. Again and Again. You can buy it here.

honey and me
Honey and Me by Karen McCombie
A very different book from that above, but of equal importance. According to Marjorie Taylor’s study, school age children still had imaginary friends – they might have changed and they were more likely to have purely imaginary friends than stuffed toy friends – but they were still there. Honey and Me tells the story of Kirsten, who is starting at a new secondary school without her old friends, who are going to a different school, and she is coping with various issues at home because her Dad has lost his job. She turns to her friend Honey, who is a great listener, and has been in Kirsten’s life for a long time. In fact she always turns up when Kirsten needs her, even when they haven’t seen each other for quite a while.

Kirsten realises that Honey is still there for her, and not only helps her to think things through more carefully, but comes up with solutions for some of her problems. Her forever friend is a good listener and a troubleshooter. It is only near the end of the book that it becomes apparent that Honey is a purely imaginary friend – and Kirsten is desperate for the ‘real’ girls at school not to find out about her. Kirsten eventually finds the courage to bond with the ‘real’ people in her life, and gets her happy ending.

This is a moving book for those children coming to terms with growing up, dealing with difficult issues in life, and making new friends. It’s a great short story by an experienced storyteller, and published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke. A highly recommended read. Ages 8-12 yrs. You can buy it here.

 

*Marjorie Taylor, University of Oregon studies

 

 

 

Squishy McFluff The Invisible Cat: Supermarket Sweep by Pip Jones and Ella Okstad

Squishy McFluff Supermarket Sweep

Never having met Squishy McFluff before, this was my first foray into this invisible cat’s world. Supermarket Sweep is the second book, about Ava’s trip to the supermarket with her mum and her invisible companion cat. A third book called Squishy McFluff Meets Mad Nana Dot was published this week. Squishy McFluff is narrated entirely in rhyme and I was captured from the rhyming introduction, which asks the reader to imagine Squishy.
“Can you see him? My kitten? He has eyes big and round
His miaow is so sweet (but it makes not a sound!)
Imagine him quick! Have you imagined enough?
Oh, good, you can see him! It’s Squishy McFluff!”
It turns out Squishy is a very naughty cat, who leads his owner, Ava, into all kinds of scrapes and trouble, with a mischievous glance at the reader. I loved the relationship between Ava and her mother, I loved the modern references to objects such as mobile phones, and also the fact that Pip Jones certainly knows her audience as she understands what’s appealing to children – Ava will visit the supermarket on the premise that she can ride in the trolley. It is reminiscent of The Cat in the Hat – but only the more pleasing for being so. This is also perfect material for a child looking to start reading independently – the rhyming helps a young child to figure out which word is coming next, and the vocabulary is not too taxing. The book is also split into small chapters, which is helpful if you’re a struggling reader. It’s funny and endearing with superbly fitting illustrations from Ella Okstad. More please.