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 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 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