The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat


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.