by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers – Harper Collins, 2015
ages 2 to 8 years / emotional resilience, imagination
Do your little ones have imaginary friends? Some of mine did. It was cute to hear them chatting away to someone invisible—less cute when I once had to wait in the rain because an imaginary friend called Minga had to get in the car first and then took her own sweet time about buckling up her seatbelt!
There are lots of good reasons to enjoy the imaginary friend stage, one being that imaginary friends give children practice in social engagement. Which is pretty much what the scientists at the end of Imaginary Fred discover: “Eventually they concluded that friendship is friendship. Imaginary or not, the same laws apply.”
There’s a twist in this friendship story: it's told from the perspective of Fred, who is a serial imaginary friend!
Imaginary Fred waits until "conditions are just right".
Then, when a child summons him he "tries really hard to be the best imaginary friend he [can] be."
When Sam summons him, it feels different—they like the same things, they do everything together—but Fred knows what happens when a child gets a real friend: the imaginary friend fades away.
Then, when Sam finds and begins a friendship with Sammi, a real girl, Fred feels himself beginning to fade.
But Sammi is no ordinary friend. She also has an imaginary friend, Frieda, and together the four of them become the Quarreling Quartet. Eventually the quartet separates into two duos—Sam and Sammi remain close friends, and Fred and Frieda do too!
Fred and Frieda are the first ever imaginary friends to remain friends in the absence of real children to hold them together. The longevity of their friendship causes a sensation—a statue is even erected in their honour!
Scientists study Fred and Frieda and reach that important conclusion: "...friendship is friendship. Imaginary or not, the same laws apply."
Imaginary Fred is engrossing—there’s just the right amount of tension build-up as Fred starts to worry and fade, coupled with a bit of comic relief. That means children will want to hear it often, which is great, because there are lots of ideas and thoughts to assimilate mull over, and put to use. It's full of wonderful life-learning opportunities, like:
Friendships require maintenance. Sam and imaginary Fred are excellent friends, thinking about the concerns of the other, clearly expressing their own thoughts and doing all sorts of activities together. And, when the time comes, they drift into new friendships that don't in any way diminish the time they spent together. Because friendships don't always have to be smooth sailing or last forever to be meaningful. Fred and Sam do a wonderful job of modelling how a friendship can grow and how it can end.
Somewhere there is a friend for everyone. Sam and Fred are both delighted to find each other—so are Fred and Frieda. The key to finding a friend is that conditions have to be just right. For a child struggling to find friends Sam and Fred's story can be a wonderful way to begin a conversation about what those conditions might be.
Imagination is a powerful, healing force. It’s easy enough to get mired in the real world and so it’s worth remembering that we may be our truest self within the imaginary world. Sam knows just how important imaginary Fred is to his life. He tells Fred, “I never want to let you go.” The security of his imaginary relationship also allows Sam to fully invest in his new (and ‘real’) relationship with Sammi. Imagination is like that—as well as being joyful and creative, it can help us to work through the challenges of life in a way that is true to ourselves.
Friendships can break boundaries. Notwithstanding their celebrity, Fred and Frieda are not seeking notoriety; they simply want to continue a friendship that adds meaning and joy to their existence. It’s a beautiful way to think about cross culture, gender, and religious friendships, which are also about adding meaning and joy to life.
Loneliness is real, painful and yet transitory. The very first page acknowledges: “Being alone is no fun.” Even the most introverted among us would probably agree that “The first five minutes are OK, but it’s all downhill from there.” (Though they might quibble about the 5 minutes!) Acknowledging the very real pain that can flow from loneliness—and how really hard it can be to find a friend—can be empowering. The very stating of the problem can vindicate and strengthen weary friend-seekers.
A couple of small reading hints:
Imaginary Fred is a bit longer than most picture books; it will take about 10 minutes or a bit more to read. That’s great for transitioning to longer-form books and for learning to sustain interest and story continuity. Those things lead to increased attention span—a benefit for most any life situation.
It can be helpful to do a bit of acting as you read, like a shoulder shrug, a happy face, or holding up your hand and pretending to look through it at the point where ‘Fred checked his arm and thought that maybe he had faded a little already.’
There’s an endearing sense of humour to the pictures here too, with funny pictorial asides scattered throughout the book—my favourite is Sam & imaginary Fred reading together. They’re reading Artemis Fowl (Eoin Colfer) and Lost and Found (Oliver Jeffers). Clever. After a few solid readings it can be fun to point out one or two of these and look for others together. The pictures are gentle to look at too, they’re great bedtime reading material.
Reading along as Sam finds imaginary Fred, develops a friendship, finds real Sammi and develops both friendships feels like peeking into the dreams of a child longing for true connection with a like-minded soul. (Perhaps that’s every child in one way or another.) For such a child, there’s a gentle and optimistic promise in the pages of this book, that they are not really alone after all.