“Just because a friend is imaginary, doesn’t mean they’re not real”
I was sent a copy of Imaginary Fred, a quirky, whimsical story by a strong duo: Eoin Colfer and Oliver Jeffers. It won the Irish Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year; even for adults, the book has depth and subtlety and it set me thinking. How important are imaginary friends? Did I have one, as a child?
The answer was no. Despite a lack of company (I spent the first 10 years of my life in a tiny hamlet on a remote Welsh mountain), I never had an imaginary friend. What I did have, though, was a friend for my imagination: an old woman called Marion, who lived in a tiny cottage with her husband, a retired coalminer. Welsh was her first language, but she was clued-up on English reading matter for tiny minds. It was she who introduced me to Narnia, Anne of Green Gables and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. They became my closest companions in those days. It was Marion who showed me that reading can be a portal to infinite worlds of imaginative discovery. So instead of creating a fictional playmate, I turned to books.
Imaginary Fred also has an unusual take on the idea of an imaginary friend. Instead of the central character being a child, the main protagonist is Fred, a kind of rent-an-imaginary-friend, who plays with lonely youngsters, until they manage to make a ‘real’ friend. He then slowly fades to nothing, and ascends to a cloud, to wait until he’s summoned by the next youngster.
After this heart-tugging insight into the life of an imaginary friend, we see a development: Fred is called into the life of Sam, a thoughtful boy who like Fred enjoys drama, reading, classical music and comic books. Fred’s time with Sam lasts longer than with other children; the two form a ‘Dramatic Duo’ and Sam pledges his undying friendship with Fred…..until the day Sam meets Sammi, a (real) young cellist with a similar penchant for graphic novels. Will Fred fade as before, and have to leave Sam?
The book is illustrated with Oliver Jeffer’s sweet, slightly mournful line drawings, and rather cleverly manages to deal with tangential subjects like loss and growing up. Like many of the works by Colfer (Artemis Fowl) and Jeffers (How to Catch a Star), the book is funny and sweet, and works at several levels, so it could be enjoyed by a wide range of age groups: 4-8 being the most suitable, in my view. The ‘real’ characters in the book are quite sensitive types, and I’m not sure that children with more rowdy dispositions might be able, say, to empathise with Sam and Fred’s desire to set up a classical music quartet. But every child will have felt lonely at some time in their lives, and the book describes the emotion in vivid, accessible detail. Even for children who are unlikely to ever concoct an imaginary friend, Imaginary Fred can help give a better understanding of friendship in general, and what it feels like to be left out.
Imaginary Fred is published by Harper Collins and is available at the RRP of £7.99. This is a commissioned post; all views are my own.