So there’s this book that you think is award-winningly brilliant. That hits every button. That leaves you feeling whole and happy and now bonded in a quiet but lifelong way to the story.
Then along comes another book, with a very similar premise and it’s hard to give this second book the mental space you rationally know it could deserve. When a first book seems perfect in every way, even the optimist that I am finds it hard to have hopes for a second book that purports to cover similar ground.
It doesn’t help when that first book is exquisitely produced and illustrated, with rich, thick paper and fabulous illustration, the sort that rarely graces and enriches novels for young people. And the cover of second book is reminiscent of a hugely popular series, great for encouraging readers to gobble up books but which has no pretensions to being anything with any literary, philosophical or high aesthetic value (which is of course fine, but here I’m highlighting how two potentially very similar books appear to be very different).
Nevertheless, you sit down and make a stab at the second book. Then your 11 year old daughter steals the book mid-read and won’t give it back till she’s done. As it turns out, she really likes the book, and a swift, unbroken two hours later – she returns it to me saying that I really HAVE to read it. I complain that I was reading it. That it was her that stopped me (even thought deep down I know that my own expectations / hopes / fears for the book had been preventing me from really getting going with it).
But now, thoroughly chastised by my daughter, I give myself over to this second book.
And I fall down a rabbit hole.
And I find myself holding my breath with slightly anxious anticipation. Each page turn could yet prove my initial fears right, feeding disappointment I had almost become resigned to expect. And yet each step towards the end actually brings wonderful warmth, and a growing sense of doubly delicious delight because I really had not expected or allowed myself to hope for it.
This second book turns out to be exceptional.
Incredibly beautifully written, with wisdom and wit in equal measure, this book manages to be both highly philosophical and hugely funny at the same time. It works as a compass for its readers to discover something of who they are and how they (choose to) fit into the world. It revels in the power of the imagination. It asks lots of questions and delivers immense satisfaction without ever providing all the answers. A paradox, perhaps, but one which speaks of the huge skill and unpatronising attitude of its generous author.
So almost 500 words into my review I should tell you the book’s title and author I guess. Fortunately, it’s worth waiting for:
Confessions of an Imaginary Friend: A Memoir by Jacques Papier as told to Michelle Cuevas is the story of an imaginary friend, the real children he spends time with and what takes place when those children no longer need their imaginary friends. (You can perhaps guess that the first book I was alluding to above is the outstanding and glorious The Imaginary by A. F. Harrold, with illustrations by Emily Gravett [my review]).
How do you work out precisely who you are? Or who you want to be? This is at the heart of Confessions of an Imaginary Friend, and applies equally to the real children in the novel as to the eponymous imaginary friend Jacques Papier (to say nothing of the living, breathing reader…). And this gently philosophical novel has a huge heart; it reminded me of R. J Palacio’s Wonder in its thoughtful, gentle exploration of kindness and (un)selfishness. Cuevas writes lightly but richly, with pace (lots of very short chapters help to create this) and a strong sense of style, not shying away from startling descriptions and evocative language, the beauty of which you don’t often find in novels for the pre-teen crowd. It delights me to see that just before Christmas, Confessions of an Imaginary Friend was named the Big Issue’s Kids’ Book of 2015.
Teachers could do so much with this book. Its quick chapters and laugh out loud humour make it perfect for a class read-aloud. Its language and genre (a memoir) offer many opportunities for readers to enrich their own writing. The playfulness of the book ensures that younger children (say 7+) will have fun will it, whilst older children (say 10+) may equally enjoy chewing over what it means to be real vs imaginary, present vs invisible, and how the boundaries are not always as clear cut as we may think.
I’m not sure that there’s any such thing as a book which appeals to each and every possible reader. Certainly, the bittersweet contemplation of some of life’s bigger questions in Confessions of an Imaginary Friend won’t appeal to all in equal measure (though I do wonder if perhaps an attempt to reach a slightly different audience is behind the drastically different style of the UK cover as compared to the US edition) but my 11 year old and I really loved this book and hope it reaches many homes during 2016.
Inspired by Jacques Papier’s musings on words which don’t exist, M set about creating a list of her own new words to fill some of the lexical gaps she’s wishes didn’t exist. Together we designed a little dictionary cover for her to use:
(You can download it here – A4, and then fold it in half and half again to create a mini dictionary you and your kids could fill in with your own missing words.)
M set to creating the words she misses in her life, finessing their presentation by looking at OED dictionary entries for the format, and getting help from her Dad with phonetic transcriptions (he teaches these things to university students).
Whilst playing at being imaginary lexicologists we listened to:
What words do you wish existed? What words have you adopted from other languages because they express something for which there is no word in English? What words have you / your kids / your parents made up over the years which are now firmly part of the family patter?
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.