Imaginary Fred, by Oliver Jeffers
Imaginary Fred, by Oliver Jeffers

When my daughter was around 5, she was playing in the backyard with a friend when all of a sudden the friend said something that surprised me. She put her arm around the air and said it was that person’s turn to go into the log cabin.

It took me a minute, but then I said “Ok.” I wasn’t sure if I should indulge her but decided to let her lead the way. If she wanted to let an imaginary friend join her in the log cabin, fine with me.

She told me the other person’s name, which I can’t remember, but I do remember that she seemed very happy to have this “friend” with her. Later that day I mentioned it to the girl’s mom. “Oh, that’s her imaginary friend,” she said casually. She wasn’t concerned and thought it was cute.

I wasn’t familiar with the dynamics of how this worked, but figured if it makes her child happy, why not?

Does your tyke have a friend only he can see? If so (and even if he doesn’t), he’ll be interested in a new picture book, called Imaginary Fred, that explores this phenomenon.

The story begins with a little boy named Sam standing by himself in a park. Around him are two kids playing ball, two elderly men playing chess, two men talking on a bench and a couple holding hands walking down a path. His eyes are downcast and he’s shuffling his feet. Sam’s lonely, but then something magical happens — a wished-for friend appears!

The only thing is, the wished-for friend is imaginary. No matter to Sam, this friend likes all the same things he does, including reading, listening to music and acting out plays.

This isn’t just the story of one boy’s yearning for a friend, though. Sam’s new imaginary friend, Fred, has his own worries. He lives in the clouds, waiting to be wished for. But each time he’s summoned, eventually he’s no longer needed because at some point the child finds a real friend. Each time, in the process of not being needed anymore, Fred begins to fade a little until he becomes so light that he floats back up to the clouds.

This time, though, something special happens to change the course of both Sam’s and Fred’s situation. The book reads like a fairy tale, with gentle prose geared to kids ages 4 to 8. The characters have realistic traits and feelings (even the imaginary ones). Fred, for example, tries really hard to endear himself to his real-life friends; he even vacuums the carpet while his new friend chats on the phone and allows himself to be tossed like a ball into a basketball hoop.

The well-paced and straightforward text by Eoin Colfer makes for smooth, delightful reading. Paired with the text are black-ink drawings by Oliver Jeffers. Most of the story is in black and white, although Fred is blue and — spoiler alert! — another imaginary friend, a girl named Frieda, is yellow. The contrast of the black ink drawings with the bursts of blue and yellow create a clear way of differentiating the real people from the imaginary and give the pages added interest.

A sweetness without sentimentality permeates the tale, making it a soothing yet captivating bedtime story. Kids will like the surprise ending in which no one is lonely anymore, and they’ll be comforted to see that the characters do indeed live happily ever after.

Mia Geiger is a writer in the Philadelphia area. You can find her at miageiger.com and @MiaGeiger.

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