Imagination is one of the best things about being a kid. It’s something we tend to lose a little bit of when we get older—life gets in the way, other things become more interesting; we grow up. But when we have kids of our own, we have the chance to recapture some of that fleeting childhood wonder by watching our little ones create fun-filled afternoons of make-believe, stories about castles and kings, and even an imaginary friend or two.
Sometimes, our actual, living friends are not enough when we are kids, and so we invent someone whom we can always count on and play with, no matter what. In Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw, rising fifth-grader Jackson has an imaginary friend who takes the shape of a large black-and-white cat he names Crenshaw. Unlike most cats, Crenshaw is not afraid of water, and in fact, prefers bubble baths, thank you very much. He also loves purple jelly beans, just like Jackson, and enjoys such activities as surfing with an umbrella, sporting a San Francisco Giants baseball cap while skateboarding, and riding on top of the family minivan. Interestingly, Jackson is the kind of kid who likes scientific facts and how things work and is not into silly things like imagination. So he is surprised when Crenshaw made his first appearance at the end of Jackson’s first grade school year. That was during the period when he, his mom, dad, and little sister Robin had to live in their minivan for a few months because of money problems.
Once his parents are able to save up for an apartment, he meets and becomes best friends with a girl named Marisol, who wants to be a scientist, too, and also lives in his neighborhood and goes to his new school. For a brief time, Crenshaw appears to be taking a hiatus. But before long he’s back, and he’s now taking bubble baths in Jackson’s family’s apartment—even as Jackson is beginning to worry that he’s too old for an imaginary friend. He also suspects that his family’s money problems might be starting again—because kids are pretty good at figuring out something’s wrong, after all, even when grown-ups don’t tell them everything. Now, Jackson is faced with more troubles that are out of his control. He doesn’t want to leave his school or his apartment or his best friend, Marisol, to live in his family’s minivan again. He doesn’t want his family to have to sell all their furniture in a yard sale so they can make rent, and he doesn’t know how to answer his little sister’s questions about what’s happening. And what is he going to do about Crenshaw, anyway? Can the magic of an imaginary friend help Jackson and his real family?
The winner of the 2013 Newbery Medal for The One and Only Ivan, Applegate has written a real-to-life, poignant story about a family dealing with potential homelessness and an uncertain future, as well as the importance of friendship and facing one’s fears. Crenshaw is a compelling and compassionate book; one that will leave you thinking about it long after you put it down, and a great read to share with your middle grade child.
Crenshaw is on B&N shelves today.