Imaginary Fred. By Eoin Colfer. Illustrations by Oliver Jeffers. Harper. $18.99.
Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues. By Kimberly and James Dean. Illustrations by James Dean. Harper. $17.99.
Books call on and celebrate the imaginary all the time, but Imaginary Fred does so in a most unusual and thought-provoking way. Eoin Colfer’s tale is about the sort of imaginary friend that so many children have – except that Fred, it turns out, is sort of not imaginary, even though he sort of is. It is the uncertainty of just what Fred is and what he can be that so enlivens Colfer’s book. The story starts simply enough: Fred is clearly imaginary, appearing as needed to various children who enjoy his company until they make real-world friends and no longer need Fred – at which point he fades away and blows into the clouds, where he waits until another “lonely little child” needs him. Oliver Jeffers’ illustrations, mostly done in black-and-white with small dips or slashes of color, are quite wonderful, and his way of portraying Fred as a boy-shaped grouping of small blue dots lends the character just enough solidity and just enough otherworldliness. We see Fred as the imaginary friend of quite a few children – and then we get to the meat of the story, as Fred “dreamed of a friend who liked reading, music, and drama like [sic] he did” and, most importantly, with whom he could stay without fading away. Sure enough, Fred seems to make just the right connection when he is wished for by “a lonely boy named Sam,” and soon the two are inseparable, listening to music together, acting together in plays they write, and walking along reading books together (in an amusing in-joke, Sam is seen reading Colfer’s Artemis Fowl). Sam and Fred become so close that they proclaim themselves the Dramatic Duo – but Fred knows that, just as in the past, at some point Sam will find a real friend and that will be the end of the relationship. What happens, though, is stranger and more unexpected than that. Sam does find a real friend, a girl named Sammi, and Sammi has an imaginary friend of her own named Frieda (the similar names of the friends are part of the book’s charm). The four characters, two real and two imaginary, become a quartet – literally, since they play instruments together and Sammi’s dream is to perform at Carnegie Hall. A happy ending? Not quite – and this is where the book gets strange. The four do perform together at a school concert, under the name “the Quarrelling Quartet,” but the audience sees only two of them even though readers see all four (Fred made of blue and Frieda of yellow ones). And then, Colfer explains, in time the friends do grow apart, with the two real ones spending more time doing what they like and the two imaginary ones going their own, more-musical way – a way that leads them to, yes, Carnegie Hall, as the Dramatic Duo (the name now applying to the two imaginary friends), “much to the confusion of the audience.” Colfer and Jeffers deliberately leave matters unexplained: one audience member is saying “aren’t they wonderful?” while another is asking “when does it start?” Are the imaginary friends playing or not? Are they visible or not? Audible or not? What exactly is going on? Well, Colfer says that imaginary scientists do not know either, so they – one a constellation of pink dots, another a grouping of green ones – study and do research and finally can agree only that “friendship is friendship. Imaginary or not, the same laws apply.” What those laws are, neither Colfer nor Jeffers makes clear – and that is all to the good, as the book ends happily but with a distinct lack of certainty about just what has happened and why, leaving it up to young readers (and perhaps their equally puzzled parents) to figure out just what friendship really means, and just what Imaginary Fred is all about.
Matters are much clearer in Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues, in which Pete, Alligator, Gus the platypus, and Grumpy Toad are having so much fun at the beach that they do not want the day to end, so they decide to have a sleepover. Good idea, but things do not go quite as planned, because one by one, Pete’s friends think of things they want to do other than sleep: Grumpy Toad wants to clap, Gus wants to jam (music makes its way into all the Pete the Cat books), and Alligator wants to eat. For his part, Pete is tired and knows there has to be a way to get all his friends to relax and sleep. His “groovy idea” is to read “his favorite bedtime story” out loud – it happens to be called Pete the Cat and the 10 Little Monsters, so there is a bit of self-reference in this book just as in Imaginary Fred. Pete’s reading engages the friends’ attention, and soon he notices that things have gotten quiet, and sure enough, “They all settled down. No one made a sound.” And so all the friends go to sleep and dream of the fun they will have the next day. Like many Pete the Cat books, this one has a thin plot and mildly amusing drawings. In fact, the numerous small pictures of Pete on the pages after the story ends are more fun than many of those within the main pages: the little ones show Pete in green-and-white-striped pajamas and holding a big tube of toothpaste, dressed in a Super Cat T-shirt, playing in a cardboard box, wearing a floppy hat that says “Pete,” playing guitar, and more. Also attractive is the door hanger bound into the book, which says, on one side, “Shhh! This cool cat is trying to sleep.” On the other side, it says “Come in and hang out!” and shows Pete playing with the friends featured in the book. Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues is strictly a book for existing fans of the title character – there is not very much to it that will likely attract kids unfamiliar with Pete’s personality, and it is not an especially good introduction to the many books about Pete. So it gets a (+++) rating for those not already enamored of the perpetually sleepy-eyed cat, although for those who have enjoyed other Pete productions by Kimberly and James Dean, this will be a (++++) book and a pleasant, uncomplicated bedtime story.
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