Not every child invents an imaginary friend like the star of The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat, winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal. And the ones who do, says author-artist Santat, don't "pick imaginary friends based on anything in particular."
Santat himself didn't have an imaginary friend, he told us when we interviewed him for Shelf Awareness after his Caldecott Medal was announced. "If I played make-believe, it was referenced by something I knew. I was going on an adventure with a Ghostbuster or Pac Man," he explained. "Talking with kids, not a lot of their imaginary friends reflected their interests or anything in particular about them." The imaginary friends in Beekle, however, share a great deal with the children who created them.
Q: You characterize both Beekle and his child, Alice, as relatively friendless--or at least incomplete--before they meet.
Dan Santat: For the message of making a friend, I found it to be important to find two halves to a whole. To have Alice find--not because she's an introvert or shy--to find a friend in a world created by her, fills that void. It's like having that "a-ha" moment when all the pieces are coming together. I didn't want the imaginary friend to sound clichéd--hairy monsters with horns and stripes that didn't reflect anything. I wanted them to reflect these children and their interests. You can tell a lot about these children without any dialogue in the book.
Q: How did you come up with that setting--a kind of island of misfit toys with imaginary friends in limbo until they meet their child?
DS: It's funny that you call it limbo, because for a while the island's name was Limbo. The imaginary friends serve a function, but they don't know what it is yet. If you look on the endpapers, there's a monster that plays the drums for a child who loves music [and other examples]; they're not aware of the other half that completes them. With Beekle, my struggle was to make him in such a way that he didn't give away his purpose. He's the only pure white character in the entire book; he represents a blank canvas.
Q: Your Beekle-eye view of the subway is so spot on. Did you think of the sailing ship and the subway as a kind of journey to transition from his island of imaginary friends to the world of humans?
DS: The spread that really communicates the journey well is when he's lost in a sea of commuters walking, and you don't see their faces, just a sea of legs. I was trying to portray a child's experience. It's not as intimidating to meet people eye to eye as it is when you see these giants. If you're little and you're sitting on a couch, your legs are dangling off the edge of the chair. That's evident in the scene in the subway. Every year I go to New York to meet with my publisher, and people on the subway have their faces in books or they're sleeping. They don't really make contact or look around or reach out to anyone. There's a sense of a loss of magic when you're an adult. Things don't seem spectacular because you've gotten a bit cynical with the world.
You see that in the cake and the strawberries, the music notes of the accordion; those are the bright colors. It was important to me to separate these two worlds--the childlike innocence from the reality of how the world is to an adult.
This excerpt is taken from an interview that first appeared in Shelf Awareness.