Many children have imaginary friends. I had one of my own, a little boy enigmatically named “Dobbin” who lived, of all places, in the oven. My imaginary friend appeared around the age of three and disappeared just as suddenly around the age of four, which coincided with the birth of my sister. Possibly, I was just a lonely only child wanting a friend to talk with, and catching sight of my own reflection in the oven door, seized upon a friend who was both convenient and didn’t argue with my admittedly bossy little self.
Matthew Dicks’ book, Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, explores this very mundane and commonplace quirk of childhood from a perspective that is as fascinating as it is unusual.
Budo is an imaginary friend to Max, a 10-year old boy. It is immediately apparent that Max is no ordinary little kid. It’s unusual for a 10-year old child to still believe in imaginary friends, but this strange trait has worked out in Budo’s favour. Budo, at five years old, is positively elderly for an imaginary friend, unlike most of his counterparts who survive for only a year or two, and sometimes only for a few weeks or even days.
Imaginary friends, it turns out, only exist as long as the children who imagine them believe in their existence. They’re invisible to everyone else in the world, and their boundaries are only those placed on them by their child’s imagination. Many of Budo’s “friends” are odd-looking characters indeed – one is a talking puppy known only as Puppy, another is a miniscule pink fairy, yet another is a walking, talking fork. They are testaments to the wonderfully creative nature of a child’s imagination, and when that imagination is tamped down and tempered by the constraints and expectations of age, imaginary friends simply disappear into the ether.
Budo has been lucky enough to survive because Max is not an ordinary child. He is autistic, living in a world that only he understands, and in Max’s world, there’s nothing unusual about an imaginary friend. Indeed, Budo is the only friend that Max has. His odd behaviours – talking to himself, resistance to being touched, the tendency to become “stuck” and lapse into a catatonic state when stressed – keep Max marginalized and alone, and he relies on Budo to help him navigate the world and understand things like social cues, which are an incomprehensible language to young Max.
Budo’s friendship is put to the test when Mrs. Patterson, an aide who works with Max in a special classroom at his school and a deeply disturbed woman, decides that she is the only person who can care for Max’s unique needs, and spirits him away. Seeking to provide Max with the kind of controlled, secure environment that she is sure he needs, Mrs. Patterson locks Max into secret room in her basement. The only person who knows he is there, and who can possibly help him, is Budo. But how can Budo help when he can’t interact with the world around him? No one can see or hear him besides other imaginary friends, most of whom are uselessly childlike in their intellect.
The only solution that Budo can see is also the one that terrifies him the most. He must approach the one invisible friend who seems able to interact with the outside world…but this stranger, an enormous terrifying entity known only as Oswald, dwells in the shadowy halls of a psychiatric ward of the hospital…and Budo is convinced Oswald is capable of terrible violence. Still, it’s the only means he can see of rescuing his friend.
I had my doubts about this book, but within only a few pages, those doubts were completely swept away. This story is as delightful as it is unexpected. Dicks, an elementary teacher by trade with a deeply insightful understanding of the imaginative minds of children, fully inhabits this strange world and brings it to sparkling life for his readers. I found the story fully believable, drawing readers into Budo’s unusual world and keeping them there for the duration, which sees many twists and turns before the final, heartrending conclusion.
Anyone with an interest in autism, a fondness for children and their amazing imaginations, or a love of unusual stories told well will find this book charming.