Imaginary Friends and Real Problems: Katherine Applegate’s Crenshaw

BookendsLynn: Katherine Applegate prefaces the three parts of her new book, Crenshaw (2015) with quotes from one my favorite childhood books, Ruth Krauss’ A Hole is to Dig (1952). The quote from part three seemed exceptionally important to me:

“The world is so you have something to stand on.”

Crenshaw by Katherine ApplegateMeet Jackson, soon to be a fifth-grader. Jackson likes facts—true stuff—and wants to grow up to be an animal scientist. He works hard at being normal because, as he says, “at my age, it’s not good to have a reputation for being crazy.” But Jackson has serious worries. He’s starting to see his imaginary friend from childhood, Crenshaw the cat. There are bigger, deeper, scarier things that Jackson is worried about too, such as whether he and his family are going to become homeless again. Jackson’s world is becoming something he can’t depend on, and that’s the scariest thing of all.

Like many grown-ups, Jackson’s parents put on smiling faces and assure him nothing is wrong, but Jackson isn’t fooled. He remembers all too well the 14 months his family spent living in their minivan. He remembers how tired he was of playing “cerealball”—a game designed to fool the stomach when there’s nothing much to eat. And he knows what happens next when so many of their scant belongings have been sold in a yard sale.

Applegate’s portrayal of Jackson’s fear, helplessness,
and anger went straight to my heart.

The ground under Jackson’s feet is wobbly and he longs above all for the truth from his parents and for some control over the things that are beyond his control. So many children experience these things, and I salute Applegate for this portrait of a family working hard yet just not being able to make it. Jackson’s parents hold multiple jobs and yet simply can’t pay all their bills. Jackson’s father is too proud to ask for help, stubbornness so many children will recognize. Applegate’s portrayal of Jackson’s fear, helplessness, and anger went straight to my heart. Like so many kids, he yearns for something to stand on.

Cindy: One of my favorite characters in teen literature is Raspberry Hill from Sharon Flake’s Money Hungry (2001). Raspberry is a girl who desperately doesn’t want to be homeless again, and I thought of her as I read Jackson’s story for younger audiences. We have many children in our schools and libraries who lead these lives of quiet desperation, many of whom could use the companionship of an imaginary friend like Crenshaw to help them through tough times. Jackson picked the name Crenshaw for his friend when it popped into his head and seemed like “a clean sheet of paper before you draw on it. It was an anything-is-possible kind of name.”

We have many children in our schools and libraries
who lead these lives of quiet desperation.

As much as Jackson wants his parents to tell him the truth, he is also reluctant to speak about their situation. He thinks, “if I never talked about it, I felt like it couldn’t ever happen again.” It is Crenshaw (much like the tree in Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls) who forces Jackson to confront his situation with truth. Fans of the Pearl family in Blue Balliett’s Hold Fast, or those who cheered for Ivan’s search for a better living arrangement in Applegate’s Newbery winner The One and Only Ivan, will naturally be drawn to Crenshaw. Sometimes, books comfort us in ways other things can’t. This book will surely help young readers in difficult situations.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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