The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Picture books are complex, complex spaces that speak of something quite vibrant and distinct when they’re done right. They’re slim, ineffably potent things that tell story as though it is pared from their very heart; each word laden with a value that, through their sparing usage, becomes magic. Writing a picture book is easy. Writing a good one is hard.
The Adventures of Beekle : The Unimaginary Friend is something quite defiantly different. Pages read like Monsters Inc. meets The Yellow Submarine meets Where The Wild Things Are. I keep returning to that idea of defiance when I look at this book; those images that push right the way to the page edge, those double page spreads of dark, starlit nights, followed by double spreads of bright, airy yellow, devestating in its simplicity. Colour defines this book; wild and exuberant colour that wraps its way around sea-dragons and the urban darkness of the city marked by the defiant present of a vibrant blue-green imaginary friend in the corner. It is a book that is barely held within its pages, and there’s something rather delicious about that to me. From Shirley Hughes’ divine Alfie Steps In through to Sarah Bee and Satoshi Kitamura’s The Yes, I will always love books that make themselves a space in the world that is so very resolutely their own.
The Adventures of Beekle achieves that individuality both visually and also in its story; the tale of an unnamed individual and his search for his friend. Every imaginary friend has a special child who gives them their special name. The only problem is that his hasn’t turned up yet, and so he decides to set off and find her. Referred to throughout as ‘he’ and ‘his’, it is only upon meeting Alice, his friend, that this changes. She christens him as Beekle and the two of them become “perfect together”. Idyllic scenes follow, where Alice and Beekle have fun together to the tangible bafflement of onlookers, make friends with others, before finally sailing off into the distance all together, where: “they did the unimaginable.”
There’s some longer words here, and the ideas of negatives, that will maybe take a moment or two to work out together, but I tell you that with the caveat that this book is a grower. It’s one to root in the library or the bedroom and let it grow; let the story spill out and colonise the world around it. Some of the spreads are utterly delicious things, wild and characterful juxtapositions of light and dark, but always, always just on the not scary side of weird. It’s a fine art to have achieved such here, and Beekle does it in spades. I keep looking at the illustrations and finding something new, from the Super Mario-esque clouds through to the diverse characters, through to Beekle’s crown is held together by masking tape. This fervent tribute to the imagination, and to the power of stories and creativity, is a genuine delight and madly, madly moving at points. Small but mighty things happen in the best of picture books. I suspect this is one such beast.
My thanks to Andersen for the review copy.