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Less-Than-Likely Friendships

Gretchen Kelley

How an Imaginary Cat, a Plastic Ball and a Jazz Band Can Teach us a Little-Bit-More about the Less-Than-Likely Friendships

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Illustration by Paul O. Zelinsky from “Toys Go Out” by Emily Jenkins

Winnie-the-Pooh once famously told his best friend, Christopher Robin, “I knew when I met you, an adventure was going to happen.” And no one will ever forget when Charlotte said to Wilbur, “You have been my friend. That alone is a tremendous thing.” From a bear and his boy to a pig and a spider, we have all discovered those books that have imprinted on our hearts forever, because of the relationships that play out between the pages. Whether it’s against the backdrop of a grand adventure, a family conflict, solving a mystery, or slogging through a not-so-great school year, we find characters finding themselves through the common threads that connect them to each other, and ultimately, to us.

But what about the more unexpected friendships? The ones that aren’t discovered on the playground, in the classroom, or even the barnyard?  Though we may think of friendships as the things that grow from our similarities, what about the ones that grow out of our differences?  In Toys Go Out, Crenshaw and Bud, Not Buddy, we get to watch these sorts of friendships in the making. And while all three of these books feature gorgeous prose and meaningful messages, it’s the journey into these very unlikely relationships that invite us to look at friendship through a different lens, an unlikely mirror.

In Emily Jenkins’ Toys Go Out, we meet three toys who seem only to be connected because of their love for the little girl whose bedroom they share. But soon, it becomes clear that what they don’t have in common is what bonds them to each other. Knowledgeable StingRay – the pragmatic and de facto leader of the group – realizes that life is very “un-bouncy” when whimsical Plastic goes off to find herself at the beach. Lumphy, the courageous stuffed buffalo, is crestfallen when he loses his tail in an accident, only to later be convinced by a normally unopinionated Plastic that, “he looks tougher without it.” And Plastic, who spends most of the book trying to figure out what or who she really is, eventually turns to StingRay for the reassurance she needs, because maybe StingRay isn’t just “saying she knows things when she doesn’t” and actually has everyone’s best interest at heart. Though these friendships may seem unlikely, one thing they show us is for certain: sometimes seeing ourselves through someone else’s eyes is the only way we can discover who we really are.

In Katherine Applegate’s book, Crenshaw, we watch another unlikely relationship unfold. Young Jackson and a bubble-bath taking, surfboard-riding, umbrella-toting cat don’t seem to have much in common, except they both like purple jelly beans. Jackson is nervous, rooted in facts, and constantly on the verge of being homeless. Crenshaw (the cat) is confident, creative, and finds home to be anywhere he shows up. And, he’s imaginary – while Jackson, very clearly, is not. Jackson, who knows that “there’s always a logical explanation” for everything, can’t find one for his friendship with Crenshaw. But Crenshaw can.

“Remember when you stole the yo-yo back when you were five?” Crenshaw asked.

“When my parents caught me, I tried to blame it on you.”

“Everyone always blames the imaginary friend.”

Though the friendship that develops between this very large, imaginary cat, and a very practical human boy is unlikely, it’s the kind of unconditional friendship we all wish and wait and yearn for. Crenshaw sums it up nicely when he tells Jackson, “Imaginary friends are like books. We’re enjoyed, we’re dog-eared and creased. And then, we’re tucked away until we’re needed again.” Crenshaw knows when Jackson needs him – even when Jackson doesn’t.

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“Bud, Not Buddy” National Theatre playbill cover art, based on the book by Christopher Paul Curtis

Sometimes the unexpected friendships are the ones that help us see ourselves differently, as in Toys Go Out, or the ones we can tuck away until we need them again, like in Crenshaw. But what about the friendships that happen when we are looking for something else entirely? In Bud, Not Buddy, ten-year old Bud is on a quest to find his missing father but finds Herman E. Calloway and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression instead. Bud has never really had friends. And all he’s ever really wanted was a family. But when the guys in the Dusky Devastators jazz band start teasing him the way only true friends can, something shifts inside him.

“All of a sudden I knew that of all of the places in the world

that I’d ever been in this was the one.

That of all the people I’d ever met these were the ones.

This was where I was supposed to be.”

Though the unlikely friendship he makes with the band is not at all what Bud is looking for, it’s exactly what he needs. He needs it so much that his eyes that “don’t cry no more” squeak open and tears start jumping out right in the middle of the Sweet Pea restaurant when the bandmates begin to treat him like he’s one of them. He needs it so much that when Steady Eddie suggests his band name be Sleepy LaBone, Bud can’t “tie the smile down anymore.” He knew a name like that would make him want to practice his new instrument four hours every day just so he could live up to it. He needs these friends in order to belong. And for the first time in Bud’s life, what he belongs to suddenly matters less than who.

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“Crenshaw” by Katherine Applegate, Indonesian print cover by Agung Wulandana

Throughout the book Crenshaw, Jackson struggles with certain facts – his family is once again homeless, he can’t fix everything, he’s talking to an imaginary cat.  Toward the end of the book, Crenshaw tells him, “Tell the truth to the person who matters most. You.” Maybe that’s the key to the best friendships. They are the ones that force us to look at ourselves from a different angle, through a different prism, in a different light. They are the friendships – no matter how unlikely – that dare us to be our true selves. And like us even more for doing so.

A bouncy ball, an imaginary cat, and a group of old jazz musicians certainly taught us that.

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