Friday, October 7, 2016


by Katherine Applegate
Recommended Ages: 10+

Jackson, a fifth-grader, is a bit too old to have an imaginary friend. At least he thinks so. Also, he is a very fact-oriented kid, who wants to be an animal scientist someday. So he naturally takes it as a sign he is losing his mind when his all-but-forgotten imaginary friend Crenshaw, last seen in first grade, turns up again.

Crenshaw is a tall - taller than Jackson - anthropomorphic cat of the black-and-white tuxedo persuasion. He isn't a typical cat, for reasons besides his size, his taste in T-shirts, and his ability to walk upright. Crenshaw can speak, snap his fingers, surf, skateboard, and parasail using an umbrella. He likes taking bubble baths and has an inexplicable taste for purple jellybeans. Also, Jackson's dog Aretha can see him.

Jackson tells Crenshaw he doesn't exist, but the cat begs to differ. He tells Crenshaw he wants him to go away, but Crenshaw insists he is only there because Jackson summoned him. Like all good imaginary friends, Crenshaw never entirely goes away, but always waits in case he is needed again. And right now, Jackson needs him.

Jackson needs Crenshaw to remind him to be honest with the person who matters the most. Is that his father, who lost his full-time job when he became ill with multiple sclerosis? Is it his mother, who works three jobs but still can't quite pay the rent or utility bills? Is it little sister Robin, who is frightened of sleeping alone in her empty room after all her stuff, except a few favorite keepsakes, was put in a yard sale? Is it the girl down the street, with whom Jackson shares a dog-walking business? Who?

Someone certainly needs to hear the honest truth during a confusing time when there is never any food in the house and the family may be about to become homeless... again. The last time Crenshaw appeared was during a 14-month stint the family spent living in their minivan. Jackson is tired of his parents not trusting him with the truth. But Crenshaw seems to be there to remind Jackson to tell the truth himself.

Crenshaw is a clean, direct, touching story about an ordinary American family living on the edge of hunger and homelessness. It has endearing characters, moments of wonderful fun and magic, and a backbone of courage flexing in it, finding its strength. Without shrillness or blame, it lays open to the reader a sympathetic case of a family dealing with problems that are not their fault. Jackson's parents have admirable qualities that make their plight even more poignant, such as their incessant but sometimes self-deceiving cheerfulness, and the pride that prevents them from accepting outside help even when it is available. Jackson himself has flaws - like the occasional lying and shoplifting - for which he suffers pangs of conscience later. The conclusion is left there for you to draw: This could happen to anyone. It's happening to a lot of people right now. But Crenshaw represents a magic that a boy like Jackson needs to believe in, while he still can - a magic that just might be described as hope.

Katherine Applegate, also known as K.A. Applegate among several other pen-names, is best known as the author of the Nickelodeon-TV-series-inspiring "Animorphs" series, of which there were eventually 52 books plus companion volumes - though most of the second half of the series was ghost-written. She also won the 2013 Newbery Medal for her novel The One and Only Ivan, and has co-written several books with her husband Michael Grant, author of the "Gone" series. Her long list of titles includes several series of tween romance novels, the fantasy-thriller "Everworld" and "Remnants" series, the standalone novels Sharing Sam and Home of the Brave, a couple picture books, and the lower-grades' chapter-book series "Roscoe Riley Rules," which begins with Never Glue Your Friends to Chairs. Excuse me for saying it, but she seems to specialize in disposable junk. It's nice to see her stretching herself a bit.

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