by Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow Books, 1989
Kevin Henkes is one of my favorite author-illustrators for children. His perceptive, sometimes sly and snarky heroes and heroines are among the most engaging characters in picture book land. And his lovely little jewel-like illustrations beautifully capture the simultaneous limitations and limitlessness of a child’s world, both real and imagined.
So I was eager to read Jessica, which my daughter picked out on one of our many trips to the library. This picture book is actually the story of Ruthie, a headstrong little girl who ignores her parents’ insistence that her invisible friend Jessica is only imaginary.
Ruthie and Jessica do everything together–they play, visit Ruthie’s grandparents, and celebrate their birthdays. Meanwhile, Ruthie’s parents repeatedly and fruitlessly (and, in classic Henkes style, in increasingly larger fonts) try to convince their daughter that Jessica doesn’t exist.
Finally, it’s time for Ruthie to enter kindergarten, and her parents suggest a fresh start with new friends. As she has with all her parents’ previous naysaying, Ruthie simply ignores the idea. And this is where Henkes’ genius really shines through.
Most books would show the parents winning out somehow: Ruthie would get picked on for having an imaginary friend, she’d decide to be a “big girl” and move on, or she’d get so wrapped up in the excitement of kindergarten that she’d forget all about Jessica (for good). But, true to his own unique form, Henkes goes in another direction.
Partway through the day, at a point when the children are told to pair up, another little girl suddenly appears at Ruthie’s side. “May I be your partner?” she asks. “My name is Jessica.”
Take that, grown-ups.
From Ruthie’s perspective, her invisible friend has just materialized in front of her eyes. We adults (and any really perceptive kids) know that’s not exactly what’s happened, of course. But the universe has definitely just given Ruthie its stamp of approval.
The overall effect is one of poetic justice for Ruthie. She was right all along, even if she wasn’t. She ends up being rewarded for her imagination, loyalty, and tenacity, for her refusal to give up on something good that genuinely enriched her life.
Isn’t that what we want for our girls? For them to figure out what’s good in life, what truly enriches and is worth fighting for? Friendship, of the kind Ruthie has with Jessica, is definitely one of those things. And Ruthie has the wisdom to know it.
I also like Henkes’ handling of imagination here. In addition to celebrating and validating Ruthie’s very vivid imagination, he draws children into imagining along with her. Many of his illustrations include a physical space for Jessica so readers can picture her in their own way.
Overall, it’s a characteristic Henkes gem: charming but just a little edgy, with that lovely whisper to kids of “I understand you.” And, for any little girls who share Ruthie’s vigorous imagination, it’s also an inspiration to keep doing what they do best and to use their boundless minds to celebrate what’s good in life.