Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book Review: Jessica by Kevin Henkes (1989)

I had not thought about this book in years, until I discovered that my library owned a copy. And then I was not only pleased to see an old familiar title still being read by kids today, but surprised and delighted to learn it was written by Kevin Henkes! For whatever reason, I associate Henkes with a newer age of picture books, books I was too old to read by the time they were published, like Chrysanthemum (published in 1991 when I was 8), Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse  (1996), and Wemberly Worried (2000). I didn't realize he'd actually been on the scene since the early 80's, and therefore never associated him with Jessica.

That said, whether I knew of the author or not, I can remember being very fond of this book when I was younger, and I'm just as fond of it now, reading it with an adult perspective.

Ruthie Simms didn't have a dog.
She didn't have a cat,
or a brother
or a sister.
But Jessica was even better.

So begins this simple story of friendship between a girl and her imaginary friend.

One of the first things I thought about when I was reading this was all the white space on the pages. I very distinctly remembered imagining that space as Jessica's part of the world, the unseen, imaginary part. Though most people - including Ruthie's parents - can't see Jessica, I always imagined her there in those white areas, participating in the activity at hand, visible only to the eyes of her playmate. I'm not sure I could see it that way now, if not for the memory of my childhood reading of the story.

I also picked up on a few things I missed as a child. For one thing, in the illustration of Ruthie's and Jessica's block towers, Jessica's name is spelled incorrectly, with a K, hinting subtly at Ruthie's ignorance of the proper spelling of her friend's name. I also loved the way the words "And if Ruthie was glad, Jessica felt exactly the same" come dancing out of Ruthie's trumpet, as though they are the music. I can remember feeling especially triumphant when I read those words, and I'm sure their concrete poetry style contributed to that.

The other thing I considered was the reaction of Ruthie's parents to her imaginary friend. I was surprised at how insistent they were that Ruthie stop believing in Jessica, and that she leave Jessica at home when school begins. I had many imaginary friends when I was preschool-aged, and I think my family just sort of let me pretend. I'm not sure what to make of these parents who feel it's necessary to point out Jessica's non-existence so often. It obviously worked in the story, though, because my 6 year old self believed in it wholeheartedly.

Overall, what I love about this book is its unique way of tackling an experience so many kids have - believing in, and eventually abandoning imaginary friends. I absolutely loved the fact that Ruthie makes a real friend at school whose name is Jessica. I had an imaginary friend in childhood whose name - Lena Farina - appeared in the obituaries when I was in high school, so I'm especially intrigued by the notion of imaginary friends who somehow show up in real life. I also liked that Ruthie relinquishes the imaginary Jessica on her own terms, and that the experience isn't traumatic and scarring, but a positive coming of age experience that sets Ruthie on the path toward growing up. The repetition of the opening paragraph on the last page really brings the story full circle to a very emotionally satisfying ending.

Henkes does this kind of story so well - and apparently he was doing so way back when, in 1988! This book doesn't feel dated in the least, and I can imagine kids still relating to it quite easily. A really good one, worth visiting and revisiting.


  1. My oldest daughter was born in 1988. I bought this book for her before she even turned a year old. Since then, I've had (or adopted) seven more children and I've read Jessica to every single one of them. I LOVE Jessice....and Kevin Henkes.

  2. I love this story! My daughters and I checked it out of the library a couple of months ago, and I blogged about it. It's such a sweet story.

  3. Dawn - It's definitely one of those timeless books. I'm sure when I have kids, I'll read it to them as well!

    Callie - I'll have to check out your blog post about it. I have such fond memories of it, and there aren't many other books like it that come to mind.