More adventures for precocious, adverbally-challenged Lola in Lauren Child’s I am too absolutely small for school. In this story, Lola’s big brother Charlie is trying to persuade her that she needs to join him in getting a school education. As usual, Lola has plenty of reasons why she doesn’t need to bother with all that classroom rubbish. In desperation, Charlie suggests that going to school will give her a chance to make lots of new friends. ‘But I have friends,’ Lola says. ‘I’ve got Soren Lorensen.’
Soren Lorensen is Lola’s ‘invisible friend’ or imaginary companion. No one knows what he looks like, but he is well known to the family. If Lola is coming up for school age (making her four or five), she is just entering the peak period for engagement with imaginary friends. Cleverly, Charlie points out that Soren Lorensen will be going to school and so will need Lola to go along to keep him company. Lola admits that Soren will be nervous about starting school, and so she will need to do the honourable thing. Really, of course, she is just using Soren as a mouthpiece for her own anxieties.
In her preface to the book, Lauren Child explains how the Soren Lorensen character came to be. Soren was the name of the brother of a little girl called Sofie, who made up an imaginary friend of the same name when her real big brother didn’t want to play with her. Calling your imaginary friend by the same name as your actual brother puts me in mind of the two sisters described by James Sully, who spent the afternoon wrapped in the elaborate pretence that they were… sisters. For young children, the real keeps intruding into the imaginary.
Lauren Child ends the preface with a note about this intriguing phenomenon. “The very nice thing about imaginary friends,” she writes, “is that they will always do what you want to do, and they will always be there when you need them.” It seems to stand to reason that the character we have invented for ourselves will be willing and compliant, but it’s not actually true. The foremost expert on imaginary companions, Marjorie Taylor, has written of the ‘illusion of independent agency’ which comes into play in children’s interactions with imaginary characters. Many children’s invisible friends do not do what they are told. Some, indeed, can be a bit hostile or creepy. Reflecting on how children’s imaginary friends can come to take on lives of their own, Taylor has drawn comparisons with a novelist’s creation of fictional characters which, in that curious way, soon fail to do the author’s bidding.
So if your child’s imaginary friend shows awful table manners, sulks when it can’t get its own way, or seems to have a social life of its own, you are just witnessing another aspect of a common developmental phenomenon. Who knows what social skills your child is learning as she tries to exert control over these intransigent mental creations?