I’d like to introduce you to my new, powerful, marshmallow-y muse, Beekle. The first time I read “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend” (Beekle) by Dan Santat I knew I was being introduced to so much more than a children’s picture book about friendship. Sure I was dumbstruck by the beauty, color, and space within the illustrations, but it was more than that, Beekle, it turns out, is a guide of sorts. An internal guide for helping you stay connected to ways of being that speak to the heart. Since that first reading, Beekle has helped me strengthen my resolve, guided me in difficult times, and bolstered me against nay-sayers and doomsdayers. In essence, this new muse Mr. Santat has created has helped me see clearly in times of self-doubt.
Now, I know self-doubt can be the fuel leaders need in order to ask tough questions and create long lasting changes in the world, but it is not always a comfortable state of being. It can often help to reach for answers or parables to guide oneself. However, instead of reaching for a leadership tomb about how to best harness those questions for positive change, I found myself reaching for Beekle!
It wasn’t long until I was suggesting others do the same. A friend mentioned he was searching for a more impactful way to inspire others, to which I responded by saying, “I know just the book you need! Read “Beekle” closely, for it’s not just a story about friendship – it’s a story that will remind you to honor your creative vision and if you do, others will follow.” Then another leader mentioned she was finding it hard to be as engaged in the mission she worked for, to which I said, “I know just the book you need! Read “Beekle” closely, for it’s not just a story about friendship – it’s a story that will remind you of the importance of finding and naming your passion so that you will better understand the depth and bounds of your willingness for being a leader.” After recommending this book multiple times, here is why I think “Beekle” belongs next to the other great leadership books on your shelf.
At the start of the book, there is an imaginary being, living on a beautiful island where imaginary beings are created. The being is waiting and waiting to be imagined by a real child. He watches as he sees other beings beamed up out of imagination-land to be with the friend who imagined them. As you turn the page you are met with a two-page spread of yellow sand. In one corner stands a tiny one-eyed hermit crab with a shovel, and in the other stands the marshmallow-y being next to some sand castles with the words, “But his turn never came.” The scene is a bit jarring at first because there is so much empty space. The illustration conveys, with such poignancy, a feeling of disconnectedness and loneliness, perhaps a natural state for a hermit crab, but not for the being. The shear amount of open space elicited a sense of stillness, a wonderful feeling when you can eliminate distraction and see clearly, but the yellow color filled me with a sense of anxiousness, knowing that a choice was around the corner. A choice filled with risk and possibility, a proverbial crossroads.
On the next page the being imagines all the amazing things that are keeping his friend from imagining him. Awards being won, books being read, music lessons, juggling, baking, essentially, life happening. When I thought about what sort of imaginary beings adults create within themselves as guides, I realized this squishy, friendly, marshmallow-y guy could be seen as the embodiment of my own internal passion or purpose. I identified with the feelings of the being and those times when I don’t see my own passion clearly. We all experience life happening and what it feels like when we don’t have time to dedicate to a passion. But the depiction of this little being on this page filled me with a sense of hope. Hope that, even as I continue experiencing life fully, my own internal passion or sense of purpose will come looking for me.
The being gets tired of waiting at this crossroads, so he musters courage, by thinking about his potential friend, to do the unimaginable: sailing through scary waters and unknown things into the real world.
When he reaches the real world, it is a grey place where adults eat cake without joy, music streams past without notice and adults seem to need a nap. The adults are all doing things that children easily see as joyful: eating cake, playing or listening to music, riding a train. But all the adults in the illustrations show no joy as they do these things, which is very puzzling to the being.
At this stage in my life I have had the pleasure of knowing the difference between when I am with adults who are leading with joy or openness and those who are perhaps only motivated by the goal or mission, but doing so without joy or openness. I’m reminded that in order for my passion to find me, I must honor that many experiences, both successes and failures, are reflected in determining what passion or pursuit will speak to my heart. In other words, I must be open. Open to experiences, open to ideas, open to voices different from my own. The being knows none of the grey adults are the friend he is looking for because there is no joy, no openness, no color. I’m not sure which comes first, joy or openness, but for me, they are closely related, one often eliciting the other.
Then the being sees something familiar and follows it. The being enters into a colorful land of play and make-believe but everyone seems to already be playing with friends and the path he takes does not lead him to his own friend. At times of disconnectedness I have found myself looking around at others who are deeply engaged, caring for others, purposefully seeking knowledge in order to grow, or creating objects to improve the world, and I’m reminded we are all passionate beings wanting or waiting for a sense of purpose to find us. He then climbs to the top of a star-leaf tree where children are playing. As the sun sets and the kids run home, no one came for him and “he thought about how far he’d come and how long he’d waited, and felt very sad.”
Then he heard a noise say, “Hello!” from down below. A little girl was pointing to a piece of paper that was stuck in the tree. He reached over and brought the picture down to the girl. The handing over of the picture is illustrated across two pages, no words, with the being at the bottom of the tree trunk, holding out the picture, and the girl at the base of the tree, reaching to accept it. This is the moment of connection we are looking for within ourselves. On the next page the girl opens the picture she was drawing, and it is of that exact moment. A meta-moment, reminding us that this moment can be difficult to spot and hold onto, but when you spot it, just as the being noticed, it will seem friendly and familiar and feel just right.
Then the imaginary being gets to know the girl. At first they didn’t know what to do, neither of them had made a friend before. The illustrations show them trying to shake hands, but using the wrong hands, then the girl opens up her arms for a hug, but the being tried shaking, then the being opened up his arms to hug, and the girl offers her hand. When I think about my passion or purpose finding me I sometimes am not sure what to do next. This moment of awkward meeting reminds me to trust my passion and keep trying to find the best ways to know it and bring it forth.
The being and the girl were both a little frustrated, but then started to giggle. Another ingredient often neglected in finding purpose – humor. The girl then shares her name, Alice. But the imaginary being doesn’t know his name and his face blushes because he doesn’t have an answer. Alice then reaches her hand out and names him Beekle. The being says, “I’m Beekle!” with his arms thrown wide. Alice throws her arms wide and says, “Hi Beekle!” and they hug one another. This is one of the most powerful passages in the book, reminding me to take notice of my passion and name it. Beekle and Alice have many adventures together, they share snacks, tell jokes others don’t understand, and lay together day dreaming and drawing when, “The world began to feel a little less strange.”
I liken the feeling when Alice names Beekle and the world begins to feel a “little less strange” to that inner light great leaders let shine when they move through the world. The phrase touched me deeply because that is how it feels when my passion is guiding my actions and I’m working toward creating meaningful change. Once Alice is connected to Beekle, she then focuses her talents and gives attention to drawing with joy, drawing with humor, drawing with passion. She is guided by her inner passion, her inner-Beekle. When we can stay focused on our own passion, by whatever means possible, i.e. building, creating, making, the imaginary can help us transform the world before us.
Then, a boy and his imaginary friend walk up to Alice and Beekle. Alice sits on the ground surrounded by the pictures she has been drawing. The boy looks hesitant, but smiles and holds up a hand in greeting while Beekle and the boy’s imaginary being begin to play with one another. The line on the next page reads, “And together they did the unimaginable.” The illustration shows Alice and Beekle at the helm of a sailing ship, with the boy and his imaginary friend aboard, along with three other children, as an imaginary whale carries them away and other imaginary beings wave and smile. Together they voyage into unchartered lands.
I know when I’m guided by passion and purpose, others will appear, even if they cannot see a clear vision. Many leaders connect ideas very quickly. But a visionary leader knows how to bring others aboard, to inspire others to act, even when others don’t yet see. Beekle reminds me to honor my passion, stay guided by it, and others, with similar visions and purpose, will be drawn toward me and together we can set sail in “unimaginary” ways.
I was simply giddy when I read this book, not only for the joy children would feel, but I also knew it was a powerful story. A reminder to be open and have hope while experiencing the world in order to allow your passion to find you, to trust your passion when your heart feels it, to name it, and stay connected with joy and humor, allowing it to come into the world, honoring it with attention and action, ultimately drawing other like-minded friends aboard, so that together, the unimaginable can become real.
Hope, Passion, Courage, Openness, Joy, Humor, Connectedness, Trust, Attention, Togetherness – a great list of leadership traits, if there ever was one. Not surprisingly, it is the well-deserved 2015 Caldecott Award winner. Read “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend” by Dan Santat closely, for it’s not just a story about friendship, it’s a story about leadership.