The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf


By Katherine Applegate
Published by Feiwel and Friends, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-250-04323-8
Book Review
Things are changing at Jackson’s house. “Back in the old days, when we always had food in the house, I would whine if we were out of my favorite stuff. But lately we’ve been running out of everything.” He has good reason to be worried: his family once spent several months living out of their minivan. Just as he begins to piece the clues together about his family’s finances, Crenshaw, his imaginary friend, shows up for the first time in years. Jackson’s just not an imaginary friend kind of kid – he likes facts and figures, and science, and he’s about to enter the 5th grade. So why is Crenshaw the cat back and what can Jackson do to make him go away? Katherine Applegate’s beautiful novel is a story of friendship and family, of facing adversity and figuring out how to be honest with those you love most. It’s also a tale filled with familiar elements of 21st century American life: hunger and homelessness. This book is ideal for rich explorations of life and the imagination, as a portal into the financial challenges far too many Americans face, and as a rumination on the courage that each of us can find to face what life demands from us.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Grades 3 and Up
A Reading Duet: Beekle and Crenshaw. Before students read Crenshaw, read aloud Dan Santat’s 2015 Caldecott Award-winning picture book The Adventures of Beekle, about an “unimaginary” friend in search of a human. Have your students list all the valuable aspects of having an imaginary friend. Next, have your students consider the problems associated with having an imaginary friend. As you then make your way through Crenshaw, have students draw on connections between the two books. Periodically,have your students write about the events of the narrative from Crenshaw’s point-of-view, instead of Jackson’s.
A Reading Duet: Yard Sale and Crenshaw. In addition to or instead of focusing on imaginary friends as an introduction to the novel, explore the issue of downsizing and homelessness. Read aloud Yard Sale written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Lauren Castillo, about a family forced to move out of their home and into a very small apartment. As you read Crenshaw, ask your students to make connections between the experiences of Callie’s family in Yard Sale and Jackson’s family.
Author’s Craft: Definitions as Framing Devices. Each of the three parts of the novel is introduced with a quote from A Hole is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.  Why? We learn that the book was one of Jackson’s favorite books when he was younger. It is one of the books he chooses to keep when faced with moving. What connections does author Katherine Applegate suggest by selecting these particular quotes? Have your students read the book and discuss the various possibilities they uncover.
Reader’s Preferences: Facts vs. Stories, Nonfiction vs. Fiction. Are facts and stories in opposition to one another the way that Jackson presents them in the novel? On page 9, he says, “Facts are so much better than stories. You can’t see a story. You can’t hold it in your hand and measure it. You can’t hold a manatee in your hand either. But still. Stories are lies, when you get right down to it. And I don’t like being lied to.” How many of your studies prefer facts to stories? Does that mean they prefer nonfiction to fiction? Can fiction have facts? Can nonfiction have stories? Explore this idea throughout your school year as you make your way through various genres and themes in language arts.
Text to World Connections: Exploring Homelessness. Like it or not, every school community has students who are, have been, or will be homeless. Have students explore the issue of homelessness in book club format by reading Crenshaw, Hold Fast by Blue Balliet, How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’Connor, and Darnell Rock Reporting by Walter Dean Myers. As students make their way through the books, you might want to further explore the issue of homelessness in the United States, and compare and contrast the issues and dilemmas presented in the novels with the real life causes of homelessness. Resources listed below can help.
Text to Self Connections: Kids and Control. Perhaps one of the hardest things about being a kid is that you don’t always feel in control of your life. Adults are often telling you what to do. But what happens when the adults in your life don’t know what comes next? What if they can’t tell you what to do? Is that worse? Jackson confronts this situation on page 190 of the novel. He feels “twisted inside. Like I’d swallowed a knotted-up rope. It wasn’t about losing my stuff. Well okay. Maybe that was a little bit part of it. It wasn’t about feeling different from other kids. Well, okay. Maybe that was part of it too. What bothered me most, though, was that I couldn’t fix anything. I couldn’t control anything. It was like driving a bumper car without a steering wheel. I kept getting slammed, and I just had to hold on tight.” Have your students explore this bumper car simile further. Students could choose to write personal narratives about a time when they felt they had no control over their lives, or they could explore Jackson’s character further through literary analysis, or they could write their own short work of fiction about a character experiencing a similar lack of control. For all three types of writing, students could start with the same line from the novel: “It was like driving a bumper car without a steering wheel.”
Text to Self Connections: The Need to Know. Towards the end of the novel, Jackson reveals to Marisol that his family will soon be homeless, and that his long-lost imaginary friend has returned. Jackson is surprised that she doesn’t think he’s crazy. Instead, she embraces the mystery, and asks him on page 213, “Why do you have to understand everything, Jackson? I like not knowing everything. It makes things more interesting.” She encourages him to “enjoy the magic while you can.” What do your students think? How do they feel about embracing the mysteries of life? Do they feel the need to know and understand all that happens to them? Explore this idea through small or large group discussions, journal entries, or your class blog.
Visualization: The Giant Teachers Lounge. At the end of the novel, Crenshaw reveals to Jackson that imaginary friends from different people know one another. He tells Jackson to “[p]icture a giant teacher’s lounge. Lots of people waiting and snoozing and telling stories about exasperating, amazing children. That’s where I stay. That’s where I wait, just in case you need me…Imaginary friends are like books. We’re created, we’re enjoyed, we’re dog-eared and creased, and then we’re tucked away until we’re needed again.” Have your students draw or write (or both) their visualization of this giant teacher’s lounge. What do the imaginary friends look like? What are they doing in their free time? Students could also explore the metaphor about books. What books have your students returned to again and again? How do books help? 
Grades 6 – 8
Harvey and Crenshaw. For many middle schoolers, Crenshaw is a quick and fairly easy read. Such a book gives rise for many opportunities for students to do deeper critical thinking and more sophisticated analysis than they would with a book that takes more effort to read and comprehend. Have students read the book in whatever format makes sense: a whole-class read aloud, in book clubs, or individually. When students finish, have them debate whether or not Crenshaw is real. Have them next explore the concept of imaginary friends using some of the resources below. Finally, have students watch the 1950 movie Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart. Stewart portrays protagonist Elwood Dowd, who has an imaginary friend in the form of a six-foot-tall rabbit. Have students compare and contrast Crenshaw and Harvey the characters, and Crenshaw and Harvey the texts. Be sure to preview the movie to make sure it is appropriate for your particular group of students. The author suggests such a comparison when she quotes from the 1944 play Harvey at the start of the book.
Critical Literacy 
Social Studies and Language Arts: Researching Housing, Health, and Unemployment. In the novel, his father’s health is one of the reasons why Jackson’s family faces financial difficulties. Multiple sclerosis is a devastating disease that impacts each individual differently, and over time it is difficult for many people to continue to work. Jackson’s mother’s job as a public school music teacher was lost to budget cuts. Throughout the book, Jackson hears his parents arguing about whether or not they should be trying to “get help.” What help exists for families facing these problems? How do federal, state, and local government systems provide a safety net for families? How do they fail to do so? What shelters exist in your school community? Is the space sufficient? If not, where do homeless families go?  NPR’s collection of audio recordings about homelessness might be a good place to start. Have your students listen to different stories in small groups or pairs, and compare and contrast their findings. Students might also benefit from reading about one individual child’s experiences with homelessness through the New York Times three-part series on Dasani, published in 2013. Next, have your students further explore homelessness by researching available resources for unemployment and disability, starting with those listed below. You could include phone or Skype interviews with federal, state, or local government employees and those that work or volunteer at local shelters and food banks. As your students decide what formats they would like to use to share their newfound knowledge about these issues, have them consider how this range of multimodal resources helped to both scaffold their understanding of the issues and personally connect them with the experiences of the homeless.
Further Explorations
Online Resources 
“Imaginary Friends: Are Invisible Friends a Sign of Social Problems?”
“Pretend Friends”
NPR on Homelessness
New York Times feature “Invisible Child, Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life” 
National Alliance to End Homelessness
National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness
The National Coalition for the Homeless
United States Interagency Council on Homelessness
“Child Homelessness in U.S. Reaches Historic High Report Says,” Newsweek
“The Astonishing Decline of Homelessness in America,” The Atlantic
The Council for Disability Awareness
Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor
Unemployment Insurance, U.S. Department of Labor
Balliet, B. (2013). Hold fast. Scholastic.
Bunting, E. (2015). Yard sale. Illustrated by L. Castillo. Candlewick.
Krauss, R. (1952). A hole is to dig: A first book of first definitions. Illustrated by M. Sendak.  Harper Collins.
Myers, W. D. (1994/1996). Darnell Rock Reporting. Dell.
O’Connor, B. (2007). How to steal a dog. Square Fish.
Sanat, D. (2014). The adventures of Beekle: The unimaginary friend. Little, Brown and Company.

Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.


  1. This is a book I really want to read. I just read Confessions of an Imaginary friend which is a very imaginative story written from the perspective of an imaginary friend. It might make a good pairing as well.