When I was a little kid, I had an imaginary friend named Zolo who was a real asshole. Zolo was snub-nosed and furry. He had wings that didn’t seem to be operational—or if they were, they never seemed to function when I was around—and had a very long tail. He was brown and chubby, like an overfed bear—the tail and the wings and the distinctly nonbearish face notwithstanding. Also, he smoked cigarettes, one after another, which kids today probably don’t see in their imaginary friends, but I think was a fairly normal thing to a child of the seventies.
Zolo always had excellent ideas. Like the time I put peanut butter on the baby’s feet to see if she’d notice. (She did.) Zolo didn’t think I’d get in trouble. (You bet I did.) Or the time Zolo convinced me to turn my bed into a trampoline. (My nose is still crooked from the colossal crash.) Or the time I couldn’t open the porch doors made from ancient, wobbly leaded glass, and since my mom was changing the baby’s diaper, I backed up two rooms, held my arm straight out, and charged at the glass doors at a run. (The wood floor is probably still bloodstained after all these years, and I still have the scar, slithering like a snake down my arm.) Every time, there was Zolo, in the background, laughing.
Children’s literature, like my ridiculous childhood imagination, is lousy with helpmeets like Zolo—the enigmatic, the irascible, the incorrigible, the curmudgeonly, and the downright rude. And the sometimes dangerous. Perhaps this is because children, in their core, know that help can come from all kinds of people—even jerks. And that anyone, even a friend, should be regarded warily, like a beloved dog who sometimes bites.