It’s summer, and summer, for a lot of us, is a time for family visits, especially those families outside our own city or state. So I’ve picked a read-aloud book – although it can be read alone by any brave child from ten to fourteen, the experience is all the richer when read snuggled up to a parent, grandparent or any other at-hand relative. A. F. Harrold’s The Imaginary would especially benefit from a campfire or at least a nighttime well-fallen.
How many of us remember as kids filling up our empty spaces with imaginary friends? Not all such beings come directly from our conscious imagination. Some, like Amanda’s friend Rudger, simply appear without invitation. Amanda is not aware of Rudger’s presence until she throws a pair of muddy shoes into her wardrobe where Rudger stands, already holding the coat Amanda has tossed in the same wardrobe only minutes earlier. When the shoes “bounced off his stomach and fell to the carpet,” Rudger says, “Oof.” And so the story begins.
Not only does Amanda not know how Rudger came to be in her wardrobe, but Rudger himself doesn’t know how he got there, or even where he’d been before. It’s not long before Amanda takes Rudger everywhere with her. To school, where he is imaginatively introduced to her friends, and even to the breakfast table, where Amanda’s mother has begun to set a place for him. Everything is pretty okay until trouble appears in the person of Mr. Bunting – and of the very pale, evil little girl who is his sidekick.
Since children won’t be reading this review, I have no fear of presenting a spoiler in saying that ugly and weird Mr. Bunting’s goal in life is to hunt down imaginaries like Rudger and suck them up. Yuk. Bunting has the most awful teeth that are a part of a mouth big enough to fit over the head of an imaginary, and then he sucks. He needs to consume imaginaries in order to live. Initially, Amanda is Rudger’s first line of defense. She stands between Bunting and Rudger, until one day she is struck by a car, seriously injured and taken to a hospital. Bunting is nearby, so poor Rudger takes off, finally finding refuge in a public library. Like libraries all over the world, the library Rudger runs into is filled with imagination, but even more miraculous, it is filled with other imaginaries!
Harrod writes a gruesomely delicious tale appropriate for the marketed age group and any adult. What happens to Rudger as he searches for Amanda? Who are the imaginaries he meets at the library? Where do imaginaries go when children no longer need them? Artist Emily Gravett adds to Harrod’s story by using color in startling displays within her darkly drawn illustrations.
I know I’ll be revisiting my copy of The Imaginary. Not only do I have one grandchild almost ready for it and a few others who will be shortly, but the topics of imagination, fear, and friendship are never meant for only one age group. I promise, The Imaginary is a keeper. – Sunny Solomon