'The Imaginary' takes me back

Wimaginaryhile I was reading The Imaginary, I started thinking about what it is I love about British literature. Why do I love Jane Austen — or even Jon Butterworth — so much, but the acclaimed Alice Munro leaves me a little cold? (Sorry. I just read Dear Life for my book group, so she's on the brain. I could have mentioned a host of North American authors.)

The Imaginary put me back in my 7-year-old body on my father's lap in his ugly green recliner. It dawns on me now that I have no idea why he would have chosen a green recliner. He still hates green. Reminds him of the Army. But that is another story.

We read all kinds of books on Saturday nights — right before we watched Happy Days and The Dukes of Hazard. Mine was a well-rounded childhood.

And while I kept my eye on Dad's watch, determined not to miss my shows, I also looked forward to those sessions.

We read the entire Chronicles of Narnia, plus The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land, a Christian analysis of the books. (This probably started me on a path to the armchair theologian I am today. Hmmm.)

In an O. Henry moment, we also read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. My dad only recently told me that Alice wasn't his favorite. He read it for me. It wasn't my favorite, either. You know where this is going.

Anyway, Lewis and Carroll and probably others I don't recall gave me a love of the cadences of British English, the turns of phrase, even the spellings.

The Imaginary is more Roald Dahl — who I don't remember reading as a child — than Lewis, but it evokes the same feeling in me. And I think it's A.F. Harrold's use of language.

The Imaginary is darker, creepier. Or is it?

I worry that this book might be too much for young readers, but is Mr. Bunting (spoiler, sorry) really worse than the White Witch? Is the final showdown scarier than Aslan dying (again, sorry) or the entire book The Last Battle?

I'm not sure. What's the same is this: The Imaginary is a book parents and kids should read together. Like so many books.

Here's my review, most of which was originally published on News for Shoppers.

In The Imaginary, English author and poet A.F. Harrold and award-winning illustrator Emily Gravett take the tradition of dark, impertinent British children's literature to the intersection between the real and the imagined.

The Imaginary, which is published by Bloomsbury USA Children's Books, is 224 pages. The hardcover edition retails for $16.99 but is currently available for preorder for $12.56 at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. The book releases Tuesday, March 3.

For some reason, Amazon has the book listed for 3- to 6-year-olds. The book is inappropriate for that age group. The publisher is gearing the book for ages 8 to 12.


Amanda Shuffleup is a young girl who dreams up her new friend, Rudger. Her father is dead, and her mother is the sort of person who is caring but just a little neglectful.

Amanda and Rudger get into trouble, get separated, and Rudger has to find his way back to Amanda before he Fades (with a capital F). He also has to save Amanda from the villain of the story.

Why you might want to buy The Imaginary:

Harrold has written a charming book, and Gravett has rendered it beautifully.

The characters in the book are surprisingly complex. Amanda, the little girl gifted with an enormous imagination, is no angel. Her mother has her own troubles, and even the villain has his reasons.

The writing is both fun and funny.

What makes this is a standout is the depiction of the imaginary world — both how it exists on its own and how it cannot sustain itself.

Harrold is continually shifting perspective in the book. We see the world mostly from Rudger's perspective, but we also get inside the head of Amanda, and those around her who can't see Rudger.

It seldom dips into the sentimental, which is a feat considering the subject.

It's impossible — or at least it was for me — to read the book without imagining that it will be made into a movie. So you might want to get ahead of the crowd.

Why you might not want to buy The Imaginary:

This is a dark book. There is death, danger, and violence. While it's not extremely graphic, Harrold doesn't hold back, and neither does Gravett. Some children may not be able handle it. And you may not want them to.

Amanda isn't always nice, just like every real kid. Rudger loves her dearly, but their relationship could be perceived as abusive. That wouldn't keep me from buying this book, but it would mean talking to my kids about it.

The plot isn't particularly original. This is a good versus bad story. There are few surprises, but Harrold manages to build anticipation, and for the most part, he keeps it going.

My conclusions:

I really enjoyed The Imaginary. Its quirky dark side appealed to me, as did its rejection of perfect children.

I loved the world Harrold created, as well as the frequent shifts of point of view.

I don't think it's for every child, and the dark parts of this book are especially creepy.

I would not buy this as an ebook, however. The illustrations often span two pages, and reading it on a device just isn't the same. On mine, it took several seconds to load the illustrations, which meant getting stuck just as tension was building. Shell out the few extra bucks for the print version.

Full disclosure: I read this book via Netgalley, where the publisher provided a free, temporary copy. I was not required to write a positive review. This is my honest opinion.