The Imaginary by A. F. Harrold is the story of Rudger, Amanda Shuffleup’s imaginary friend. The two are happy being best friends until Mr. Bunting comes along. Unlike other adults, he can see Rudger and other imaginaries; worse, he eats them. When Amanda is injured and sent to the hospital, Rudger finds himself alone, trying to escape Mr. Bunting and trying to get back to Amanda before he fades from existence.
For the most part, The Imaginary is a tense, absorbing read. Amanda is a somewhat tomboyish girl who builds all kinds of imaginary worlds for herself and for her friend, and she has a real bond with Rudger. Mr. Bunting is a terrifying enemy, relentless and ruthless in his pursuit. It is impossible not to wonder “What happens next?” and not to root for Rudger in his quest. For the majority of the book, I was enthralled. Also, there is an intelligent cat who serves as a guide for part of the time. I approve of intelligent cats.
The trouble emerges late in the book when Rudger has the rules of imaginary life somewhat confusingly explained to him. It is confusing both for Rudger and for the reader as his source is not sure of all of her information, so it is hard to say if subsequent lapses arise from an imperfectly developed system or from the speaker’s unreliability. Will Amanda die if Rudger is eaten? It is not clear. How does the matching of imaginaries to children work? Here, the only clear thing is that Rudger’s source is wrong about some of the details.
Then Rudger finds himself paired with another girl, one who actually prefers playing with dolls and dollhouses to going outside and building worlds and who wants an imaginary girl for a friend rather than a boy. This would not, in and of itself, be a problem if Julia were not so clearly portrayed as the wrong sort of girl, as though strictly girly types were a bad thing. She also does not get much development, as her primary purpose is to get Rudger from Point A to Point B.
After this, the story picks up again and races to the end in a satisfactory fashion.
Emily Gravett’s atmospheric illustrations enhance the text throughout. Her portrait of Mr. Bunting is chilling, but she also provides images of Rudger’s gentler adventures. The images are largely black-and-white, but there are times when she uses a splash of color for emphasis.
The Imaginary is recommended for children who like tense, somewhat scary books—Mr. Bunting is not for the faint of heart. It is also a book that adults may find more horrifying than children: Mr. Bunting eats childhood. That is far more horrifying from this side of the divide than it would be on the other.
The Imaginary comes out March 3, 2015 from Bloomsbury USA Childrens.