During the climactic battle of The Imaginary, Amanda and her imaginary friend Rudger try to fend off the evil Mr. Bunting by hiding in an imaginary submarine in Amanda's hospital room. As Amanda and Mr. Bunting feverishly think of imaginary attacks and defenses, Amanda's real life hangs in the balance — which is kind of the point of The Imaginary: Just because something is imaginary doesn't mean it's not real.
Amanda and Rudger's story starts out simply enough. Amanda is a girl with a Big Imagination, so it's only a matter of time until Rudger, a perfect imaginary friend, appears in her closet. Amanda and Rudger have all sorts of adventures together, until creepy Mr. Bunting shows up, followed by his own, even creepier imaginary friend. Mr. Bunting is after Rudger, and when Amanda tries to save her best friend, she's hit by a car, knocked unconscious, and rushed to the hospital. Rudger, meanwhile, is left to fend for himself. What happens to an imaginary friend when its creator forgets it? In Rudger's case, he ends up investigating Mr. Bunting, discovering his nefarious habit of eating imaginary friends to keep himself young. Along the way, he finds an employment office of sorts for abandoned imaginary friends and a new appreciation for what a wonderful friend Amanda really is. Existential crisis notwithstanding, Rudger is a charming hero — an imaginary friend who (literally) takes on a life of his own as he hatches a plot to rescue Amanda and himself.
What's lovely about this book — and what sets it apart from other imaginary friend-based literature (in addition to Emily Gravett's solemn and delightful little illustrations) is that it treats imaginary friends seriously — both the twee, silly, happy side, and the dark, creepy, mysterious side. Because imagination really goes both ways, and anybody who's ever been afraid to fall asleep because of something you've imagined under the bed knows that there's a real dark side to a wonderful imagination. Harrold plays that balance perfectly, dancing lightly from Roald Dahl adventure to Neil Gaiman darkness without stepping too heavily on either side. This book could be a good pick for middle readers who like things a little spooky or for older readers who aren't put off by whimsy. It also makes a nice readaloud, though you may want to assure particularly nervous youngsters that a happy ending is coming during the scarier bits near the conclusion.
AMY SHARONY is the founder and editor-in-chief of home | school | life magazine. She's a pretty nice person until someone starts pluralizing things with apostrophes, but then all bets are off.