Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold, Emily Gravett

My daughter's imaginary friend, "Fred," lived in her little finger and she would talk to her pinky on a daily basis. Fred helped her deal with different emotions. Her imaginary friend was her way of working through reality. "Fred, that's a no-no," she'd scold. "You get hurt." She'd be mimicking me at times or working through socializing with a playmate that was two years old like her. Years of research shows that imaginary friends are important in child development and here is an unusual book that creates a character, Amanda Shuffleup, who is so good with her imagination that she dreams up an imaginary friend, Rudger, who blurs the line between what is real and what is not. Her creative play draws the unwanted attention of an evil man, Mr. Bunting, who feeds off others imaginations.

Amanda's imaginary friend, Rudger, gets annoyed because she doesn't care about his thoughts and feelings, especially in the beginning. This irony adds humor as he is not real and she doesn't really have to think about his feelings. When a creepy man, Mr. Bunting, starts to stalk Rudger he can't get Amanda to listen to his fears. It isn't until Mr. Bunting tries to suck his being into his mouth that Amanda realizes her creation is truly being threatened. She tries to save his life only to get separated from Rudger. In a fun twist, he ends up being someone entirely different. It seems that all is lost until Rudger is saved by a patch-work cat, Zinzan, and finds refuge with other misfits in a library. He regroups and learns more about the evil Mr. Bunting and his devilish assistant before seeking Amanada once again.

This creepy book reminds me of kids that love to share ghost stories and use their imaginations. There is a dark side to the story, although I laughed when Rudger bit off an imaginary's finger that attacked him. Perhaps I'm a classic person who has become desensitized by social media violence or perhaps I never forgot that these are children and this is all pretend. If you read other reviews, you'll see that some thought it crossed a line. Mr. Bunting reminds me of the Boogie Man stories my brothers would tell me. This is the type of story they'd make up to scare me. You'll have to decide for yourself.

The villain, Mr. Bunting, hunts those with powerful imaginations like Amanda's because they feed his insatiable hunger. He describes the flavor of swallowing imaginaries whose fear and panic add spice as he inhales them into his being. Afterwards Mr. Bunting feels "whole, complete, and satisfied." Mr. Bunting would be the equivalent to my childhood, Boogie Man, or perhaps he is a metaphor of an adult that has lost his or her imagination. The author suggests that a healthy person has a strong imagination while an unimaginative person has an insatiable hunger and takes the creative products from others to try and satisfy himself or herself. This type of person is shriveled inside and empty.

Imaginary friends are a part of natural child development and years of research encourages parents to support kids that create these imagined companions. Amanda's mom does just this in the story; whereas, Julia's mom does not. Julia is a friend of Amanda's from school whose mom freaks out when Julia starts talking to an imaginary friend, "Victoria." The mother's reaction is to bring Julia to a psychologist who "cures" her. I think most psychologists would enlighten the mother that this is a normal cognitive development in children, but the author would lose her foil and tension. I understand how it moves the plot forward even though it is unlikely. Later Julia's mom offers to give Amanda's mom the psychologist's phone number. The two parents represent opposing viewpoints but it is obvious which one the author supports.

Emily Gravett's illustrations are gorgeous and add to the story but her image of Amanda was older than the one I had in my head. In the beginning Amanda doesn't show empathy for Rudger or much self-awareness and she reminded me of the 6 to 7 year old children at my school. Also, my daughter's two year old friend had me picture someone younger. But once Rudger is threatened and Amanda sees it with her own eyes, then she became older in my head because she does respond with empathy. The author doesn't give her age, or at least I couldn't find it, but maybe that's good because kids pretend at many different ages and in different stages. I think this is a case where working with children went against me because I couldn't get a clear picture of the protagonist until well into the book and my distinctions are probably more sharply divided than someone that doesn't work with children every day ages 4-11. Her characterizations are good so it didn't distract me from the storyline.

Amanda's mom enters the world of make-believe when Amanda is choking. As soon as she believes then she can see the imaginary things that are hurting her daughter. Adults use their imaginations but on a limited basis compared to children. The real world makes it impossible to be in the land of make-believe as much as a kid. But it is an important quality to not lose. Rudger understands the temporariness of being an imagined being. "Imagination is slippery, Rudger knew that well enough. Memory doesn't hold it tight, it has trouble enough holding on to the real, remembering the real people who are lost." How true. As an adult, this slipping of my memories frustrates me more than anything. And childhood now has some big gaps for me. I know what I remember are fragments slapped together much like the patched fur of Zinzan.

Working with children allows me to see raw creativity on a daily basis. To be in a profession that allows the nurturing of this is satisfying and fulfilling. To let children explore, think, imagine, and generate new ideas brings an electrical current to the air where learning is fun and the future is full of potential. It is a constant reminder that creative potential exists in all of us no matter what the age and that a person doesn't have to be a genius to reach this potential. Instead, they need to take risks, be allowed to make mistakes, be supported, be encouraged, and let their imagination erupt. This is the message I got from this author. See what you think.

5 Smileys

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