My first five star book of the year!
Amanda Shuffleup has a friend, her best friend, Rudger, but Rudger (not Roger) is not real, for Amanda is a girl with a huge imagination. She and Rudger happily spend their days on alien planets, in a submarine or a hot air balloon above “the steamy, sticky South American jungle”. But when an evil man, Mr. Bunting, who feeds on imaginary friends goes after Rudger, Amanda ends up in hospital and Rudger is left to fend for himself. Can he get back to Amanda and can he avoid being sucked into the villain’s hideous maw?
This is a spirited, completely charming, slightly scary and, yes, hugely imaginative novel. English writer and poet A. F. Harrold has created an extraordinary world of imaginaries and reals. Amanda is a “rare kid…a really sparky one” who can create an imaginary friend – most children “who need Friends, or who want Friends… don’t have enough imagination to dream one up.” Luckily for these kids there is an Agency of cast off imaginaries, living in a Library (where else are you going to find so much imagination?) who can swoop in and help. But once children discard or forget their imaginary, the Friends don’t have much time before they Fade.
Amanda is a delicious character – precocious, a little annoying but always full of wonderful ideas. And Rudger, her faithful sidekick, who comes into his own after her accident, uses all his courage and imagination to find his way back to her. All the support reals – adults, children and villain – are somewhat stock but are brought alive by the writing combined with Emily Gravett’s marvelously Quentin Blake-esque illustrations (it’s something about their sharp noses and thatch-like hair that reminds me of QB). The imaginaries are where Harrold, in particular, has a riot: there’s a pink T. Rex called Snowflake, a perpetually bouncing ping pong ball and The Great Fandango, who looks like an old Victorian schoolmaster.
The writing is whimsical and polished. It’s a short book but not a word or illustration is wasted, and includes many glorious images: I chortled heartily at the idea of Rudger, dressed as a girl, clinging to the windscreen wipers of a moving car, with the wind blowing his skirt up (don’t try this at home, kids). And though a kid may not get the full nuance of “It was like walking into a cartoon after spending a day in a subtitled black-and-white French movie”, they will certainly know that feeling.
As a book about friendship, memory, loss and imagination, this will hit the sweet spot for 3rd – 5th graders, though could also be enjoyed by both younger and older kids, and would make an utterly fabulous read aloud.
Thanks to Netgalley for the digital review copy, but I can’t wait to see a print version to get the full effect of the illustrations.