The Imaginary

Buy THE IMAGINARY by A F Harrold

Rudger may be imaginary but his friendship with Amanda Shuffleup is entirely real. That she first meets him in a cupboard is irrelevant. That her mum can’t see or hear him doesn’t mean he isn’t there. Together Amanda and Rudger get up to all the things normal friends get up to, like fending off aliens in the back garden or exploring a cavern under the stairs.

But then Mr Bunting starts sniffing around. Despite appearing middle aged, Mr Bunting still has an imaginary friend. He can see everyone else’s too. Which is handy for him, seeing as he eats them. Or, more accurately, drinks them. He’s not really middle aged, of course. Like a demonic Dorian Gray, Mr Bunting has been prolonging his life by lapping up the fruits of the imaginations of children for a century.

Amanda knows she has to keep away from Mr Bunting so that he doesn’t swallow Rudger too, but when fleeing from his clutches she ends up running in front of a car and being knocked into a coma. This is the story of what Rudger does next, alone, and with nobody to believe in him.

A F Harrold’s Fizzlebert Stump (The Boy Who Ran Away from the Circus (And Joined the Library)) was like a slightly zanier Roald Dahl. The Imaginary is zanier still, especially when Rudger finds out what other lonely imaginary friends get up to when they’re left on their own. However, the story remains rooted in a real, believable world visited by darkness and tinged by sadness but which is made all the nicer to live in thanks to the imaginations of its inhabitants.

It also has a perfect ending, for reasons I couldn’t explain without spoiling it. So I won’t do either.

The grown-up in me can see this is a book about the power of imagination, the importance of libraries, and about how growing up invariably involves saying a few final goodbyes (even if you don’t realise they were the last ones until afterwards). But at the same time the little boy in me can see this book as a vindication – Jimmy really did exist, and he really did live somewhere near Grandma (and whilst Jimmy’s best friend Ponk probably was imaginary, he was obviously a product of Jimmy’s imagination rather than mine).

Fizzlebert Stump

Or, to give it its full title, Fizzlebert Stump: The Boy Who Ran Away from the Circus (and Joined the Library). This one is aimed at a slightly younger readership (ages 7 to 9) than most of the children’s books I read, but it came highly recommended because I never really grew out of Roald Dahl. A F Harrold’s universe is only a sidestep away from some of Dahl’s, so all the grown-ups are either despicably vile or well-intentioned idiots, and the surreal, slightly anachronistic world is depicted by Quentin Blake-esque doodles throughout too.

Fizzlebert Stump, or Fizz for short, is the son of a circus strongman and a clown. Travelling from town to town with the circus doesn’t give him much opportunity to make friends, but when a local child accidentally leaves a library book behind at the circus, Fizz thinks it would be the friendly thing to do to return it to the library. Except he doesn’t actually know what a library is. When he finds out, he wants to join immediately, but that decision quickly lands him in the clutches of the most disgusting people this side of a Channel 5 series with a name like Help! My Mother Collects Used Toilet Paper.

Harrold (or at least the narrator he is hiding behind) plays an important part in the story, frequently commenting on what’s going on (all the funniest gags are in the parentheses (or even in the parentheses within parentheses)). So not only does he get to explain what long words mean, he also gets to explain what a cliffhanger is, and why he’s using it! In more ways than one, it’s a book about the joy of storytelling, and I’m pleased to see A F Harrold is writing more of them.