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The Nosy Crow Reading Group verdict on The Imaginary by A.F. Harrold and Emily Gravett

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Earlier this week the Nosy Crow reading group met for our first event in 2015 to discuss The Imaginary, written by A.F. Harrold and illustrated by Emily Gravett. Quite unusually for the reading group, this was a book that I came to with very little foreknowledge: I didn’t know what it was about, hadn’t really read any reviews, and hadn’t read any of the author’s earlier work (although I am very familiar with Emily Gravett’s wonderful picture books). I’d chosen this for the reading group almost entirely on the strength of the physical package: it is a really beautiful book, published in a striking format, and it stands out wonderfully on the shelves of a book shop. On this basis, the book that I had been mentally comparing it to (prior to reading, anyway) was Goth Girl, by Chris Riddell – a former reading group subject, and another lavishly produced, beautiful object.

Before I go on, please beware – spoilers ahead!

This was, I think, a very good book for the reading group to begin 2015 with: it provoked a more divided set of reactions than some of our previous choices and left us with a lot to think about and discuss.

There were a few on things on which all of us agreed. This is, as I’ve said, an absolutely beautiful book, with some wonderful finishing touches. Although there was some disagreement on the power and effectiveness of a few illustrations in particular (on which more in a moment), overall we agreed that it had been fantastically illustrated by Gravett. Similarly, while some of us didn’t love the story, I think we all found plenty to admire in the language: it is poetic and striking, with moments of real beauty and a very distinctive voice. And none of us had any trouble in finishing the book (something which hasn’t always been the case…): those of us who weren’t particularly taken by the story found that the language carried us through.

All that being said, this was not a book that we universally loved. While plenty of us thought that the central premise of The Imaginary was a very strong one, with lots of dramatic potential, some of us were not quite so convinced by the story: there was a feeling that the ideas were good but the plot was a little thin. A few of our members felt that Harrold had not properly established the “rules” of his world (could imaginary friends physically interact with the real world or not, for instance?), and a couple of us did not sufficiently believe in the characters. Where there was story, some of us worried that it was contrived at moments (“MacGuffin-y”, in the words one of our members) – overly-relying on devices like Zinzan the cat to drive the plot forward.

But the book also had its ardent defenders: several of us absolutely invested in the story (and in the words of one person, “laughed at the funny bits, felt scared at the scary bits, and wept at the end”). A lot of us liked the relationship between Amanda and her mother, which felt natural and real, and a couple of people in particular admired the ideas (without thinking that they were let down by the story…). Many of us agreed that Mr Bunting was a fantastically scary antagonist.

A question that came up repeatedly thoughout the evening (as it so often seems to at our reading groups) was who exactly this book was for. Only one of us had actually read this book with children, and they reported that their twelve year old liked it. Some of the rest of us weren’t so sure: several people said that they would struggle to put it on an age scale, and one person thought that it was too scary for young children (the illustrations of Mr Bunting’s mouth, and the first appearance of his own imaginary friend, in particular), but too “young” for older children. There did seem to be some consensus that the subject matter – imaginary friends – inhabited a younger world than the sophistication of the ideas and the writing. One of the things that the book most reminded me of was the Toy Story trilogy of films: The Imaginary, for me, is a story about the end of childhood and the loss of innocence… and I do wonder whether these subjects are always felt more profoundly by adults than by children.

There was some debate over how well Harrold handled this idea of the power of imagination. Is this book a celebration of the imagination in general – or actually just a celebration of one person’s idea of it? A few of us felt that the other children Rudger befriended were treated rather unfairly – and that the message of the book was quite proscriptive in its view of what was a “good” use of imagination and what wasn’t.

And while I absolutely loved Gravett’s artwork, a couple of us questioned how well they sat next to the text. I thought the introduction of full-colour worked fantastically in selective spreads, and there was a collective gasp in the room as someone pointed out that the book’s decorative endpapers were a pattern taken from Mr Bunting’s shirt. One or two of us wondered how well the book would work without the illustrations, which always strikes me, as a reader, as a bit of an unfair question (a bit like asking whether a book would work if you only read the left-hand pages), but I do appreciate that for an editor, it’s a valid thing to consider: a manuscript will usually arrive only as a text, and it’ll have to survive on its own for this first reading.

This was a book that many of us had very high hopes for, and while it may not have entirely lived up to them for all of us, it is by no means without merit: a beautiful, lovingly produced book, and a worthwhile exploration of the theme of the imagination.

The Nosy Crow reading group will return in February! If you’re interested in attending, send an email to tom at nosycrow dot com, and I’ll add you to our mailing list.

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