The Imaginary discussion guide

Author: A.F Harrold

Illustrator Emily Gravett

Publisher  Bloomsbury

Suggested age group: 9+

Synopsis and reasons for selection

Rudger is Amanda’s best friend. He doesn’t exist, but nobody’s perfect.

Only Amanda can see her imaginary friend - until the sinister, predatory Mr Bunting arrives at Amanda's door one day. Mr Bunting hunts imaginaries. Rumour says that he eats them. And he's sniffed out Rudger. After a terrible accident, Rudger is alone, and running for his imaginary life. But can a boy who isn't really there survive without a friend to dream him up?

This is a moving read about love, loss, fear, memory and imagination. The scenes between Amanda and Rudger, as they dream and play together, are beautifully handled and the striking, stylised illustrations by Emily Gravett add a further mystery and excitement. This is a rich, delightful, dark and witty book full of poetic, arresting language, which offers a touching commentary on friendship and growing up.

About the author

A.F. Harrold is an English poet (1975-present) who lives in Reading. He writes and performs for adults and children in cabarets, schools, bars, basements and fields. He was Glastonbury Festival Website's Poet-In-Residence in 2008, and Poet-In-Residence at Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2010. He won the Cheltenham All Stars Slam Championship in 2007 and has had his work on BBC Radio 4, Radio 3 and BBC7. He is active in schools, running workshops and slams and has published several collections of poetry. He is the author of the Fizzlebert Stump series and has recently published The Song From Somewhere Else. He is the owner of many books, a handful of hats, a few good ideas and one beard.

He says, ‘I like holding pens. I like resting my hands on a keyboard and I hate blank paper. I like the nice feeling of stopping writing at the end. And the cups of tea. And the baths.’

About the illustrator

Emily Gravett is an English author and illustrator of children's picture books, who lives in Brighton. For her debut book published in 2005 and then again two years later, she won the Kate Greenaway Medal which recognises the year's best-illustrated British children's book. An author and illustrator of distinctive talent and exceptional skill, she has written and illustrated many critically acclaimed books, including Blue ChameleonOrange Pear Apple Bear and Again! 

Discussion Points

The prompts in this guide provide suggestions for areas you might explore with your class or group. It is not intended that you pose all the questions, this would be too interrogative and would not allow time for rich discussion. Where possible work from the children's questions and use these prompts to supplement or deepen the discussion, as appropriate.

Before Reading

Ask the children:

  • Who do they think the story will appeal to?
  • What sort of story do they think this is?
  • What do they think might happen in the story?
  • Who do they think the book is aimed at? Why do you think that?

Remember by Christina Rosetti

The story begins with a poem by Christina Rosetti called ‘Remember’ – a moving poem about loss, love and memory. Share this poem with your children and invite them to reflect on its meaning.

  • What do the children think Rossetti means by ‘the silent land’?
  • Why would Rossetti say that it is better to ‘forget and smile’ than to ‘remember and be sad’?
  • How does this poem make you feel?
  • What do you think Rosetti’s view of death is?
  • Does the poem give you any clues about the themes in the story? Why might it have been included?
  • 'Remember is a love poem' Do you agree?

First Encounters

Allow some time for the children to explore the book up to page 5. You can use a paperclip to secure the pages so the children don’t read past this page. If it is possible for the children to have their own copy, they can read at their own pace and write down their responses.

  • Is there anything that puzzles them about the book?
  • Do they have any questions?
  • Is there an image they like or dislike?

Use the children’s questions to initiate a discussion – they will be more engaged if it is something they are genuinely interested in. Some questions might be answered easily, whilst others may need to be explored at a later date or after further exploration of the book.

Imagination and memory

  • What is memory?
  • What is imagination?
  • How are the two linked?
  • Is it possible to believe in something you can’t see?
  • Did you ever have an imaginary friend?
  • Why do we remember?
  • Why do we forget?
  • What do you remember from your childhood?
  • How do we remember those we have lost?

During Reading

At all stages, invite the children to share their ideas and responses. Avoid asking too many leading or closed questions. The prompts below are merely intended to be used as supplementary questions. Please select or adapt the questions which you think are most appropriate for the children you are working with. They will ask and answer many of their own questions if they are encouraged to look closely at the pictures and discuss their ideas.


  • What does the phrase ‘the words were like a hole through his chest’ mean?
  • Who do you think Rudger is? Why might he be Fading?
  • How does the author create a sense of Rudger’s confusion? Is it successful?
  • Ask the children to pace around the room as they read the Introduction. They must change direction every time they get to a full stop. How do the short, jerky sentences highlight Rudger’s state of mind? What effect do they have?
  • Who might the voice at the end of the chapter be?

Chapter 1

  • What technique has the author employed at the beginning of this chapter? (flashback)
  • What is unusual about where Amanda hangs up her coat?
  • What clues are there in this chapter that suggest Amanda is resourceful and bright?
  • What does it mean when you ‘leap to a conclusion’?
  • Look at the illustration on page 11. How does the illustrator use body language to show Amanda’s nervousness?
  • Read up to page 12. What impression do you get on Amanda’s mum? How do you think she is going to react to Amanda’s cut laces?
  • Why do you think the author switches viewpoint at the end of this chapter? What effect does it have?
  • What are your first impressions of Amanda? Use evidence from the text to support your ideas.

Chapter 2

  • What does the verb ‘loping’ imply about the children’s footsteps?
  • What sort of worlds do Amanda and Rudger visit?
  • Invite the children to discuss their favourite make-believe game.
  • Read to the bottom of page 19. Who might be at the door?
  • What impression do you get of Mr. Bunting? Do you trust him?
  • What is odd about the girl at Mr. Bunting’s side?
  • Only boring people get bored. Discuss. How does this apply to Amanda?
  • Do you think Mrs. Shuffleup is a good mother? Why? Why not?
  • What do you think Amanda thinks of her grandmother?
  • Why do you think Mrs. Shuffleup worries for Rudger?
  • 'People become less imaginative as they grow up'. Do you agree with this statement?

Chapter 3

  • Why do you think Mum ‘half-mouths, half says’ the word ‘imaginary’?
  • How does Amanda feel about Goldie? Use evidence from the text.
  • Who do you think the man at the door is?
  • What is the effect of the white writing on the black page?
  • Read to the bottom of page 39. How does the author create tension and an atmosphere of mystery? Is it successful?
  • Look at page 39. What do you think the man is waiting for?
  • Look at the illustration on page 47. Is there anything strange about the girl’s face? How does the image make you feel?
  • What do you think the girl might be trying to do to Rudger?
  • Look at pages 56 and 57. Why do you think Amanda is treating Rudger in such an off-hand, dismissive manner? How might Rudger be feeling?

Chapter 4

  • What might Rudger be thinking and feeling in the car on the way to the swimming pool?
  • Look at page 67. What does the simile suggest about the girl’s strength?
  • What images do the similes about Mr. Bunting create in your head?
  • Where do you think the tunnel in Mr. Bunting’s mouth might lead to?
  • Look at the image on page 68. What do you notice about Mr. Bunting’s glasses?
  • Read to the end of the chapter. How might Rudger be feeling? What do you think is going to happen next?

Chapter 5

  • Read page 74. Could the death of Amanda’s father be responsible for her behaviour and need for an imaginary friend?
  • Why do you think Fade is written with a capital ‘F’?
  • What impression do you get of Zinzan?
  • Why does Rudger assume he is dealing with a ‘cat of refinement’?
  • Describe Zinzan’s appearance to a partner.
  • What might have happened to Zinzan to make him look this way?
  • What does Zinzan mean when he says that Rudger might be “the answer to a question she got no other answer to”?
  • Look at page 83. Which adverb suggests Rudger is nervous about opening the door?
  • Read to the end of the chapter. Where do you think the door leads to?

Chapter 6

  • Ask the children if they have ever been in a library? What sort of library was it? How did they feel when they were in there?
  • How do you think the author feels about libraries and their importance?
  • How does Rudger know that the dinosaur is not a herbivore?
  • Look at the double spread on pages 90 and 91. Why do you think the imaginary people are depicted in colour? What might the illustrator be trying to say?
  • Who is Snowflake?
  • How can a library be made of imagination?
  • Look at the top of page 102. How and why does the author employ humour and sarcasm?
  • What else do we learn about Mr. Bunting in this chapter? How do you think he could be defeated?
  • What other frightening characters do you know in fairy tales? What makes them scary?

Chapter 7

  • How does John react to the presence of Emily and Rudger? How does John’s reaction differ to Amanda’s?
  • How does Emily get John’s attention?
  • Look at the illustrations on pages 166 and 117. How does the illustrator show John’s shock at seeing Emily? What do you think John might be thinking and feeling when he looks in the mirror?
  • What does the verb ‘slumped’ suggest about how Emily is feeling?
  • How does the simile ‘like dribbling custard’ help you picture what is happening to Emily on page 122?
  • What do you think has happened to Zinzan?

Chapter 8

  • What is an urban myth? Do you know any?
  • What evidence is there to suggest Cruncher-of-Bones doesn’t believe Rudger’s story?
  • Read to the bottom of page 131. Who might the dog be talking about?
  • Where have you heard Julia being mentioned before in the story? Look at the illustration. What sort of character do you think she will be?

Chapter 9

  • Look at page 137. What evidence is there to suggest that Julia might actually be nervous when she sees Rudger for the first time?
  • Look at the illustrations on pages 138 and 139. Why is one character in colour and the other in black and white? Who do you think the girl and boy might be?
  • What might Rudger be thinking and feeling when he realises he has turned into a girl? Record your ideas in a though bubble or on a post-it note.
  • Compare with a partner how Amanda’s mum treats Rudger and how Julia’s mum treats him.
  • Look at the illustration on page 149. Who seems to be the more powerful character? How does the illustrator show this? Look at the doll’s face. Do you notice anything strange about it?
  • Was Rudger right to push Julia down the stairs? Discuss your ideas with a partner.

Chapter 10

  • What might Julia be thinking and feeling as she is taken to the hospital?
  • Read to the bottom of page 157. What might Rudger do next?
  • What do you think the phrase ‘anxiety leaking into her voice’ means?
  • Find two examples in this chapter that highlight Rudger’s bravery and determination. Discuss your ideas with a partner.
  • Use a double-bubble map to compare and contrast Julia and Amanda. How are they similar? How are they different?

Chapter 11

  • Look at the picture on page 167. How might Rudger be feeling? What do you notice about Mr. Bunting’s companion?
  • Look at page 168. Why do you think Mr. Bunting refers to Amanda as ‘it’? What impact does that have?
  • What do you think Mr. Bunting can smell?
  • Why does the author keep referring to the numbered rooms that Rudger can see? What effect does it have?
  • What do you think the sapling might be growing from the bed?
  • Look at the illustration on page 172 and 173. What do you notice about the use of colour? What might mum be thinking and feeling? Can you use the picture of the Patient Information to work out what has happened to Amanda?
  • Why do you think mum is talking to Amanda?
  • Read to the bottom of page 175. What might happen next? Discuss your ideas with a partner.

Chapter 12

  • Explain the simile ‘fingers out like talons’ to a partner. What image does it create in your head when you read this?
  • What might the growing sapling represent and symbolise?
  • How does the author create tension and excitement in this chapter? Is it successful?

Chapter 13

  • What do you think the ‘weird warming shiver’ running through Rudger might be?
  • Read to the bottom of page 187. What might the glass dome be?
  • Allow the children some time to explore the illustration on page 188 and 189. Encourage them to discuss the use of colour and what might be happening. Can they write some sentences about the picture, referring to the characters’ feelings?
  • What simile does the author use on page 191 to describe the girl? Is it effective? Can you think of another?
  • Look at page 191. Why do you think the word ‘borrow’ is in italics?
  • Look at the illustration on page 193. Why do you think Mr. Bunting has been depicted as a silhouette? How does the illustrator show movement? What might Amanda be thinking and feeling?
  • What might Fridge be thinking and feeling when mum calls him?
  • Ask the children to read out loud the paragraph where Mr. Bunting begins to shrivel. Allow them time to explore the rhythm of the paragraph and practise reading it with varied speed and expression.
  • Look at page 208. What bargain do you think Mr. Bunting made all those years ago? Who do you think he made it with?
  • Do you think Mr. Bunting deserves this cruel punishment?
  • Ask the children to spend some time recording all the adjectives and similes used to describe Mr. Bunting. What sort of image do they create for the reader? Can they think of any other adjectives or similes to describe him?
  • What do you think Mr. Bunting has learned by the end of the story? What do you think will happen to him now?
  • 'Adults destroy the imagination of children'. Do you agree with this statement?

Chapter 14

  • How has eating his own imaginary changed Mr. Bunting?
  • Grownups aren’t meant to see everything. Discuss what this means to you.
  • Why does Amanda’s mum think the idea of a child psychologist is dreadful?
  • Read to the bottom of page 217. What do you think Fridge and Zinzan are discussing?
  • What is more important: a photograph or a memory?
  • How does the illustration on page 219 add to the story? Does it reveal anything that might have happened between mum and Fridge before he left?
  • Where do you think Fridge went? Who do you think Zinzan is? What might his role in the world of imaginary friends be?
  • Look at the final illustration and discuss why the author has used colour for some parts.
  • In your own words, explain what message the author is trying to give the reader. Record your ideas on a post-it or whiteboard.

After Reading – Themes and Cross-curricular links

Theme Cards

After reading ‘The Imaginary’, organise the children into groups or partners. Encourage the children to talk to each other and share which of these themes they feel are most important in the story and why. Ask the children to use evidence from the text.


Adulthood and memory Belief and faith



Imagination and adventure Loss and grief

Fear and loneliness


Vocabulary Journal

Identify a set of target words for teaching. Suggestions are given below, but chose those most appropriate for your class or group.

Get the children to read through the list of words with their partner. Find each of the words or phrases in this chapter. Write down the sentence in the story in which each word appears.

Discuss in pairs what they think each word means.

Share their ideas, directing attention to where they may have heard or seen the words before.

Next, they use a dictionary to check ideas, then write down a definition. Use more than one dictionary to check for nuances of meaning

Reread the text and decide which meanings make the best sense to the story. Finally ask them to write their own sentence

Best printed in landscape. 

 New word Sentence in story What I think it means Looks like or sounds like Dictionary definitions My own sentence
umbrage (page 29)          
expunge (page 32)          
superimposed (page 105)          
malice (page 146)          


Why not design and paint your own imaginary friend or draw a labelled bird’s eye view of the library? You could photocopy the illustration of Rudger and Amanda swinging on the tree at the start of the story and then ask the children to create a scene behind them – perhaps they’re fighting dragons or clinging to a cliff edge? You might like to create a new front cover for the book too. Encourage the children to watch the video of Emily Gravett illustrating the Imaginary Girl here: and then invite them to create their own artwork in a similar style.


Try drawing a map of the town where Amanda lives – include her house, the swimming pool, the car park, the library, Julia’s house and the hospital.


Ask the children to re-write the hide-and-seek scene in Chapter 3 from Goldie’s point of view.

Can the children re-write Emily’s vanishing in Chapter 7 from her point of view using short, simple sentences for action and impact?

Write a description of your own imaginary friend using adjectives and similes.

Further reading…

Philip Pullman Northern Lights

Roald Dahl The Witches

David Almond The Savage

Maurice Sendak Where the Wild Things Are

Raymond Briggs The Bear

Neil Gaiman Coraline

Neil Gaiman The Graveyard Book

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