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I really enjoy Books On the Nightstand, although I got a little behind on their podcasts over the summer. But at one point I heard about Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks on BOTN and then serendipitously, the book’s publicist heard about The Mindful Reader and asked if I’d like a copy to review. Dicks lives in Connecticut (a little beyond the column’s geographic limits), and my “to read” shelf is stuffed, but I told her about bookconscious and said I’d heard good things about Memoirs and would love to read it. (Thanks, Aleks!)

So this amazing story made its way to me and last night I did something I haven’t done in months: stayed up too late to get to the end. If you can’t imagine how a book narrated by a kid’s imaginary friend (Budo, friend of a boy named Max) could be so compelling, try it. It’s an imaginative story with very well developed and interesting characters — who readers meet through Budo’s eyes, mind you.

Max is “on the spectrum” (of autism) although his dad keeps saying he’s just “a late bloomer.” He’s very smart and very creative, so he’s imagined Budo as smart and creative as well, and older than many imaginary friends. He also didn’t imagine he’d need sleep, so as Budo says, “I have more time to learn.” His understanding of Max and the way his mind works, and of all the human relationships he observes, is just incredible. With no need for rest, Budo is also able to hang out at night with Max’s parents or at an all night gas station, so he knows a good bit about the adult world.

Which is good, because Mrs. Patterson, a disturbed aide at Max’s school, decides she knows better than anyone what Max needs. I don’t want to give away the page-turning plot, so I won’t say more, except that Budo, who no one but Max and other imaginary friends can see and hear, is on to her very quickly, thanks to Max’s imagination and his own curiosity about the world.

When children grow up, they forget about their imaginary friends, who then disappear. Budo loses Graham, his best friend other than Max, when her little girl no longer needs her. Dicks writes beautifully about the “death” of imaginary friends. And he sets up the central problem of the book: if he helps Max defy Mrs. Patterson, Budo will end up hastening his own disappearance.

It’s not easy to imagine what I’m describing, but Dicks manages it perfectly. Imaginary friends and their world became completely believable to me (just as rabbit culture did when I read Watership Down). And Mrs. Patterson is quite the villain — the last bit of the book had me completely drawn in and feeling I HAD to know what was going to happen.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend ventures into some very adult issues even though the central characters are a nine year old and his imaginary friend. Max’s parents are struggling to deal with their son’s differences and also with secondary infertility. Budo can tell that at Max’s school, some of the teachers are very good and others “play school.” There is bullying and crime and illness and injury in this book. It’s definitely not simple just because it deals with childhood. Budo’s insights into human nature and our tendency to misunderstand each other are very perceptive.

So if you’re looking for a book that will keep you glued to the page, maybe touch you with some very poignant observations about the human spirit, and perhaps even bring back some memories of imaginary friends (I know I had one, although I can’t recall too much about that, and my kids both did as well), check out this book. But allow for the fact that you may not want to put it down once you start.

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