When I was a kid, imaginary friends were a huge part of my life. My brother and I grew up in pretty rural area, which made it difficult to have a real social life with other kids our age, so we compensated by creating an entire imaginary town. It was unique in that our imaginary friends knew each other and everything was elaborately thought out. I mean, we had a baseball league and a newspaper and everything. We held on to it much longer than most other kids would, but it remains one of my favorite childhood memories.
Knowing that, it really shouldn't come as a surprise that I jumped all over a book narrated by a child's imaginary friend. Budo has been conjured up by Max, an eight year old who falls somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Max is incapable of socializing with his peers and so Budo has lasted a lot longer than most other imaginary friends. As a result, he's more vividly imagined and more worldly than many other imaginary friends. But when Max is kidnapped by a teacher, it's up to Budo to help bring him safely home.
One of these days, I'm going to listen to my own advice and stop reading books featuring cover blurbs by Jodi Picoult. I try really hard not to be too snobby about my reading habits, but there is definitely a trend in which I am always disappointed by the books that lady's hawking.
The notion of a story narrated by an imaginary friend is extremely creative and has a lot of potential for building a captivating magical-realism story, but there are several areas in which Matthew Dicks just falls short. To begin with, the writing is extremely simple. This is the inevitable byproduct of trying to stay true to the narrative voice of an eight year old's imaginary friend. After a while, though, that begun to get old. Did Budo really need to explain the concept of television commercials to us? The childish narration lacked subtlety, often blatantly stating the major themes of the story over and over again within the same paragraph. I understand that it was hard for Budo to weigh the importance of saving Max against preserving his own existence, but Dicks pointed that conundrum out at Every. Available. Opportunity.
The exposition in the story was also uneven. Dicks spent a lot of time laying out for his reader the rules of imaginary friends. They can interact with each other but only with the friend who imagined them. Their physical abilities are limited by the imaginations of their creators, and they ultimately fade away when their kids outgrow them. Dicks really hammered these points home, including a largely pointless story about a fading imaginary friend named Graham who was sad she'd never get to see her companion grow up. The only purpose of this part of the story was to emphasize just how sad it is when imaginary friends disappear, as if we wouldn't be able to figure that out on our own. It made things overly sentimental without driving the story forward. (The same thing happened with a plot about a gas station attendant who gets shot; I never could figure out exactly why Dicks needed to work that in as it didn't move the story forward and it didn't provide insight into any of the characters.)
Strangely, though, Dicks fails to provide proper exposition for the events taking place in the real world. I was disappointed that we couldn't really get into the head of Ms Patterson, the teacher who takes Max because she's never reconciled the loss of her own child and feels Max's parents aren't making decisions in his best interest. She stayed kind of a flat character because an imaginary friend can't add depth to her from the outside. That's a shame because she should have been a lot more compelling. Similarly, the window into Max's world was kind of awkward. His parents were largely unaware of how poorly Max fit in at school, particularly the presence of a bully named Tommy Swinden. There's a scene very early in the book in which Max and Tommy have an unnecessarily gross altercation, which did little more than emphasize Max's social problems. It didn't play into the larger story much; when Dicks did bring it up again, it felt way too forced.
Still, I found myself unable to put the book down. I desperately wanted to know what happened to Max. So I guess that's something. Overall, this book gets points for such a unique narrative tool but comes up short on the execution. I can see why others loved it so much, it just didn't quite work for me.