Imaginary, by Lee Bacon

IMAGINARY, written by Lee Bacon and illustrated by Katy Wu, is poignant, humorous, and sheer delight from start to finish. Released in October 2021, this early middle grade novel is centered around eleven-year-old Zack, who still hasn’t recovered from his father’s death five years earlier. Zack’s only solace is to retreat into his imagination with his imaginary best friend Shovel. If you think the narrator is Zach, guess again. What makes this story spot-on for young readers and middle-grade loving adults like me is that it’s told from Shovel’s unique and vivid perspective.

An imaginary friend is like a carton of eggs. We come with an expiration date…When you were little, you’d lead me around proudly, introducing me to the people you meet. But now you’re eleven. And I’ve stuck around long past the usual expiration date.

From IMAGINARY, beginning of Chapter 2 (which falls on Page 2)

Chapters are super short, sometimes less than a single page, and adorable sketches from Katy Wu are sprinkled throughout. The image below shows how old Zack was when he first imagined Shovel, and provides a clue as to how Shovel received his name.

From Page 7 of IMAGINARY

Starting middle school is hard enough, but being caught talking to your invisible friend makes it 1,000 times worse. Unfortunately, Zach is caught by two bruisers both named Matt and Zack’s former best friend Ryan. Following the incident, which occurred on the very first day, the Matts (as Shovel calls them) engage in a bullying campaign, and Ryan tags along. Tensions explode in a playground brawl that lands both Matts in suspension, while Ryan, Zach, and a new girl named Anni wind up in the most outrageously scheming detention ever.


  1. One Matt is black and the other is white but Shovel never distinguishes these two bullies by the color of their skin. In fact, he can’t tell them apart because they act equally despicable.
  2. Shovel is an invisible character in the book, a seemingly omniscient witness to events surrounding Zack, but his narration is colored by his fervent belief that he is Zach’s sole protector. Shovel undergoes his own character growth as he comes to realize his role in keeping Zack away from Ryan and others. Unfortunately, his relevation comes just as he begins to fade from existence.
  3. Zack learns to take responsibility for his actions and to consider the perspectives of others, which leads to an unexpected and highly satisfying ending.


I discovered this book in the children’s room, but themes of grief and bullying make this most suitable for upper elementary/early middle school-aged students, as well as for grownups like me who enjoy reading middle grade novels. I was incredibly awed and inspired by the unique narration of this book and strongly recommend IMAGINARY as a mentor text on developing and maintaining a narrator’s voice. This was so amazing, I’m eager to check out more books by children’s author Lee Bacon. Here’s an impressive snippet borrowed from Lee’s website,

PictureAuthor photo copyright Grace Brown, 2018LEE BACON grew up in Texas and now lives in New Jersey. He is the author of several books for young people, including the JOSHUA DREAD and LEGENDTOPIA series as well as the original audio stories THE MYSTERY OF ALICE and INTERVIEW WITH THE ROBOT. His most recent middle grade novel, THE LAST HUMAN, has been translated into twenty-two languages.


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