Abrams/Amulet. Oct. 2021. 320p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781419746642.
Gr 3-7–When blue-eyed Zach’s dad died when Zach was six, his world split into “before” and “after.” Before, his imaginary friend, a purple fuzzball called Shovel, was beginning to fade; after, Zach retreats into the fantasy world in his own head, pushing away his real-world best friend Ryan. Now, Zach is 11, and Shovel—who narrates in first person, addressing Zach in second person—realizes he is “long past the usual expiration date.” In the first week of middle school, Ryan and “the Matts” make fun of Zach, drawing Zach and his new friend, spy-obsessed Anni Lai, into a fight; as a result, Principal Carter gives Ryan, Anni, and Zach (and Shovel) a week of detention, together. Short sentences and chapters make this title accessible without sacrificing emotional depth; Wu’s illustrations throughout spotlight the most humorous aspects of the story (e.g., Zach as a knight in armor talking to his mom on a cell phone in front of a stop sign). But as Zach becomes more interested in the real world, what will happen to Shovel? As Anni says, every story should have a big twist ending, and this delivers, à la Toy Story 3.
VERDICT With Shovel as narrator, familiar middle grade topics (death of a parent, friends-turned-enemies, bullying), become completely unique and fresh. Tender, laced with sly humor, and full of complex emotion, this novel explores the line between unpredictable reality and controlled imagination. Highly recommended for all youth collections.

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