The Invisible Friend by Louise Arnold – Book Review + Activity Ideas

The Invisible Friend

The Sixth Sense’s eerie proclamation of “I see dead people” made the ability to spot ghosts pop-culturally relevant. And who hasn’t had a bit of an identity crisis where you start wondering, “Do I exist? Am I a ghost? Am I Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense?!” Or was that just me?

In Louise Arnold’s world, however, ghosts are decidedly not dead people. The Ghost World sits right on top of the Real World, and ghosts inhabit the same space as humans. The only difference is that humans can’t see ghosts.

Some humans tried to find explanations for ghosts. They’d say they were memories caught in time, or the spirits of people that had died, or a premonition of things to come. Ghosts would chuckle at that. Ghosts are ghosts, as simple as gerbils are gerbils and seagulls are seagulls, and there’s nothing to be explained. I haunt, therefore I am.

The story is about two boys – one human (Tom Golden) and one ghostly (Grey Arthur). Tom has just moved to a new house and a new school and is utterly miserable. The perfectly pleasant 11-year-old is the constant target of bullies and nasty whispers and doesn’t have a single friend to call his own. For no discernible reason, he is known throughout the school as a freak and life is just generally horrid. His parents are lovely but clueless – as parents tend to be in such books – and have no idea what a miserable time he’s having.

Grey Arthur’s misery, on the other hand, has another cause. He’s a ghost without a purpose. He has been around for centuries but he still doesn’t know who he is.

There are more different types of ghost than there are different colours of crayon, and yet Grey Arthur didn’t belong to any group. He wasn’t scary enough to be a Screamer, wasn’t naughty enough to be a Poltergeist, wasn’t melancholy enough to be a Sadness Summoner. Each different thing Arthur had tried to be, he’d failed.

On the Tuesday when the story begins, Arthur stumbles upon Tom’s loneliness and feels like he should help. So he decides to make up a ghost type of his own – Arthur Grey is going to be Tom Golden’s Invisible Friend. Invisible Friendship involves moving under your best mate’s bed and following him to school, looking out for him, helping him avoid bullies and generally making sure he stays out of trouble. The problem, of course, is the Invisible part of the Friendship. Even though Tom fares slightly better at school, he still doesn’t know that Arthur actually exists.

Until the day he’s hit by a car and lands up in the hospital. Apparently, a near death experience does wonders for bringing ghosts into focus, even when the ghosts aren’t dead to begin with. Tom finds that he can suddenly see clearer, not only his new roommate Arthur, but also every other ghost everywhere he goes. Even though he’s freaked out in the beginning, school becomes a less lonely place with a ghost friend in tow.

The rest of the book follows Tom’s encounters with other ghosts, his continued problems with his schoolmates, worried parents who hear him talking to Arthur and a suspiciously chipper child psychologist.

The premise of the book sounded intriguining but I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. The book is filled with fascinating throwaway details, wholly original plot elements and manages to fit in quite a bit in 280 pages. The writing manages to be funny and gently clever without resorting to any sort of gimmickry. I genuinely enjoyed getting to know the wide array of characters, human and spectral. The two protagonists are immensely likable and the writing steers them clear of becoming boringly predictable.

A quick bit of Google sleuthing shows that the book is the first in a series, even though it holds up pretty well as a standalone read. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for Ghost School and A Good Day For Haunting the next time I’m at a used book sale.

You can buy the book here which seems to be the only place online that stocks it.

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  • The book features three sorts of ghosts (not including Arthur’s made up Invisible Friend). Make up your own kind of ghost that could be a part of this world. What are these ghosts called? What do they look like? What do they do? Draw a portrait.
  • Dress up as a ghost – either a traditional one, one from the book, one that you made up, or one straight out of Bollywood.
  • Gather a few friends, parents and/or siblings and play a game of Complete the Spooky Story. One person starts by coming up with the first sentence, followed by another person with the next sentence, followed by the third person with the third sentence and so on. Two rules: 1) The sentences have to form a logical story, so you have to pay attention to what the previous people said. 2) It has to be as gruesome as possible.
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Publisher’s Weekly’s second annual edition of children’s book reviews has a bunch of fantastic finds! This catalogue for the persistent book hunter is very well-organised, with theme-based subdivisions under Picture Books, Middle Grade and Young Adult. You can download a free copy here.

children's starred reviews

Out of the hundreds of books in the catalogue, these are the ones which have made it to my to-read list. I was going to list my top picks from the picture books, middle grade books and young adult books together, but the picture books took up a huge chunk of the post. Coming up will be my selections from the middle grade and young adult titles.

PICTURE BOOKS


Adventure

Aviary Wonders Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual

Ages: 9 – 12 aviary wonders inc

Brilliantly illustrated with oil paintings and filled with laugh-aloud asides as well as sobering facts about extinct species of birds, this mock catalogue is a clever send-up of contemporary sales spin and a thought-provoking look into an all-too-possible future. I love the sound of the innovative format with its quirky environmental twist. 

Eerie Dearies: 26 Ways to Miss School

eerie deariesAll ages

Eerie Dearies is an unusual book that offers a carefully crafted and alphabetized selection of twenty-six beautifully illustrated excuses for being AWOL from school. Astral projection, gremlin-attacks, and teleportation are just a few of the reasons for academic absence creatively illustrated in this book. I love books with mad premises, and this one sounds absolutely bonkers!

Hunters of the Great Forest

hunters of the great forestAges: 3-7

In this enchanting wordless fantasy, seven tiny, gnomish beings set off from a fairy tale village on an expedition. A grey-haired grandmother wields a spear, a girl carries a map, and bearded and mustachioed fellows trudge along with more gear. Nothing will keep them from their ultimate goal, though what that goal is may surprise you. The unique plot and -judging from the cover –  the delightful illustrations, make up for the lack of words.

The Tweedles Go Electric

the tweedles go electricAges: 4-7

Meet the Tweedles: Papa, Mama, daughter Frances and her brother, Francis. It’s the dawn of a new century -the twentieth century! – and the Tweedles have decided to buy a car. But no gas-guzzler for this modern family. Only an electric car will do for them. With humorous allusions to the twenty-first century – which is better? Gas or electric? – this is a charming tale about an odd and endearing family and their attempts to keep up with the times.


Covering the Basics

100 Things That Make Me Happy

100 things that make me happyAges: 3-6

The list, in rhyming couplets, draws directly from a preschool­er’s world – from slippery floors to dinosaurs, from goldfish to a birthday wish. And the delightful duo of the title and the cover doesn’t hurt!

Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for all the Letters

once upon an alphabetAges: 3-5

From an Astronaut who’s afraid of heights, to a Bridge that ends up burned between friends, to a Cup stuck in a cupboard and longing for freedom, the book is a creative tour de force from A through Z. Slyly funny and gorgeously illustrated, this series of interconnected stories and characters explores the alphabet in a way that will forever raise the bar. Bonus? It’s by Oliver Jeffers!

What’s Your Favourite Animal?

what's your favourite animalAges: 4-8

Answers to this classic kid question arrive courtesy 14 top illustrators whose contributions range from meticulously rendered artwork to quick, funny sketches, along with commentaries that can be nostalgic, silly and even meta.


 Folk and Fairy Tales

The Baby Tree

the baby treeAges: 5-8

Sooner or later, every child will ask, Where do babies come from? Answering this question has never been this easy or entertaining! Join a curious little boy who asks everyone from his babysitter to the mailman, getting all sorts of funny answers along the way, before his parents gently set him straight.

What If …? 

what ifAges: 5-8

Joe is nervous about his first big party, and as Mum walks him along the darkening street to his friend’s house, his imagination starts to run wild. They search for the right place, looking through the windows, wondering “What if…?” The first scene through the window reveals an elderly couple; a closer look suggests they might be aliens. An enormous elephant looms in the next window. Further along, two schoolboys shove a companion into a teapot.


Funny Business

Big Bad Bubble

big bad bubbleAges: 4-8

An ordinary bubble may seem pretty harmless to you. To the monsters of La La Land, however, a fragile, shimmering bubble is an object of terror, and when the frightening habits of bubbles are detailed by a fear-mongering monster, Yerbert, Froofle, and Wumpus run away and cry. The narrator coaches them through their first encounter with actual bubbles: “Froofle, climb down from that tree. Look at your claws. You have pointy claws.” This sounds hilarious!

The Cake

the cakeAges: 2+

Tiger is hungry and suggests to his comrades – Dog, Monkey, Rabbit and Bear – that they make a cake. Tiger wants chocolate cake which the others immediately reject; pooling their favourite flavours, they demand “a bone-banana-carrot-fish-cake!” The discourse quickly devolves into insults (“You’re revolting!”), threats (“I’ll eat you!”) and – just when it looks like reconciliation is in the offing – classic slapstick.

Here Comes Destructosaurus

here comes destructosaurusAges: 2+

A dragonlike monster who also looks and awful lot like a rampaging toddler is wreaking havoc in New York City and the narrator is fed up. “Stop throwing around buildings that don’t belong to you. You’ve been brought up better than that, you naughty monster! Look with your eyes, not your claws.” Watch the unstoppable destructive force of a raging temper tantrum! Tremble at the enormous mess and disrespectful roaring! Despair as no amount of scolding can stem the heedless fury! Someone is heading for a time-out, Mister!

Meaniehead

meanieheadAges: 4-8

Henry and Eve are two perfectly delightful children—who fight about absolutely everything. (They’re siblings, after all.) Their latest sibling spat is over an action figure. Which means it’s serious. Before too long their house is destroyed. The park is leveled. The whole neighborhood’s gone. Can anything repair this rift? Or will their bickering be the end of the Grand Canyon? And Texas? And the universe?

My Teacher is a Monster! (No, I am Not.)

my teacher is a monsterAges: 4-8

Bobby has a problem. You see, his teacher is a monster. But when Bobby runs into his teacher outside of school, he learns there is more to her than meets the eye. The title of this book did it for me.

A Perfectly Messed-Up Story

a perfectly messed up storyAges: 3-6

Little Louie’s story keeps getting messed up, and he’s not happy about it! What’s the point of telling his tale if he can’t tell it perfectly? But when he stops and takes a deep breath, he realizes that everything is actually just fine, and his story is a good one–imperfections and all.

Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets A Makeover

princess sparkle-heart gets a makeoverAges: 4-8

Amelia and her dog are best friends . . . until Princess Sparkle-Heart comes along. Soon, Amelia and her treasured doll are doing everything together: having tea parties, attending royal weddings, keeping each other’s secrets. But amid all this playtime merriment, doom closes in with a low and steady “GRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.”

While You Were Napping

while you were nappingAges: 4-8

A mother promises her remonstrating, wriggling son that he “won’t miss a thing” while he’s napping. But if his older sister is to be believed, the Best Party Ever took place right outside his window. “COMING SOON! BIG FUN! STAY AWAKE!” announces a skywriter, followed by robots, pirates, firemen, the uncovering of a dinosaur skeleton, and an apparent daylong moratorium on “Don’ts,” which meant kids could drive bulldozers, throw mud, drink ketchup, race in their underpants, and shoot off fireworks.


 Exploring Our World

I’ve increasingly found myself drawn towards fun non-fiction books for children and these look incredibly interesting.

Creature Features: Twenty-Five Animals Explain Why They Look The Way They Do

creature featuresAges: 4-8

Tongue-in-cheek questions (“Dear axolotl: Why do you have feathers growing out of your head?”) address the anatomy and physiology of 25 unusual-looking species. In response, the pink salamander explains, “Those aren’t feathers—they’re gills. They let me breathe underwater.” Other subjects include the mole rat (“Have you ever thought about getting braces?”), sun bear, and blobfish (“What on earth happened to you?”).

Little Humans

little humansAges: 4-8

Shot in urban settings throughout the year,the photographs represent a rich range of ethnic backgrounds, eclectic outfits, and spontaneous poses. Stanton laces the images together with simple free verse alluding to children’s attributes, accomplishments, and pastimes: “Little humans can do BIG things, if they stand up tall and hold on tight.” In one scene, a stylish mother and daughter wearing pink straw hats smile at the camera; elsewhere, a stony-faced toddler and his dog sport superhero costumes (“Little humans can be tough… super HERO tough”).

Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine 

queen victoria's bathing machineAges: 5-8

Queen Victoria is ready to break free from the constraints of life at the top (including literal ones, like corsets) and take a swim in the ocean. But that would never do given the mores of the era named after her—until her beloved husband Albert comes to the rescue! The bathing machine – a covered wooden cart with an undressing room that can be rolled into the sea, allowing the swimmer to discreetly enter the water. “No one will get so much as a peep,” Albert assures her, “except for the creatures down in the deep.”

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

the right wordAges: 7+

For shy young Peter Mark Roget, books were the best companions — and it wasn’t long before Peter began writing his own book. But he didn’t write stories; he wrote lists. Peter took his love for words and turned it to organizing ideas and finding exactly the right word to express just what he thought. “Words, Peter learned, were powerful things. And when he put them into long, neat rows, he felt as if the world itself clicked into order.” Yet Roget wasn’t merely a reclusive scholar. He meant for his thesaurus to have a democratizing effect: “I want everyone to be able to use my word book, not just doctors, politicians, and lawyers, but cobblers, fishmongers, and factory workers.”


Picture Book Poetry

Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems

firefly julyAges: 6-9

Never more than six or seven lines long—and some are just a few words—each poem in this spirited anthology celebrates an aspect of the seasons. Evocative and accessible, they make excellent prompts for classroom poetry exercises. “What is it the wind has lost,” ask poets Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser, “that she keeps looking for/under each leaf?”

Hi, Koo! 

hi kooAges: 4-8

Readers are challenged to stretch their minds and imaginations with twenty-six haikus about the four seasons.

“Dance through cold rain
then go home
to hot soup”

“Eating warm cookies
on a cold day
is easy”


Holiday Highlights

Here Comes Santa Cat

here comes santa catAges: 3-5

Cat is concerned that he’s been too naughty during the past year (and he has a pie chart to prove it), so he dresses up as Santa – what better way to ensure he gets a gift? As in the previous book, the back-and-forth between Cat and an unseen narrator propels the story’s humor. “Instead of trying to be Santa, why don’t you just try to be nice?” suggests the narrator before coaching Cat through a few less-than-successful attempts at caroling and tree decorating (“Wow,” says the narrator, opposite an image of Cat thoroughly wrapped up in a string of lights).

I Am a Witch’s Cat

i am a witch's catAges: 4-8

A girl dressed in a head-to-toe cat costume explains how she knows her mother is actually a witch. For starters, she keeps “strange potion bottles in the bathroom that I am NOT allowed to touch,” and “when her friends come over, they sit in a circle and cackle and swap spell books.” Together, this playful girl and her loving mom are a perfect twosome, whether they are mixing potions, growing magical plants, or dreaming of wild broomstick rides under a full moon.