Young Adult Education

Secrets Beneath the Surface: ‘Imaginary Girls' by Nova Ren Suma

Some of my childhood memories involve staying up late with creepy books. Lois Duncan, Caroline B. Cooney and, on the more adult (and definitely more nightmare-inducing for a little kid) side, Stephen King. There was nothing better than flipping through the pages, barely able to turn them fast enough, almost skipping over the descriptive paragraphs in anticipation of that moment when all would be revealed: she was a secret witch (or ghost, or monster) all along! These were exciting worlds to escape into, worlds where things weren’t always logically explained or reasoned away. I slipped into these books and discovered, to my delight and horror, that anything could happen, and anything wasn’t always good. Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls gave me that same wonderfully creepy feeling. It brought me right back to my childhood bedroom again, laying on my flowered bedspread, surrounded by my pink-stripes-and-kittens wallpaper, getting freaked out but reading on anyway.

Chloe and her older sister, Ruby, live together in their small town. Since their mother’s basically the town drunk, Ruby looks out for Chloe. Ruby’s one of those pretty and popular Perfect Big Sisters (like in A Summer to Die), but even though she’s always been able to charm her way out of any problem and convince every boy to do her bidding, Chloe still adores her. She knows Ruby loves her more than anyone else and will always take care of her.

Until the summer when Chloe tries to swim across the reservoir, at Ruby’s urging. She finds the dead body of London, a girl from her class, floating in a rowboat. The experience, and the nightmares that follow, upset Chloe so much that she decides to go live with her dad, all the way in another state. So she lives a mostly boring life there…until Ruby shows up 2 years later to take her home.

Back in town, Ruby keeps saying that everything’s just like it used to be. She wants to slide right back into their old lives, but there’s one thing that Chloe can’t get over. More like one person: it’s London, and she’s alive. Chloe knows London should be dead; she saw the body and read the obituary. But here she is, laughing, talking, drinking and very much among the living.

Even though I’m not a rabid “no spoiler” person (seriously, once something’s been out for at least a year, we can’t keep hiding the ending forever. Like, it’s not my job to make sure you don’t find out the ending of Citizen Kane, you know?), I’ll avoid saying too much else about the plot because a lot of the fun comes from figuring out how London ended up alive once again. Suffice it to say, the town is full of secrets and surprises, not the least of which is what lurks in the water. And Ruby herself, the girl who everyone loves and worships, has her own secrets.

Imaginary Girls has a lot of fantastical elemnents, but at its heart it’s the story of 2 sisters and the intense bond they share. In this article, Nova Ren Suma writes about magical realism, which is a good way of describing the surreal-yet-grounded story. No matter what genre you place Imaginary Girls in, it’s a gorgeous book that manages to be beautifully written while evoking that precious, staying-up-late-reading-Lois-Duncan feeling I loved so much as a kid.

Some Highlights:

Imaginary Girls was recently in the news when Malia and Sasha Obama were seen buying a copy. I will definitely take reading recommendations from the first daughters, because I look to them for guidance in all matters (mainly sartorial). Seriously, have you seen their clothes?

I’m not going to turn this into a Malia & Sasha fashion blog (although I’m tempted), but you have to admit, regardless of your political affiliation, that the girls are really rocking those coats. When book-buying, the girls also picked up a little Camus, which means there’s a very real possibility that an 11 and 14 year old are smarter than me, in addition to being much more stylish.

-Nova Ren Suma runs a wonderful blog, where she dishes out writing advice and interviews authors.

-If you loved Imaginary Girls and want to read more of Nova Ren Suma’s beautiful writing, you’re in luck! She has a new book, 17 & Gone, coming out in March of 2013.

Have you read Imaginary Girls? Are you looking forward to Nova Ren Suma’s new book? Let me know in the comments! And, as always, I love to hear your suggestions for books to feature in Young Adult Education. Leave a comment, e-mail me at or find me on Twitter @KerryAnn.

Featured image via; Obama girls image via NY

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