Once upon a time there lived a girl, a woman really, but a woman with the heart of her twelve-year-old book-reading self still beating inside her. This girl encountered a new way of looking at the world of books, in the debut novel of Anna James, Pages & Co.: The Bookwanderers, and was utterly captivated. This month, the third installment of Pages & Co. is released, and it’s not too late to join this train and come along for a wild ride with Matilda Rose Pages and her best friend Oskar.
Pages & Co.: The Map of Stories picks up where The Lost Fairy Tales left off. The British Underlibrary has been taken over by the nefarious Underwood siblings, who are still keen to get their hands on Tilly and her inherent book magic. The Underwoods have bound the source editions of the British Underlibrary, preventing all from bookwandering within their pages. Claiming that it is a temporary measure while they get to grips with their new roles, the new librarians have no intention to give up their power. Tilly and Oskar, with the help of her mum, are soon off on a search for the mythical Archivists. Believing herself to be in possession of a map sent by the Archivists, Tilly has hopes that they can help rescue bookwandering from the machinations of Melville and Decima Underwood. But the Underwoods aren’t the only problem, something seems to be happening to Tilly. Where once characters would come and speak to her, she now seems to be pulling whole scenes out of books, her room bursting into flowers and grass as she reads of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
Anna James continues to build a world of fantasy and fiction, where words hold power, books hold tangible magic, and the imagination is the most valuable currency we have. This latest adventure finds Tilly and Oskar exploring the American Underlibrary, the library of Alexandria, and a train powered by book magic, called the Sesquipedalian. I had thought that no train could ever beat the flight of fantasy created by Chris Van Allsburg in The Polar Express, but the Quip is something else entirely. Operated by Horatio and his nephew Milo, the Quip accepts paying customers where payment is not of the monetary kind. There seem to be no limits as to where it can go, real or fictional destinations, real or fictional passengers. It is thanks to the Quip that we learn that the book magic we have previously seen is what happens when book magic is ripped out, taken without permission, and that what real book magic looks like is far more wondrous and beautiful. The Quip serves as a vehicle for our characters to get where they need to go, but also to carry the story to new places, mainly to find The Archivists.
Once they find The Archivists, they find not what they were actually looking for, but so much more intrigue, and so much more fantasy. Imagine looking for a secret society of librarians, and finding William Shakespeare arguing with F. Scott Fitzgerald. James expands the notions of book magic, far beyond pages, far beyond our corporeal reality, into what true imagination and genius can accomplish. Where the first book opened up a new world of reading, and the second book explored the nature of Fairy Tales, in this installment we learn more about the source of our stories. What happens to a story that is so ubiquitous in our world that source editions have been “lost.” What happens when a source edition is destroyed? In this book we spend a lot of time in the world of Shakespeare, with the author himself and with the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The finale draws on the power of these books, and shows the power of certain characters to reach beyond their own worlds. It’s a scene worthy of a movie someday—oh, Netflix, hear my plea. Matilda’s world is made even more accessible and magical by the delightful artwork of Paola Escobar. To see his imaginings in motion would be a new level of fantastical.
I have a soft spot for these books—my own daughter’s name is Matilda Rose, just like the main character of Pages & Co.—and anything that creates a world within a world, or revolves around the magic of books, I am predisposed to like. Anna James however, makes it so much more. Her love of books, and the places they reside, her love of words in all their multi-faceted uses, is on display on every page, with every twist and turn of the story.
“But the world would be in a lot of problems if it ran out of imagination, and that’s what book magic is really, as its very core. It’s not a finite resource, printed in books and ink. Really, we should call it something else—books are often the way the magic is contained, but it’s stories really, not the books, and it’s in every bookwanderer—it’s in every reader if they knew how to access it.”
This book is a love song to the written word, but it goes beyond a love of words and stories; it speaks to the kind of humanity that can be built when we live in a world that values these words and stories. On the flip side of this, what happens when you forget the books of your childhood? What happens when stories become no more than currency? James uses these characters and their quest to reclaim the Underlibrary, to show the nature of freedom and free will, and to show that there is hope in our children, and our children’s children.
“Tilly, you and Oskar did what you thought was right,” Grandad said. “And that is all we will ever ask you to do. I find that I’m almost embarrassed, having been a Librarian for twenty years of my career, and a bookwander since I was twelve, that I never asked the questions you did about what book magic really means.”
In places, it borders on the political, speaking to what can happen when people in power serve only their own needs and desires, when they are unable to see the bigger picture of the wide and varied world around them. James does this in a way that you don’t feel preached to or chastised, just encouraged. She brings the same kind of hope to her world, that C.S. Lewis brought to Narnia. When I finished the first book, I was desperate to see what comes next. After finishing the third, I feel the need to gift this to every child I know. As it is I will wait for Christmas and use these books during our upcoming virtual school semester. It will be a great story to read aloud with all three of my children, to explore the nature of stories and how they can affect the world around us.
I have spent a lot of time this year contemplating my position as a straight, white woman married to a straight, white man, and the inordinate amount of privilege that brings. A lot of time wondering what I can do other than sit here and say I am supportive. James has Tilly ask the same questions in a safe environment.
“If we just sit here trying to stay safe, they’re only going to keep coming back until something awful happens,” Tilly said. “It’s not enough to hide at home—we have to go and find some answers.”
…“There has to be someone in charge, and what we’re learning now is that the system isn’t best set up for when someone abuses that position. People are scared and so they’re believing the lies that the Underwoods are spewing about progress, or whatever they’re dressing up their power grab as.”
The book concludes with a self-reflective Matilda beginning to pen her own story, “The Bookwanderers by Matilda Pages,” in a very Bilbo Baggins moment. But as we have seen in the story, the end notes contain more than you bargain for and, once we pass THE END, we are given an ellipsis, a new font, and a puzzle. It’s a beautiful piece of writing; we are given a final word, and yet there is more. No epilogue as in the second book. No hint of a cliffhanger as in the first. Someone else is watching Matilda Pages, not an archivist, not an Underwood, something new. We still don’t know the extent of Matilda’s paternal book magic; we don’t know what she can do, and where she will end up. We don’t yet know how her story will end. But I cannot wait to find out.
Anna James and her publisher are completely invested in making sure that people enjoy the written word, and the worlds of imagination they produce. You can listen to the first book in the Bookwanderers series as an audiobook on their website, where you can also find many wonderful interviews with the author herself. In a magical turn of events, they have also hidden six Golden Pages in six random copies of Pages & Co.: Tilly and the Bookwanderers all over the world. Find a golden page and you will win £500 worth of children’s books. You can still win even without a golden page however, since, if you pre-order the third book, you will be sent an exclusive book light.
Pages & Co.; The Map of Stories will be released on September 17, 2020 in the UK and September 22, 2020 in the U.S. GeekMom received an advance copy for review purposes.