Have you ever read a book that made you think, I would have loved this book when I was a kid! If you loved books as a kid, and/or love books as an adult, then boy do I have a book for you.
Maybe you’re like me, and you’ve read many a book from a different generation, and you’re amazed how relevant it is. I’ve had plenty of books like that. The Adrian Mole series, which is prominent among late Baby Boomers and early Generation Xers, was one such example. I discovered a copy of the second Adrian Mole book in my mother’s bookshelf one day, and was hooked. I didn’t get the references to Margaret Thatcher and Germaine Greer and the Falklands War, but I loved reading about the adventures of the boringly average 13 3/4 year old. The same happened with Enid Blyton. I loved reading about Bimbo and Topsy, and schoolgirls going on tame misadventures in 1940s English boarding schools. Let me know what books made up your childhood, but weren’t necessarily written for your generation.
With my December read, I came across the opposite problem, in an exciting way. A recent release that made me wish I’d read it when I was a kid. That book was Pages & Co: Tilly and the Bookwanderers by Anna James. Released in 2018, I discovered this gem while watching BookTuber Lucy Powrie’s 2018 annual wrap-up. I thought: This sounds like something I would have loved as a kid. And I thought no more. Until I was perusing a local independent bookstore late last decade, and I noticed it had a sequel. And so I was finally interested. I picked up the book, and read it at a pace my child self would have been embarrassed about: just under a week. When I was finished, it further reinforced that first thought: I would have loved this when I was a kid.
Pages & Co tells the story of Matilda “Tilly” Pages, an eleven year old who lives with her grandparents in their majestic bookshop in the heart of London. That bookstore’s name? Pages & Co. Because of the unique circumstances of being raised by voracious reader grandparents, as well as a tragic backstory of a mother who disappeared shortly after she was born, young Tilly’s favourite activity of all time is to find a hidden nook and curl up with a good book. One day, strange things start to happen between the shelves of Pages & Co. Her favourite (public domain) book characters start appearing in the store. Is she imagining things? Of course not. What Tilly is witnessing is the ancient art of bookwandering: the ability to walk into the pages of her favourite books, and for those characters to appear in the real world. But something is amiss. With the help of her IRL friend Oskar, as well as her book friends Anne Shirley and Alice in Wonderland, Tilly is determined to work out what happened…and maybe she’ll find out what happened to her mum too.
Pages & Co is a quick, easy read, with characters you’ll love, and all the more enjoyable if you’ve enjoyed the works of the public domain characters who appear alongside Tilly. As someone who loved Anne of Green Gables at roughly the same age as Tilly, that only made it better. Much like with millennials like myself, when we were eleven and wishing we could have received our Hogwarts acceptance letters, this book makes you really wish for the ability to bookwander like Tilly and Oskar. Any bibliophile or reader can immediately immerse themselves into this world, and the idea of a bookshop like Pages & Co sounds like it is out of a dream. I particularly like Oskar as a character, especially where he reveals he has dyslexia and can only really listen to audiobooks. I was halfheartedly expecting James to pooh-pooh on that—you know, the sort of person who believes physical books are the only real books with the true touch and smell and taste, and his character will probably encourage younger readers who feel like they aren’t “real” readers that’s it’s okay, you too can be a bookwanderer like Tilly and Oskar.
About the spoilers and reveals near the end of the book: I won’t give away much, but the reveal about the antagonist of this story wasn’t a surprise to me. Even his name sounds evil and villain-y. I felt like his reasons for being the Big Bad were justifiable; I mean, if you were in his situation, wouldn’t you want to escape as well? It is his actions to do with another reveal, about Tilly’s parents, that are not so justifiable. I guessed from one of the first bits of foreshadowing, but I can see an actual middle-grade reader being more amazed by these reveals and rereading Pages & Co just to see how it was all predicted. Now, it was the last reveal, the truth about Tilly, I was surprised about, and I’m absolutely looking forward to reading the second book onwards to see what James will make of this, and the greater ramifications for this universe.
Naturally, there were some problems, as all books are inclined to have. Sometimes the magical, whimsicality of James’s writing, especially about books and brick and mortar bookstores, could be grating, and there was an air of “Books are the only true entertainment.” Maybe it was just a byproduct of writing about books and nostalgia, but it always gets on my nerves that there are plenty of people who believe video games, TV, and movies are not “real” pursuits, are merely time-wasters, and only books are capable of moving us, making us think, and encouraging our spiritual and intellectual growth. But as a lover of books, I can still look past this and see it for what it is: a whimsical tale about the power of one specific medium, and that is book reading.
There’s also this line:
You may be thinking, There’s nothing wrong with that, but the character this is referring to is Captain Krewe from A Little Princess. If you’ve read that book, or if you surmised the premise after reading Pages & Co or the Cliff’s Notes, then this is a horribly misguided line about a character who is down on his luck, and whose death leaves his daughter penniless and in poverty. If he was always rewarded, you’d think his death would leave his daughter in much better shape. For James to just ignore all that to make a throwaway line about perceived privilege is tasteless.
On that note, most of the other references to the characters Tilly & Co encounter are pretty well-written. One such example is a great conversation between Tilly, and Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables. Anne takes Tilly to the part of Green Gables where Anne’s future love interest is first introduced. While talking to each other, Anne is horrified to learn Tilly was born out of wedlock. For Anne’s time period, it was virtually unheard of for children born out of wedlock to be seen the same as children of married folk. It was nice to see a realistic encounter between Anne and Tilly, instead of the sort of revisionist writings a lot of books tend to have. Revisionism is fine if you’re stating that; the current trend of retellings are testament to it. But to pretend a book written over a century ago will have characters with 2020 sensibilities on things is plain old censorship and rewriting the past to pretend bad things never happened.
Reading about Tilly’s encounters with Anne Shirley led me to reread Anne of Green Gables for the first time in about fifteen years, and it’s been so long, it was basically reading an entirely new book. Other than the beginning, and revelation with Matthew near the end, I recalled nothing. Anne of Green Gables is a charming coming-of-age story written by Lucy Maud Montgomery (under the name L.M. Montgomery) and published in 1908. It spawned a trend of plucky orphan girl fiction, such as Pollyanna, another book I own and haven’t read in about fifteen years. It tells the story of Anne Shirley, an eleven year old who is accidentally adopted by the elderly siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who live on Green Gables, a charming, picturesque farm on Prince Edward Island in Canada. It tells her life between the ages of eleven and sixteen, of her trials and tribulations, and was a very progressive story for the early 1900s.
I bought my copy of Anne of Green Gables second hand. This edition was published in 1994, and as such, I’ve noticed modern editions of this book have had some minor word changes, but I’ve got a sentimental attachment to this edition, and we should never expect Montgomery, who was born in 1874, to write to modern sensibilities. Reading Anne of Green Gables again was just as immersive as reading Pages & Co, and I was thankful for Anna James for encouraging me to pick up this childhood favourite. The writing is beautiful and memorable, and I found myself attached to the people and goings-on of Avonlea, and want to continue reading the series.
For that, Pages & Co definitely fulfilled its intended purpose. It got me back into reading an old childhood favourite, and Anna James’s whimsical writing was reminiscent of many a book from childhood. While there are some nitpicks, this is definitely a book to read either on your own, or if you have a child into reading, the perfect book to read together. It will leave you daydreaming about the possibilities of bookwandering, and of that there are many. Never discourage imagination. Its limitations are endless.
And, for Anne of Green Gables? 5/5