Pages & Co.: The Bookwanderers is a Book Lover's Dream
Disclosure: We received a copy of The Bookwanderers from Penguin Books to allow for this reflection. All thoughts and opinions are our own.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. It has always meant a lot to me - and even more so now as a dad. It’s certainly a story for book lovers, but it’s so much more than that too. It’s an unabashed love letter to the child’s imagination. Any book that starts with that as its premise is off to a strong start. And I’m always looking for more books with similar messages.
In The Neverending Story, a book lover named Bastian is reading a very special book that he stole from a bookshop. In the story he’s reading, the world of fantasy is being completely erased by an unseen threat - The Nothing. It’s a depressing metaphor if you think about it too much, with obvious ties to the tragic loss of childhood imagination and innocence. And it’s always a good reminder to me to help nourish my kids’ imaginations and build their love for stories.
I have a very big soft spot for books that celebrate the imagination. And I’ve always thought that one of the very best benefits of reading to your kids is that it builds up their imagination. So I suppose it’s only natural that I’ve always been especially drawn to picture books and read alouds that talk about the imagination and magic found inside stories. In other words: books that celebrate books.
As you can probably tell from my love for The Neverending Story - one of my favorite ways for books to celebrate books is when they play with the idea of the fictional world and the real world interacting with each other. I always thought that it was so cool that the text of The Neverending Story was written in two colors - one color for when Bastian is in the real world, and one color for the world of Fantasia. Gradually the two worlds become intermingled as Bastian becomes a part of The Neverending Story.
I can think of several great books and movies about readers becoming a part of the story. One of my favorites is Inkheart, where some people have the gift of reading characters right out of their books and into the real world. And of course there is The Pagemaster with Macaulay Culkin - where the boy is transported to an illustrated world of famous fictional characters like Long John Silver and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
And who can ever forget the imaginative Sadie from Sara O’Leary’s This is Sadie. Several pages of that beautiful picture book are dedicated to scenes from famous stories - like Alice in Wonderland and The Jungle Book. And she even refers to the characters in those stories as her friends.
All of those stories do a remarkable job at championing the power of books, and now I’m happy to say that I’ve officially added another book to that esteemed list: The Bookwanderers by Anna James. It belongs to a series called Pages & Co., and it’s a book lover’s absolute dream. The same important themes from those other stories - imagination and a love for books - are on full display in The Bookwanderers too. But James takes the book love to an entirely different level.
In the story, a young girl named Tilly discovers that she has the special ability to travel inside of books. You can think of it like Ready Player One for book lovers. But instead of pop culture references from the 80s, you’re treated to copious nods to widely-beloved novels. Think Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, and, maybe my favorite of all, A Little Princess. And, best of all, the characters actually travel to detailed recreations of these literary worlds.
In a nutshell, that’s truly what sets The Bookwanderers apart from all of the other wonderful stories that celebrate books. The Neverending Story and Inkheart are about being transported into books and fictional characters coming to life - but they’re both imaginary books. With The Bookwanderers, James finally, and very adeptly, addresses the question: What if the characters and worlds from my actual favorite books were real?
And it definitely addresses the ins and outs of that question in great detail. It addresses the fact that some books are definitely safer than others - you don’t want to bring an orc back from Lord of the Rings for instance. And it even deeply explores what our relationships with the characters would be like, including many conversations with some of the most beloved characters in history - with remarkable attention to detail.
I’m particularly fond of the humorous tea party with the Mad Hatter. And I definitely loved meeting Miss Minchin, Becky, and Sara from A Little Princess. But I have to give a standing ovation to Tilly’s trip inside an early reader book. She visits the world of the repetitive, classic Peter and Jane book - Here is a Toyshop. And the deadpan humor of their simple personalities is comedy gold:
“Here is a toyshop,” said Peter.
”I like the toyshop,” said Jane.
”Sure, me too,” said Tilly. “It’s a nice toyshop. Is that your dog?”
”Peter likes the dog,” said Jane.
”Jane likes the dog,” said Peter.
”Okay then,” Tilly said. “I guess we all like the dog.”
The woman behind the counter didn’t say anything.
”Well this is creepy,” Tilly said under her breath. “Am I allowed to leave yet?”
The Bookwanderers is absolutely a love letter to books, and it’s a passionate one. The proof of that is scattered all throughout the book - hidden inside dozens of passages that will cut straight to the heart of book lovers everywhere. And I’m not just talking about the literary references. You can see the love in the details - like the descriptions of bookshops and how they make you feel.
And you can definitely see the love in the heartbreakingly beautiful passage found at the end of chapter 3. In it, Tilly had just discovered a box of her missing mother’s favorite books. The passage describes how Tilly’s grandfather used to read to her every single night on the couch. But over time the tradition faded away. For a while they would still read separate books side by side, but finally, without anyone really deciding anything, Tilly gradually began bringing her books up to her room to read alone.
Just that setup alone is already enough to bring me to tears. But, at the end of the passage, without saying anything, 11-year-old Tilly walks into the room, curls up beside her grandfather on the couch, where he still reads every night, and places her mother’s old book in his lap. I was reading the book aloud to my 6-year-old son at this point and I could barely spit out the words by the end.
Suffice it to say that this was the moment The Bookwanderers had me convinced. This is definitely a book for book lovers. If you strip away the plot and all of the adventures - there is still clearly a very deep appreciation for the magic of books deep in the bones of this story. And that passage about sharing stories with your children absolutely proves it.
And curling up together on the couch turns out to be a fitting image as well, because The Bookwanderers makes for a great read aloud with the kids. Some of the entertainment value and charm might be lost if you’re unfamiliar with the books that Tilly visits, but the intent of the literary references might actually end up working in reverse - inspiring kids to seek out the source material and discover these worlds for themselves.
But I’m very happy to note that our 6-year-old was more prepared than I expected. Treasure Island was actually the first chapter book we ever read aloud - and he’s familiar with references to Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings as well. Now, if Tilly would just take her next trip into the world of Captain Underpants I think we’d be all set.
Have you read The Bookwanderers yet? What’s your favorite book that celebrates a love for books? Let us know in the comments!