Book Review: The Bookwanderers

Image from Amazon.com

The Pages and Co. series, specifically, The Bookwanderers by Anna James were not on my TBR. It is a pretty popular series right at this moment. I didn’t know that when I encountered it. You know how I keep saying that I wasn’t going to buy any more books this year? Well, there seems to be any number of excuses for why I might break that rule. One of the reasons is when I am on vacation and I am in a cool, local bookshop. You want to support them, right? No-brainer. And what better way to enjoy myself on vaca than wandering into a local bookstore and buying a couple books (and some “bibliophile” socks, see review on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil)? This particular book—The Bookwanderers—was on the bookseller recommends shelf at the entrance of E. Shaver in Savannah. I had trusted this sort of set up when I bought Book Lovers in Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC. That read had basically worked out, though the enjoyable book was less, ahem, rigorous than I would normally choose.

I am torn about what to say to you about The Bookwanderers. Perhaps I ought to begin with what the book is about. Matilda (Tilly) Pages is eleven years old and lives in an amazing, multi-story bookstore in London with her grandparents. She spends her days wandering around the bookstore, reading in corners, and interacting with her grandparents, the guy who runs the café, and the neighborhood peeps, especially the woman who owns the bakery and her son, Oskar. Recently set adrift by her best friend as they entered middle school, Tilly is simultaneously looking for a new bestie and dealing with the emotions dredged up by her grandpa giving her a box of her mother’s, old, favorite books. While the Pages get ready for the big, Alice in Wonderland-themed party, Tilly tries out a deeper friendship with Oskar and inadvertently discovers she can see and interact with the characters from her favorite books, namely Alice and Anne of Green Gables. Plus, now that her grandparents are telling her more about her mother’s disappearance, there are more questions she never knew before to ask. Where did her mother go? Why did she leave Tilly? And is Tilly going crazy or did she just fall into a book?

There are five books in the series so far, and I bet there is no intention to stop producing them, yet. The first book came out (at least stateside) in 2020 and it’s only mid-2022, five books later. We are pumping these out! The Pages and Co. (the name of the bookshop) series is:

  • Tilly and the Bookwanderers
  • Tilly and the Lost Fairytales
  • Tilly and the Map of Stories
  • The Book Smugglers
  • The Treehouse Library

As a note, my book cover does NOT say “Tilly and the Bookwanderers.” It clearly just says “The Bookwanderers” under “Tilly and Co.” (For what it’s worth, the publisher site says the book is called Tilly and the Bookwanderers because that’s the British version, but James has said the American title is truncated.) The middle grades series is selling like hotcakes right now (best seller, plenty of awards). It is illustrated (lightly, it’s middle grades) by Pablo Escobar. Anna James has been a literary person for a while: a librarian, writer, literary promoter of sorts, though she certainly doesn’t look very old. She’s quite pretty, actually. She lives in North London.

 What my review boils down to: I wanted to like it more than I could.

It’s a great idea, right? When I read Book Lovers earlier this year, it piqued my interest in books that are meant for the bookish type, which makes perfect sense, right? I even set up a book club list, here, for book-lovers to read books meant specifically for book-lovers, like The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry and The Jane Austen Book Club. Bookwanderers is clearly meant to appeal to middle schoolers who are happy and immersive readers. There are many of these humans; I was one of them. This is why I went with this recommendation out of all the recommendations. And with Anne of Green Gables as one of the characters? I, too, wanted to get sucked into a book and go with Tilly into other books all at the same time. I wanted a new world, one where books and book people ruled.

There are moments of cute brilliance. Oskar can be quite funny. The story itself is imaginative and the details playful. I would give full marks for the world-building and even the layout of the page to contribute to the story (only every now and again, as it should be). But… First things first: my daughter and I were both immediately unimpressed with the title, which we find awkward as butt. In fact, it’s the reason I almost didn’t go with this book. It lacks a “ring.” Next, the first several chapters are equally awkward. The timing is strange and the action and passage of time are really confusing. (Wait? Did hours just pass? Or days? Or did that all just happen in half an hour???) On top of that, nothing much is happening. We have to wait quite a long time for something to really happen and when things do happen, those things really shoot by without enough drama. The characters are kinda schticky and not very developed (even by the end). (Could we excuse this in a middle grades book? I don’t know. I think modern middle schoolers can be quite discerning.) What I’m saying is the first third of the book had some real clarity and pacing issues. If I hadn’t paid good money for this book and if I wasn’t such a dedicated bookworm, I very well might have put it down and written it off as lackluster.

And then when things did happen, well, I found the “other” book characters, like Elizabeth Benet, Sherlock Holmes, Anne of Green Gables, and Alice in Wonderland, to be off. These are also some of my favorite literary characters and, Anne especially, I know in and out. I just didn’t find them to be especially correct (though I did enjoy the little tidbits thrown in to make a fan smile). Also, I have to give the ol’ critique: the editing is slip-shod, not thorough enough. Not only should some of the timing and clarity issues have been dealt with in editing, but there are even grammar and vocabulary issues throughout. It appears that in order to crank this book out, uncareful writing (which happens) followed by lackluster editing pumped out thousands of a book with great bones that were not ready to see the light of day. A couple random examples (emphasis mine): “The central display tables had been cleared away and there was just one long table heaving under Jack’s creations” (p237). Heaving? I don’t think so. Groaning? Heavy? Maybe. “The sound of something being thrown at the glass skylight above her head forced her out of her melancholy” (p253). One does not hear something being thrown at something. They hear it hit and then they discover that it has been thrown. On another occasion, a roof was described by a character as flat or nearly flat, then two pages later another character is on this (same) steep roof. (These are examples I found within a few pages of each other.) Lest you think I am nit-picking, know that these issues were common enough that I found them distracting, and then I would think, Am I being too hard on James? But many other books—even middle grades books—would pop into my head and I would think about writing—maybe not super deep or sophisticated—but clean enough that it was far from distracting, allowing the reader to, ironically, get lost in the book. When I found critical reviews of The Bookwanderers, they complained of exactly the things I am pointing out.

It is possible that some of the problems arise from a translation from British English and culture to American, but I am extremely well-versed in all things Anglo and I doubt it generally, and even if that were so, the translation would have issues that should have been addressed. Perhaps when Penguin Random House stated on their website that The Bookwanderers would appeal to fans of the Land of Stories series, I should have thought twice about reading it. (It was actually too late by then.) Land of Stories is another middle grades series from the same publisher, super-popular and super-shoddy. (I have never written a harsher review; see here if you want to read it.) They also suggest Inkheart, a trilogy that I am very much looking forward to (though I believe it is meant for an older audience than the other two), so… Their point is that people who love books want to read about other book people escaping into fantastical lands built around books and reading, and all three of these series attempt that: one very poorly (Land of Stories); one with some issues but some charm (Pages and Co.); and one with the better reviews of the three, so here’s hoping (Inkheart).

I want to recommend this for middle grades bookworms, but I am afraid they will quickly see through the confusion and surfacy-characters and even obvious errors. I am also not sure my fears are grounded. Many middle schoolers are reading this series and appearing to enjoy it. If someone had ripped open a copy of Kristy’s Big Day and parsed out the bad writing or editing, fifth-grade-me would have told them I don’t care. So maybe even the bookish middle schoolers (at least the younger ones) reading Pages and Co. don’t care. They just want the magical world that James has created, cute-enough characters, humorous moments, and plenty of nods to classic literature. I wasn’t feeling much while reading this, but perhaps all those big feels wait until we read YA. I won’t be continuing the series and, unfortunately for James on The Starving Artist, there are many more books I would recommend for middle grades that have great writing and competent editing. Maybe try another title on the book lovers book club list? Or build a book nook and read Harry Potter one more time…

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