London-based Anna James has immersed herself in the world of books since childhood, when her love of reading became evident at an early age. James’s professional credits include school librarian, book blogger, literary editor of Elle UK, and book news editor of the Bookseller. James adds middle-grade novelist to that impressive list with the release of Pages & Co. #1: The Bookwanderers, which debuts a planned trilogy, which came out in the U.K. in 2018 and is due from Philomel this month. Illustrated by Paola Escobar, the novel introduces 11-year-old Tilly, whose grandparents own a London bookshop. Tilly discovers that she is a “bookwanderer,” someone who “reads a bit harder than most people,” which enables her, and her bookseller friend Oskar, to be transported into the pages of books. PW spoke with James (who will tour five U.S. cities later this month) about embarking on this new chapter of her career.
When did it occur to you, as an avid reader, that you wanted to write your own stories?
Books have always been a huge part of my life, and I was an obsessive reader as a child. I was fortunate to have access to wonderful school and public libraries and could read as much as I liked for free. I wrote a lot as a child for the pure enjoyment of it, writing what we’d now probably call fan fiction. I used to insert my sister and me into my favorite stories. I think that was the early seeds of Pages & Co. in terms of imagining myself adventuring alongside my favorite characters. But from university onwards I didn’t really write fiction at all. I don’t have any secret desk novels—yet!
What inspired you to try your hand at fiction at this point in your life?
It wasn’t until relatively recently that I tried writing fiction, since I had been writing professionally as a journalist for a few years and found that incredibly creatively satisfying. So, it was only when I had the idea for Pages & Co. that I seriously started with my own fiction.
What triggered that idea?
My love of books and the worlds they’ve transported me to was absolutely the foundation of Pages & Co. I knew I wanted to write something that celebrated the power of books, bookshops, and libraries, and something that made literal the magic I’ve always felt when I’ve read. I truly believe that reading is the closest thing we have to magic—it can be transformative. I had a lot of fun turning the way that we speak about reading and books into a real world with plot holes, books as portals, and the idea of getting lost in a good book. I also wanted to explore the way that the books we read really help us, especially younger readers, decide who we are as people and what we stand for.
How did your previous professional endeavors inform your fiction writing once you embarked on that path?
All of my jobs have had something to do with books and reading, and I’ve been lucky to see the industry from a variety of different perspectives. For me, the most valuable thing I’ve learned from recommending books to people as a librarian and journalist is trying to always keep the reader at the center of it all and trying not to worry too much about all the elements that are outside of my control.
Did you draw from your own favorite childhood books when deciding which characters Tilly and Oskar will encounter in your trilogy—Anne of Green Gables and Lewis Carroll’s Alice, for starters?
It was a mix of my own personal favorites and books I felt would work best for Tilly and Oskar’s stories. It did all grow from Anne of Green Gables, which was and still is one of my absolutely favorite books. I think Anne is one of the most wonderful characters ever created, and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s first book about her is so timeless, joyful, and moving. I came to Alice a little later, and I thought she was a fun one to use, since I thought that readers would already be familiar with her story, which is useful as I don’t need to explain the story and the rules of bookwandering. So, Alice’s story is a great one to set up how the magic rules work, and of course it’s also a lot of fun because I could play with its eccentric characters and iconic scenes.
Do you have a cache of ideas about which stories your characters will enter in the future?
My first drafts are often stuffed with bookwandering trips to my own personal favorites that I begrudgingly have to take out in later drafts because they don’t serve the story at all—but I still enjoy writing them!
The second book in the trilogy, The Lost Fairy Tales, is coming out in the U.K. this month, and in the U.S. in May 2020. As the title suggests, Tilly and Oskar venture into the world of fairy tales where everything is a bit more dangerous, because fairy tales are rooted in oral traditions and much more unpredictable to travel in. I didn’t want to just write each book in a similar structure with different classics pushed in—I wanted each one to feel like its own adventure. And then the third book, which I’m now writing, is something different again!
Are you looking forward to introducing your series to American readers, and do you anticipate that their response to The Bookwanderers will echo that of your U.K. fans?
I am so excited for the first book to be published in America. It’s impossible to know how readers will react, and what they will react to, and I’m excited to find out! Speaking to readers in the U.K. about what they’ve enjoyed and who their favorite characters are is such a privilege, and I can’t wait to meet American readers.
You’ve called The Bookwanderers “a love letter to bookstores and libraries.” What roles have each played in shaping you as a reader and as a writer?
A lot of the book, especially Tilly’s relationship with her grandparents, grew from my very close relationship with my paternal grandparents, which was rooted in books. My Grandad used to take such care choosing books as gifts for my little sisters and me, and we often walked from their house in the Scottish Borders down to their local bookshop to choose books together.
I also have been so fortunate to have access to libraries my whole life. I think that ensuring that libraries stay open and receive enough funding is fundamentally important, and what we lose when libraries close is irreversible. I spent nearly five years working as a librarian in a secondary school, so I believe passionately in the power of properly funded and staffed libraries as I’ve seen first-hand the impact they can have. Through the libraries of my childhood, I was given the freedom to explore much further than the small village I grew up in and was shown that the world was far bigger than me, and that my life wasn’t representative.
Pages & Co. #1: The Bookwanderers by Anna James, illus. by Paola Escobar. Philomel, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-9848-3712-7