Between the Pages: A Discovery of Magic by Anna James
Throughout my life, libraries have always been instrumental. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have access to both public and school libraries. They may have been small but they were carefully tended, and most importantly, they let me explore a world far bigger than my own. That love for the potential and magic of books on shelves was rooted in me, and grew into my debut novel, Pages & Co.: The Bookwanderers.
In the UK, most children work their way through a guided reading scheme of formulaic books of gently increasing difficulty as they learn to read. When I was in Year 2 in the UK – so aged six or seven, I finally got to the end, motivated by the fact that once you were done, you were allowed to go by yourself to the school library and choose your own books to read. To me this seemed an unimaginable joy and I was desperate to be able to explore the as-yet-unknown stories that filled the books of our school library. I can vividly remember the day at school that it finally happened; I came triumphantly into school with the last book on the scheme finished and ticked off by my parents, and duly approved by Mrs. Morgan, I was sent down to the library to pick my next book.
While I recognize in my rational brain that it couldn’t have been more than a tiny cupboard full of bookshelves, in my memory it is a room with shelves stretching up higher than I could imagine, with books stuck in every available space. I can’t remember the book I chose first, but that feeling of wonder has never left me and I still get that same feeling when I walk into a library or bookshop. And that feeling is what I wanted my own readers to be able to experience. When I was creating Pages & Co, the bookshop where my heroine Tilly lives with her grandparents, I wanted to capture that sense of magic and infinite possibility, and windows into different worlds and lives different from your own. In my book, Tilly learns that she is a bookwanderer – that she can travel inside books – and I wanted it to feel like that concept made real and literal. I wanted my readers to wonder what it would really be like to travel inside their favorite books.
Even outside of school, I had no shortage of books to read. An overarching theme of Pages & Co. is Tilly’s relationship with her grandparents, which was largely inspired by my own relationship with my grandparents, my grandad especially. Visits often involved trips to the bookshop, and they were constantly giving my sister and me books as gifts. Christmastime was always special, not just for the holiday, but for the book our grandparents had carefully chosen for us that year. Grandma often went for inspirational real-life stories but Grandad usually opted for fantasy and adventure. He was the one who gave me The Golden Compass and my sister Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, two of the most influential and significant books that I read as a child.
And even with the extra supply of books coming from my grandparents, I read so much that I exhausted our public libraries supply of children’s and teen novels, and moved on to adult books (probably much earlier than I should have). I had felt the magic of books my entire life, but it wasn’t until I was at university working on my History degree, spending hours researching in the beautiful old library at the University of Birmingham, that I realized I wanted to be a librarian. After a gradate trainee year at a council archives department and a postgrad diploma in Library Studies, I got a job as a librarian in a large secondary school for 11-18 year olds in the middle of England. Being a school librarian was up there with writing as being the hardest but the most rewarding work I’ve done. I will be forever grateful for the chance to work and know so many young people from such a wide variety of backgrounds and being part of their relationships with books and reading for pleasure.
While there were plenty of big, memorable moments throughout my time as a librarian, it was often the smaller moments that had the greatest impact and that I remembered the most: the children who said that they hated reading but you later saw absorbed in a book you had recommended; the group of struggling 10-year-olds all listening rapt in the library as their English teacher and I read them books for the pure enjoyment of it.
They say “once a librarian, always a librarian” and I feel that in my bones. Libraries – and bookshops – are places where magic filters into the real world; there was never really an option for me to write about anything else. Pages & Co is in many ways a love letter to the bookshops and libraries I’ve read in or studied in or worked in or written in. When bookwandering it first being explained to Tilly, one of the librarians says this to her about bookshops, but the same applies to libraries: “You know when you walk into a bookshop and you see all those thousands of books lined up in front of you? That intoxicating feeling of knowing that behind each cover is a different world to explore, like thousands of tiny portals? That adrenaline rush just before you open a new book? The thrill of being surrounded by fellow book lovers? That is what fuels bookwandering, and it comes to life in bookshops.”
Anna James is a writer and journalist. She was a school librarian before joining The Bookseller as their Book News Editor. She now writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines, and chairs events at bookshops and literary festivals across the UK. She lives in north London, in a flat full of books. Visit Anna online at anna-james.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @acaseforbooks.