This is the fourth book I’ve reviewed that I’ve read more than once. I’m kind of cheating with this one, since it was technically a merchandise tie-in with a movie, but I still count it. This also kind of rides on the tails of my Neverending Story review, since this is another book encompassing the magic of reading—a story meant to celebrate the imagination and the written word itself. Get ready for a journey through fiction, A-Z, where all is possible, with David Kirschner and Ernie Contreras’ The Pagemaster.
Like I said, this book is a tie-in to a movie, also called The Pagemaster. Released in 1994, it was both a childhood fright and favorite of mine. As a young child, it scared me so badly that I vehemently refused to watch it when my older sister wanted to put it on. But when I grew up a little, and discovered the book version in the library, I decided to try the movie again after the book enchanted me so. My childhood self watched it countless times for a crush on Macaulay Culkin, but my adult self returns to it sometimes for a well meant, if corny, reminder of the massive, all-encompassing scope of fiction.
The Pagemaster is essentially a 96-page picture book, but it still reads like a chapter book. It’s the tale of ten-year-old Richard Tyler, a boy obsessed with statistics about danger. His parents attempt to help him by building a backyard treehouse, and sending him on errands beyond his comfort zone. One day, while on his way to get nails for the treehouse, he gets caught in a storm and must take shelter in an old library. After meeting a bewitchingly eccentric librarian named Mr. Dewey (get it?), he takes an unexpected journey into the world of books, ruled by the Pagemaster, the keeper of the books and guardian of the written word. Thus begins a lineup of literary characters, settings, and obstacles Richard must overcome in order to leave the library.
Literally every scene involves Richard coming across a new character, watching them play out a scene from their story, and then moving on. For example, he meets Dr. Henry Jekyll, who mixes his famous formula and transforms into his devilish alter ago, Mr. Edward Hyde (side note: this was the scene in the movie that made me afraid to be in the room when my sister watched it). After escaping the madman, as well as a subsequent encounter with the Frankenstein monster, Richard meets Captain Ahab, on a quest to kill “the devil of the deep, the white whale Moby Dick.” Et cetera, et cetera. Each encounter lasts for maybe a couple of pages at most, as if to give a small taste of a story before moving onto the next. Some stories are referenced in only one line, sometimes as an Easter egg in the illustrations’ backgrounds, or sometimes as the large bulk of one chapter, of which there are four: Richard, Horror, Adventure, and Fantasy.
I should take a moment to mention the illustrations in the book, by Jerry Tiritilli. Oh my word…as a child, I would sit for a long time just trying to pick out all the details hidden in each picture. I liked the details and bright colors, but now that I’ve read more widely, I find new references every time. My measly camera-phone captures of these illustrations don’t do them justice.
So it all sounds like Richard takes this harrowing, life-changing journey on his own. But in fact, I haven’t yet mentioned the three other main characters. They’re of no literary significance or recognition to the avid reader. In typical children’s book fashion, these companions are three talking books, named Adventure, Fantasy, and Horror, each one with the look and personality of the section they represent. While not the most engaging characters, it is cute to listen to them reference books of their genre, and they lend themselves well to the illustrations. Adventure, with his pirate sword and eye patch, is the impulsive leader of the trio, always looking for a fight. Fantasy, in her bloomers and tiara, is the kindly fairy godmother with a saucy, no-nonsense attitude. And Horror is the hunchbacked, Frankenstein-ugly scaredy-cat of the three.
And then there is Richard himself, who, arguably, is not all that interesting. He is meant to be a coward who will earn his courage and strength by story’s end, but beyond that, there is not much more, aside from being a vessel for spouting statistics. That’s not to say he isn’t likable, but for a protagonist on a journey through fiction, you would expect someone more engaging. Granted, it’s one of the most dramatic character arcs I’ve ever read, for someone so fearful to ride a bike off a cinder block ramp after 96 pages, but there has to be more to Richard than his cowardice.
But that, I suppose, is the intent of The Pagemaster: to be a showcase of classic stories children can read. It has a short space in which to introduce a plethora of characters from all realms of fiction, so it makes sense to choose the best scenes from these books. It was from this very book that I first learned of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Murder on the Orient Express, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and a whole lot more. I may not have learned very much about those stories from The Pagemaster, but at least they garnered enough interest for me to want to read them. Treasure Island has since become a favorite of mine, and I don’t regret it in the least.
Looking back on The Pagemaster, I hesitate to say it doesn’t hold up. After all, it introduced me to the scope of fiction and gave me some reading choices. Not all the characters may be totally memorable, but I don’t really think that was the intent. Author David Kirschner himself said that he wrote the story to better introduce his two daughters to the wonder of reading. In that respect, I think the desire outweighs the delivery. Some of the prose could have been better done and some stories given more attention, but still, it’s a halfway-decent vessel towards showing reluctant readers what’s out there. Maybe it’s my nostalgia talking, or that I greatly admire The Pagemaster for its purpose, but I still say give it a try. After all, if my reluctant-to-read little sister and I can read it together several times as kids, then maybe it can do the same magic trick for others.