The 1999 Official Pokémon Handbook
Gotta catch ’em all, Pokémon!
In 1999, Maria S. Barbo was two years out of Bryn Mawr College and working as an editorial assistant in New York City. One day, her boss handed her a bunch of Pokémon material — scripts, videos, cards, gaming manuals — and told her to learn everything she could about Pokémon. Barbo was going to edit all the upcoming books.
“Then when Pokémon hit,” Barbo said via email, “it hit big — as predicted. And it hit fast.” Barbo knew all about the property. From her apartment while battling the flu, she quickly penned The Official Pokémon Handbook.
Seventeen years later, Niantic and Nintendo released Pokémon GO, a mobile app that compels users to catch virtual Pokémon based on their geolocation. In less than one week, the game increased Nintendo’s stock by $7.5 billion. Even though there are fewer pokéstops in black neighborhoods, it’s already the biggest mobile game in U.S. history. It dashed to No. 1 faster than any game ever. It is crushing Candy Crush, Draw Something, Clash Royale and even nongaming apps such as Google Maps, Snapchat, Twitter and Tinder. Absolutely unbelievable.
Back in the ’90s, it was about the Pokémon television show, and the hurricane of surrounding paraphernalia, including books. “It was gratifying to know we were creating books that sparked an interest in reading for kids who otherwise might not have picked up a book on their own,” said Barbo, who still makes books that encourage kids to read. “I was a hero to my little cousins … they bragged about being related to me. … But the best part was seeing my name at the top of the best-seller list for weeks on end. I was 22 years old, less than two years out of college, and I was a No. 1 New York Times best-selling author. No. 1! For one glorious week around the winter holidays, I beat out J.K. Rowling and Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution.”
I still have a now-tattered book with a blue spine called The Official Pokémon Handbook, and in 1998, I begged my mom to make me a “book costume” for a kindergarten Halloween parade at Potomac Landing Elementary School in Fort Washington, Maryland. Barbo’s book influenced my second grade Halloween costume choice. The paperback had been purchased at Ross — yes, the same one where you “dress for less” — where I’d found myself in the children’s book section. The Pokémon series had just begun, and I knew all the Pokémon that Ash Ketchum, Pikachu, Brock and Misty ran across on their adventures. I wanted to be a Sandshrew — a ground Pokémon that digs deep into the earth. My mother is a fantastic seamstress, so I asked her again to make me a costume. She borrowed my Official Pokémon Handbook Deluxe to get an idea of what Sandshrew looked like and how she’d design the costume. The book went with us when we traveled to (the now defunct) Hancock Fabrics to buy the materials.
There isn’t a whole lot but work that would make me tear through my room looking for my official handbook (and the deluxe version of it), which I had to go through four boxes to find. But I sat down and went through each one, reacquainting myself with my old friends. I found my Pokémon card collection, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance SP, and my Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Snap for Nintendo 64. In my mind, I went back to the day I tried to wear my Pokémon socks to school in second grade, and my dad told me to change them. (That was not so fun.) But all those memories came flooding back because of Pokémon GO. The same way Steve relies on his handy, dandy notebook in Blue’s Clues to solve that episode’s mystery is the way I rely on my handy, dandy Official Pokémon Handbook whenever I want to be a kid again.
“All I can hope for is that something I wrote sparks a lifelong love of reading in a person — child or adult,” Barbo said. “It may sound hokey but I’m still … dedicated to the cause.”