You know those books you buy on impulse purely because you're passing through a bookshop you don't often get to visit? Or perhaps it's been a hard day? Or possibly just because it's a Wednesday (I really hope that last one isn't just me)? But, sometimes, after the excitement of the purchase their glossy covers just glare at you from the shelf because you tried to read it and just couldn't get anywhere. Every now and then one of those impulse purchases turns out to be a pure gold winner. I must admit, that doesn't happen as often as I'd like but every time it does it kind of justifies all the other near-miss risks.
Here are a few of my stand-out middle grade whim winners: -
The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi.
It was a bad day at work in Birmingham, 2003. When I had days like that I'd go to the nearest Waterstones (the one by the ramp that used to be a bank) and mooch around the children's section in the basement. It was quiet down there and pretty empty on a weekday. Book 1 was on the new releases shelf but quite far down which made me feel like I'd made a discovery. I was drawn in by the cover and the colour plates inside, there was a map (more about those later) and a leaf covering the back cover blurb. I was sold. It's still a huge favourite with me now. I remember hanging around hoping for books four and five to just hurry up and I think these were amongst the first middle grade books I'd bought for myself as an adult. Magical.
The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell
I think as an adult I always want middle grade books to give me back the feeling I had when I first read the Narnia books or Carbonel. I realise that's chasing the impossible because, well, life. But as I sat on a winter's evening and started The Twistrose Key I felt that sense of wonder. On a cold, wet night a parcel is pushed through the letter box of containing a key which unlocks the Twistrose in the cellar. Lin is pulled into a magical world where long lost pets have a voice and her help is urgently required. The story just drags you along, within pages you're immersed into this frosty world and taken on a quest. I absolutely loved it and started buying it for friends so I could force them to talk to me about it. Oh, there's a map. I think I should be honest at this point and tell you that if there's even the mere sketch of a handful of locations I'm pretty much sold. It's a weakness of mine.
The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud.
Before this I'd never read any of Jonathan Stroud's work I'm embarrassed to say. I suppose the Bartimaeus books were so far along I just didn't catch up. The synopsis of the Lockwood books was so intriguing and the book illustrations so gorgeous that I couldn't leave it in the shop (the door bell on the back cover left me smitten, it's those sort of details that have me reaching for my money). I totally bought into a world where adults rely on kids to sense where ghosts are hiding and that London is full of spectre-fighting agencies. Lockwood and Co. mess up - a lot - which made me root for them.They're almost too underdog! Their agency home is a ramshackle mystery. There's a head in a jar for crying out loud. It's the sort of book leaves you blinking at your surroundings wondering where you are when forced to stop reading. Ridiculously I haven't read book two yet but it's on the urgent pile (No map but hello chapter header illustrations!).
So, there's just a few. I haven't included Harry Potter although that was also an impulse buy when I was on holiday in Ireland. I had to go back to the bookshop in Dublin and get books two and three. I was pretty much uninvolved in book releases and what was going on publishing-wise in general back in 1999 so The Philosophers Stone was a revelation to me and is probably responsible for pulling me back to children's fiction. But it just goes to show it's always worth taking a chance on a book.