Blog 20

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

“This is a story about an eagle huntress, an inventor and an organ made of icicles.”

This is a book EVERYONE should read. I haven’t loved a book like this for a very, very long time. Of course, there had been a huge buzz around it and I was unusually sceptical, perhaps because of my love of the Northern Lights trilogy, and I had only just read the Polar Bears Explorers Club. So I had resisted this particular text. However, I was absolutely gripped from the start to the finish and in fact, I slowed down to saviour every chapter as I simply did not want it to end. I was both uplifted and saddened that I had come to the final pages. I feel I am mourning the loss of Eska and Flint … I want them back!

So what was it about this novel that I loved? Firstly, the landscape. If ever there was a story that demonstrated how far the landscape becomes a character in the story this was it. The hostile environment that envelops you at the start is so beautifully captured and really I was there. I was on the ice, watching the stars, in the caves, in the forests. I was lost to the mood of the environment. Secondly, the three leading characters: Eska, Flint and Blu. Eska starts the story a captive of the evil Ice Queen who has her locked in a music box. The Ice Queen tortures her and wants to steal Eska’s voice before the rising of the midnight sun because, if she does that, she will rule not only Erkenwald (where the story is set) but she will bring down the Sky Gods who have overseen the land and the tribes for centuries. It’s a classic story of good versus evil but Eska can’t remember her life before being taken prisoner. She has no idea why her voice is important or how she has been touched by the Sky Gods.

Flint is the inventor and, despite everything that has happened, he is enchanted by the long lost magic that the tribes abandoned under the rule of the evil Ice Queen. He knows the old ways and invents clever machines and gives power to objects throughout their adventures. He is also mesmerised by Eska. Something about her gets inside him and it is thanks to Flint that Eska escapes the clutches of the Queen. However, without Eska, Flint would never have believed that his inventions would work, so they need each other. But I am not telling you anything else, as that will give away the fantastic story that unfolds as Eska and Flint journey across Erkenwald to save themselves, their parents and their tribes. Blu is Flint’s little sister. She is a delight.  Both intuitive and clever in ways that even her brother doesn’t realise until it’s in front of him. Blu recognises Eska’s goodness the moment she meets her and instantly embraces her as a friend. Where others dismiss her, Eska listens and Flint will defend Blu to end of the world.

I was overwhelmed by the feelings brought about by this text. Whether it was the idea that we need to remember to protect our environment or that nature is a powerful or that community is far more powerful than one dictator, I was so taken aback that I am still emotionally there with Eska. I want to be her. I want an eagle as a friend and I really, really want to meet an Erkenbear! They must be real, as I read them here and believed. Truly wonderful. There is so much more to this story but I don’t want to spoil it’s twists and turns. I just want you all to go out and read it.

who should read this Book?

Well in my humble opinion: EVERYONE! I guess it’s aimed at the middle grade audience of 8 – 12. It would be a wonderful Year 6 text. It will stretch vocabulary, enchant both girls and boys and I am sure most of the teachers will enjoy it too. There is a fantastic opportunity to explore the arctic and the peoples who live there. Some lovely work could be done across the curriculum with Geography and considering climate change. But maybe look at the Inuit people too or some of the reindeer herders of Finland etc. There are fantastic opportunities to talk about voice  and who has the most power: the quiet and thoughtful one or the loud dictator. Finally, diversity and difference and why we should not judge people because of their differences through talking about Blu.

Honestly, I am not going to be moved by a text like this again for a very long time.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2vnnVCE

 

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The London Book Fair or “how to be lost in a sea of books”!

“What are all those people doing on the stands?”

Well … a very long day in good old London town but I have to say a thoroughly enjoyable experience at the London Book Fair and thanks to some wonderful ‘Scoobies’, I learnt all I need to know about visiting in the future. It was a bit like being a kid in a candy store or, in my case, being at Harry Potter World.

Some of the stands were stunning and I took quite a few images of things that caught my eye. The first was this amazing artwork on the Bloomsbury stand … there were images all the way round but this really spoke to me and I kept wondering what her story was.

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Beautiful images on the Bloomsbury Stand

There was a great deal of discussion going on on this stand which had an eclectic mix of books but I was intrigued by Big Foot!

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Bigfoot Challenge from Fox Chapel

Now the Knights Of folks were tied into another stand but when I saw the Moomins I was immediately staring at all the wonderful books and stationery that was available. There are very few images that have stayed with me from my childhood but the Moomins have great longevity.

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My beloved Moomins

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Another gorgeous stand Image

One of the key areas that, if I had realised had presentations for free (well included in the price of your ticket), was the fabulous Children’s Hub. There were some amazing people there and I was gutted I missed Chris Riddel, who was drawing as a number of writers read from their books. But the stand was surrounded by wonderful drawings by Quentin Blake from Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Was lovely to see the traditional amongst the new (if you can call Roald Dahl traditional).

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Quentin Blake’s fabulous images

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Matilda – Roald Dahl

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Matilda considering reading – Roald Dahl

I did spot ‘Barry Chicken’ on my way around the Chicken House stand … and it was pretty amazing to see so many of the books that have been on my reading list and blog all in one place. For a small publisher, they carry an enormous weight with the MG community.

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So many familiar texts here!

Now back to my original question, what were all those meetings about? In my naivety, I had no idea that book deals and meetings with agents would be taking place. I know, I know, what did I think they were all doing there, having tea and cake! I was also blissfully unaware that the publishers didn’t want random pretend authors (like me!) wandering across their stands with a big backpack on bashing everyone on the head. But ignorance is bliss and not once did anyone really stop me looking at the books due to be released this year.

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Some of the World’s Biggest Publishers

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So many meetings

Continue reading

Blog 19

A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan

“Who wants to live in a town where everyone has to wear glasses to stop them going blind?”

This is a fantastically creepy story! Violet is a bright and clever girl who moves to the town of Perfect, when her Dad is given a seemingly fantastic new job. However, anywhere called Perfect is bound to be an illusion right?

Violet quickly finds herself blind after spending just one night in the town. Given a pair of spectacles she can then see her surroundings and its inhabitants again but something is not quite right and she knows it. Everything seems just too ‘perfect’, immaculate houses, streets and the people seem to be possessed by a false kindness. Violet also has a sense that she is being moulded into a different kind of person, someone who is submissive and does what everyone else does in Perfect. Violet is also aware that someone seems to be watching her and eventually she meets with the mysterious, “Boy”. Boy lives within the town but in an area called No-Man’s land. No-Man’s Land is populated by all those who did not fit the ideal model citizen of the main town and somehow they have been forgotten and lost.

The tension builds incredibly quickly in this story, as Violet finds her world falling apart. Her mother becomes more and more consumed by making cakes and book groups, something that she had never done before. She starts trying to turn Violet into a model citizen by drugging her with concoctions given to her by the brothers who run the town’s opticians, the Archers. And her father … he has vanished and her mother doesn’t seem to realise. However, Violet can see that behaving just like anyone else and not being an individual is wrong and with the help of Boy, she starts to unravel the goings on in the town.

This is such a clever mystery. There are so many twists and turns and the brilliant linking together of the characters is superb and had me gripped. There’s also some really disturbing dystopian features, eyeball plants and stolen memory jars that are right out of a John Wyndam novel. How are they pulled together? Well you will just have to wait and read the story yourself but needless to say, the Archers are not what they seem and the mysterious lady in the ghost village is far more important than she initially seems!

Who should read this book?

This is a cracking text for Years 5 – 7. With appealing central characters in a world that seems not too remote from our own, I think it will intrigue boys and girls alike. Violet’s strong character is a delight and she will appeal to young girls and boys, as she shows both her determination but also her fear. In terms of using this in a classroom, I think there’s some fantastic opportunities for exploring the idea of ‘rose tinted spectacles’ and imaginative writing. There’s also some great stereotyping here and questions around why women bake cakes and men go to work. Definitely something you could use to challenge perceptions in Years 6 and 7.

Loved it! Sure you will too.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2JMyBgY

Blog10

Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

“February, 1941 A Bomb Blast … a chance encounter… her mother’s coat”

Best reads

Fabulous!

There are some books that you put in your basket, as you wander around the local book shop, that you had no intention of buying. When I picked up Letters from the Lighthouse, I wasn’t sure where I’d heard about Emma Carroll but I must admit that a lighthouse in the title was a draw. I am from the south west of the UK; there’s always a lighthouse and for me they evoke romantic images of a time before GPS, when rocks were life threatening to boats, and children dreamt of being lighthouse keepers.

When you start reading this book, you are immediately thrown back into World War 2. The opening, with it’s bombing and terrifying scenes of buildings being blown apart, is described with such vivid accuracy that I felt my heart rate go up and I feared for our lead character, Olive. Olive and her brother, Cliff, are then evacuated by their mother to Devon (again, how at home did I feel in this book), where there is an intriguing connection to the Post Mistress, Queenie. The journey doesn’t start well and it seems as if Olive has met her nemesis in Esther Jenkins, who superficially seems vile and a bully. There is, of course, much more to Esther than her outward nastiness.

The lighthouse is vital to the story and I learnt a great deal about the way the Germans used lighthouses for navigation into Plymouth. In fact, one of the wonderful elements of this gripping story is the history. There’s so much I didn’t know (and I am about to show my ignorance here) about the “Kindertransport” or that those children arrived and settled into the UK without knowing if their parents were alive or dead. I also had no idea that Jewish refugees were smuggled out of France to the UK. The book seemed to resonate with overtones of the current political state of the world, as one particular idea that runs through the story is that of humanity and what makes us human.

“Beneath our race, our religion, we are all human beings. We all hurt in the same ways.”

This seemed incredibly poignant to me and I am sure younger readers would appreciate the importance of recognising the humanity in everyone, even if we dislike them, or in this case were the enemy. It was such a powerful message.

As for Olive, she is a complex leading lady, naturally intelligent, curious and fearless, she drives the story forward with her unwavering determination to find the truth out about her wayward sister, Sukie. She shows her intolerance of Esther and then her kindness, she is unwavering in her devotion to her family, and her loyalty to the small village that she comes to love is to be commended. She also shows us how hard it was to be in a country torn apart by war. I felt physically sick when her and Cliff didn’t have enough to eat and equally, I was delighted for them when they ended up living in the lighthouse.

The story reminded me of The Railway Children, evoking the same emotional roller coaster as I journeyed through it. I was caught from the very start. It took me all of 4 nights to read it (much to my husband’s consternation, as I wouldn’t turn the light off!). It’s not often that you read a book where you really want to know the end but at the same time don’t want it to end. I wanted to know the rest of Olive’s story and Esther’s too.  Wonderful.

who should read this book?

Actually, if I had my way this would be a Year 6 class reader. It is so thoughtful, covering things like friendship, race, history and more. It’s a masterclass in historical fiction for kids. I would think linking it to some war poetry and some wonderful research on the period would be fantastic. There’s plenty of writing opportunities too, as you could teach the lost art of letter writing and how they really create bonds between people. It’s a cracking read for adults too, as I can honestly say it’s one of the best books I’ve read for a long time!

Blog 9

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

“Each of us carries the map of our lives on our skin…”

Stars

A Good Read

I love maps. In fact, I have so many maps that after much discussion, there was a clear out of maps that were so out of date they probably wouldn’t get me much further than the end of my street. Therefore, it seems a natural extension to think that I would I love a book that has maps, as the central part of the story. My only complaint was that there weren’t more of them inside this book, alongside the wonderful adventure.

The story is of Isabella and her life on the Island of Jora. It seems like a hard life for her. She has suffered the loss of her mother and her twin brother and it’s clear from the start that this has left a profound mark on her. Her ‘Da’ however, is the town’s cartographer and revels in his inks and bringing maps to life. He dreams of one day escaping Jora and going to India to capture the beautiful colours and inks of the country. But it seems that there is more going on in the town than meets the eye. Gromera is ruled by Governor Adori and it seems that he rules with an iron fist, having placed many innocent people the Dédalo, a prison under the his mansion. But there’s more threats on Jora than the Governor. There’s a whole tribe of people who have run to the Forgotten Territories, The Banished, and then there is something sinister living under the Island that seems to be killing the trees and terrifying the wildlife.

The threats to Isabella’s way of life begin when one her school mates is killed and her mangled body found underneath the Governor’s Dragon Fruit trees. When the Governor’s daughter, Lupe, decides to go in search of the killer, Isa transforms herself to save her friend from certain death. But she is at the Governor’s mercy and her journey across the island is fraught with danger. Isa is a strong character and she believes in the power of the natural world. She is intelligent and manages to lead the search party by using the stars and her mother’s map of the island to navigate the dangerous landscape.

The Governor is the true villain of the story (although there are a few other scary characters but I am not going to reveal those). He is arrogant, rude and treats his people with disrespect and, as we find out later, he treats Lupe with contempt too. He is vile to Isa, taking a precious piece of her father’s walking stick (which glows in the dark) and ordering her around without any recognition of her ability to navigate across an unchartered island. He has never told Lupe about his past and, as she finds out later, he is not the father she thought he was.

There are some lovely touches in this book. The wonderful Miss La, a chicken with attitude, somehow manages to survive the madness of events on the island and Isabella’s instincts to save her from the pot are augmented by Miss La’s ability to peck anyone who tries to take her out of her cage for a stuffing! Pablo, her neighbour,  frequently comes to the rescue of Isabella but what I loved about this story was that ultimately, it’s Isa’s resilience and quiet determination that see her through and it is not the boy that saves the day either but someone entirely unexpected.

I really enjoyed the language and style of this book; it was both challenging and engaging. It certainly does not patronise a younger reader and I think would not be a barrier to their understanding and I would always encourage youngsters to read a book that builds vocabulary. All in all, a strong story and lovely characters, I just wish there were more maps in the book to compliment the story.

Who should read this?

This would be a great text for Year 7 at the start of their journey through secondary school. Themes of resilience, resourcefulness and facing your fears are just the sort of thing that young people need to read. It also raises questions of class and difference which I think would be wonderful combined with some multicultural poetry and stories. Paired with something like The Caribbean Dozen, The Girl of Ink and Stars, would be fabulous for a great scheme of work.

Blog 7

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens – Review

“THere’s been a rather shocking murder at deepdean school for girls …”

Best reads

Fabulous!

I wanted to start the year, as I mean to go on: reading, writing and reviewing. I could not have chosen a better book to start off my reviews for 2018. Robin Steven’s gloriously conceived story, set in the 1930s at an English boarding school is a real romp and I found it very hard to put down. I will confess that, initially, I was somewhat sceptical, as I love a good murder mystery and my favourite writer in the genre is Agatha Christie (particularly as I live within 10 miles of Greenaway). As a voracious reader when I was young, I started reading Christie novels when I was 10 or 11. I think my Mum was trying to find an author who had written enough books to keep me quiet and which I wasn’t too young to understand. So, I like a good plot twist, I love trying to solve who did it before I am told and I always love the great reveal at the end. Could Robin Stevens do the same? Could she possibly write for a young audience and captivate them, as Christie had done for me?

The story is told from the perspective of the thoughtful Hazel Wong. Hazel is an interesting girl. She’s from Hong Kong and has been sent to a British boarding school, as her father wants her to have the best education. Interestingly, having worked in an all girls’ boarding school myself only 10 years ago, this was still the case. Many lovely Cantonese girls would find themselves arriving at Heathrow and on a coach to a rural Devon school. Deepdean sounds somewhat similar! Anyway, Hazel keeps the notes on the murder that takes place in the first few pages of the novel and is led into all sorts of scrapes by her best friend and president of the Detective Society, Daisy Wells. Hazel envies the blond, blue eyed Daisy, who is incredibly popular and pretty. However their unlikely friendship is forged when Hazel reveals that she knows Daisy hides how clever she is to everyone.  Daisy realises that Hazel is the steady character who can curb her impetuous tendencies and as such they form the Detective Society.

Their ingenuity and determination to uncover what has happened to poor Miss Bell, the Science Mistress, is both hilarious and haphazard. As they roam about Deepdean taking on the roles of Sherlock and Watson, they uncover a series of clues that they carefully put together. Hazel, spends the novel terrified that the murderer knows who she is and at the end, it turns out they do indeed know that Daisy and Hazel have uncovered their secret. In amongst all the investigation, they have buns, midnight feasts, seances and various lessons. They have a group of loyal friends, use words like ‘chump’ and ‘dunce’ and lead us on a merry dance through the 1930s experience of being at a girls’ boarding school. It’s all jolly good fun!

Does Robin Stevens achieve the goals I set out for a good murder mystery at the start of this Blog? Yes she does! Ooo, I thought I had it solved but red herrings galore abound and, like the girls, I charged off down a number of dead ends. I think I was too convinced that only Hazel could really solve the mystery as she was thoughtful … but Stevens was way ahead of me and cleverly demonstrated that the team is more important than the individual. I must admit that this was a cracking good read and if it wasn’t for the fact that I have a pile of books to get through to review, I probably would have read the rest of them straight away (summer hols aren’t too far away!).

Who should read this?

I think anyone (boy or girl) in years 6 – 8 would love this. It brings in a sense of history, is linguistically beautiful and the story makes you think. Of course, the heroes are Hazel and Daisy and I like seeing strong female leads in a novel. I think teaching suspense and pace is something that is quite hard to do and this would be a cracking novel to use to teach the art of writing great tension. And I think if you want to read something that has you scratching your head about whodunnit … well here it is!

Blog 6

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper – Review

‘this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining’

Best reads

Fabulous!

Twitter is an interesting place for authors and would be authors. There are some wonderful people to follow: Michael Rosen, Patrick Ness, Emma Carroll, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, M.G Leonard and more. Just occasionally a Twitter hashtag takes off and one I became instantly drawn to was #TheDarkisReading. Back in the day, when I first started teaching in Kent, I remember the Head of English introducing a book to me to teach to Year 8, The Dark is Rising. In those days, being relatively young and enthusiastic, I took the book home to prepare my lessons. We were reading it in the autumn term and it led perfectly into the Christmas holidays. Much more I couldn’t remember, it was after all quite some time ago. I had vague memories of snow on the ground and of Will Stanton but other than that very little remained in my head at all.

The Dark is Rising is the story of Will Stanton’s transformation into an ‘Old One’ between Midwinter’s Eve, 21st December, and Twelfth night. In that time he has a quest to collect the Signs to drive the Dark away from the home counties of England. He faces several tests, as well as trying to save members of his family and himself from death and, ultimately, the destruction of the world.The story starts on his 11th birthday but it’s very easy to forget that he’s just 11, as he shows a wise head in many situations throughout the story. However, he is not perfect as the hero of the tale. In fact, more than once he makes poor decisions, resulting in his quests being even more difficult. However, he is not alone in his adventure and a character we meet early on is Merriman. I did wonder if his name is ironic, as there seems to be very little about him that is merry! Merriman is the wise figure within the tale that stands with Will, when he most needs him and his age and understanding of the world contrast with Will’s naivety.

With Merriman’s patience and gentle discipline, Will starts to become the Old One he needs to be in order to save the world. The force that is trying to destroy him is described as the Dark, a powerful force that is exemplified in the Dark Rider. Will has to find enormous inner strength and to understand his role with the Old Ones and Merriman guides him to the people he needs to talk to. Will realises his whole life has been surrounded by people who turn out to be far more than they seemed on the surface. Miss Greythorne, Farmer Dawson and George are all part of the group that keep him from harms way as he hones his skills and talents against the Dark. He needs them too, as wherever he turns lie threats and potential hazards.

Perhaps one of the most interesting characters is Hawkin. A man pulled through time by Merriman, Hawkin feels his master has betrayed him and used him for his own ends. His lively character introduced in the early part of the story, gradually unravels and the ravages of time make him a shadow of his former self. Time itself is a character of sorts and Cooper carefully manipulates time and the reader, leaving subtle clues throughout the narrative as to who Hawkin really is. I suspect she also manipulated me, as I really felt no sympathy for him until the final pages of his story.

Pathetic fallacy is skilfully used throughout the novel. The cold starts to bite into you and the childhood desire for snow at Christmas, soon becomes a threat to the very existence of life itself. Snow is not a friendly blanket for making snowmen and tobogganing, it is a destructive force that is closing all means of transport, stopping power supplies and a threat to stability and health. Of course, once the snow has stopped, the devastating floods and the damage that causes follows on. And every time, the weather thwarts Will’s passage to save the planet but he overcomes the dangers put in his path. Ultimately the Dark is terrifying. It hangs over the novel weighing the reader and Will down. It’s relentless, unkind, and wilful destruction of mankind pervade ever move in the text and Cooper captures childhood nightmares perfectly.

This is a wonderful book. I was so glad to revisit it and to read it from Midwinters Eve was also quite special. The irony of the snow laying deep on the ground today and causing chaos across the country was not lost on me. The Dark is indeed rising and the metaphorical significance seems particularly pertinent in these troubled times. I did have to confess on Twitter that I couldn’t wait until Twelfth Night to finish, as I have so many books to read at the moment. However, I was not alone. It’s simply too good to put down and stop reading.

Who should read this?

This is a fantastic class reader for Year 7 or 8 but it would need a whole term and perhaps need to be tied into some poetry, myths and legends and work on pathetic fallacy. Although it’s part of a sequence, it can be read as a stand alone and I suspect those keen readers would go on and read the rest. This is a challenging text. Cooper expects readers to be unafraid of tricky vocabulary and she doesn’t patronise the younger reader either, playing with narrative structure, time, and bringing in mythological figures. It’s a Middle Grade text but as an adult who loves fantasy, this is a timeless classic that reads as true now as when it was written.

Blog 5

Skellig by David Almond – Review

‘I found him in a garage on a sunday afternoon.’

Stars

A Good Read

David Almond’s story of Skellig tells the tale of Michael and his family, as they go through the trauma of having a sick baby. But in reality that is the side story of Michael’s search for self and his deep connection with the his friend Mina, Skellig and his baby sister.

The opening line at the start of this blog came up in a recent conference I attended. It’s such a captivating first line and raises so many questions in an instant, that I felt compelled to re-read Skellig. I hadn’t read it since I did my teacher training. At the time, I didn’t like it and I couldn’t remember why. I have a vague memory of Sky TV making the book into a programme but I didn’t see it, perhaps put off by my misreading of the text in the 1990s. So I read it this time with fresh eyes. Someone had said in passing that Almond was a Marmite author. Well, if that’s the case, I love Marmite. I was gripped from the start.

There is an emotional tug to this book that really made me feel everything Michael was experiencing. His relationship with his baby sister is explored through the link of their shared hearts. He can feel her being alive in his heart both physically and metaphorically. He is sensitive and at the same time a boy who plays football and is part of the rough and tumble at school. He seems to be able to adapt to this change with ease. I admire Almond for writing a book that allows boys to cry and show emotion. There is not enough of that in writing for young boys.

His next door neighbour, the unconventional Mina, is home schooled, clever and loves nature. Mina is a wonderful girl, not least because she climbs trees and draws and knows something of William Blake. She is the gentle voice of reason and understands Michael instinctively.  She feels his sense of fear and shares his excitement too. Her story is one of loss and, although we are given some insight into why she is a curious young girl who is educated at home, it’s never fully explored but there is another book by Almond, My Name is Mina, that perhaps would tell more of her story.

So who or what is Skellig? He has wings. He’s dusty and turning to stone. He eats owl pellets and Chinese food. He drinks brown ale. Initially he seems to be a tramp, a vagrant who has been living in the crumbling garage next to Michael’s home. As Michael experiences the trauma of his sister being taken back into hospital and perhaps dying, he tries to keep this strange creature alive. Mina helps him give new life to Skellig and they are both drawn to him to try to save him but also he gives them hope and a sense of wonder. He is an enigmatic figure at the centre of the story and his delicacy and vulnerability echo that of Michael’s baby sister.

This is a magical novel and it speaks to the way we try to rationalise some of the things we experience in life. It was so bare in terms of narrative and description but it simply didn’t need it. The raw emotion of the story reaches out to the reader punching through to our own hearts. I must admit to shedding a quiet tear at the end but perhaps not for the reasons you might think. The story gives us what we want but perhaps not in the way we expect. That’s as much as I can say without giving the story away!

Who should read this?

Everyone, Marmite or otherwise! David Almond is a skilled writer and, if like me, you are considering writing for middle grade or even young adults, there is a beauty to the clear and unambiguous style. I read this in two days; I couldn’t put it down. For young people, it’s requires some emotional intelligence so I would recommend it for age 11 and above. It would make a wonderful class reader for Year 7 or Year 8.