Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Books for Beginning Readers: Spring 2023

Lots of brand-new books for beginning readers have come out recently. Here are some quick reviews of some easy readers and early chapter books. 

First up are two really fun nostalgic books that parents of a certain age (ahem, my age), will definitely appreciate. Flashback to the...Awesome '80s! and Flashback to the... Fly '90s! are both written by Patty Michaels and illustrated by Sarah Rebar. Using the slang of their respective time periods, each of these Level 2 Ready-to-Read books describes the pop culture of these decades, including food, fashion, music, communication devices and fads. Having lived through most of the 80s and all of the 90s, I was particularly amused by what the author chose to represent each decade. But I also appreciate having titles like this to spark conversations with my kids, some of whom are utterly fascinated by having parents "from another century." I don't like to think about the fact that elementary kids might be doing history reports on my childhood years, but these would be good for that as well.  

The next two books are science-oriented. Dirt and Bugsy: Bug Catchers written by Megan Litwin and illustrated by Shauna Lynn Panczyszyn is about two little boys who love to catch insects. When it rains during their bug collecting, they brainstorm ways to keep the bugs dry. This is a Level 2 book in the Penguin Young Readers  easy reader series, but it's quite a bit easier to read than the titles mentioned above. It has a lot of repetition and short sentences to help support new readers, but the engaging plot and colorful illustrations keep the repetitions from becoming boring. The Night Sky written by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated by John Wallace is a nonfiction Level 1 Ready-to-Read book. It explains what we can see in the sky at night, how the stars and other bodies looked to groups throughout history, and finishes with other phenomena that occur in the sky, such as the Northern Lights. It's well-written and colorfully illustrated and has captured the attention of my 3-year-old son. 

The last easy reader on my list is Elena Rides by Juana Medina. I have found this author's books lacking in the past, and this one isn't really different. Elena the elephant wants to ride a bike. At first she finds it difficult, but she perserveres and figures it out. This is the plot of most books about learning to ride a two-wheeler and there is nothing in this book that adds more to that basic framework. It's fine for kids to practice reading with, but possibly not the most engaging title. 

Kicking off my list of beginning chapter books are two titles in the Isla of Adventure series: Welcome to The Island and The Secret Cabana both written by Dela Costa and illustrated by Ana Sebastian.  Isla lives on the island of Sol, and she is able to speak to and understand the speech of animals. Her best friend is a gecko named Fitz, but when a new family moves into the neighborhood in book one, she thinks it would be nice to have a human friend, too. Isla is afraid the new girl will be too perfect and tidy to have adventures with her. The ensuing plot is a "city mouse/country mouse" type story where the girls work to find common ground. The second book sees both girls trying to track down the source of some mysterious music, which they think might be a mermaid. Strange as it sounds, I found the font in these books to be very off-putting. Coupling the odd look of the pages with writing that is much more "tell" than "show" and dialogue that feels unnaturally stilted, I couldn't really settle in and enjoy them. 

Shermy & Shake, The Not-so-Nice Neighbor written by Kirby Larson and illustrated by Shinji Fujioka is another book about an unlikely pair of friends. Shermy is a reader and a collector of interesting objects. His quiet well-ordered life is turned on its head when active, imaginative, and freewheeling Shake comes to stay with his grandmother and Shermy's neighbor, Mrs. Brown, for the summer. At first it seems these two boys are totally mismatched, but as the adults force them to spend time together, a friendship begins to grow. The plot of this book has been done many times before, but Kirby Larson's writing elevates this title beyond many of the others. I appreciated reading a children's book that was truly for and about children, with no hints of politics or other agendas, and I loved the character development. This one is probably on a third or fourth grade level, compared with the other chapter books here, which are a bit easier than that. 

The Giants' Farm written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Tomie dePaola was originally published in 1977 and has been redesigned for the new generation as part of Aladdin's "Quix Fast-Fun-Reads" series. The story follows five giants - Grizzle, Dazzle, Grab, Grub, and Little Dab - as they undertake the task of building and operating a farm.  The font in this one is distracting like the font in the Isla of Adventure books, only this time the distraction is down to bolded words and words of different sizes. I felt like my eyes didn't know where to look. Still, as I would expect from Jane Yolen, the writing is excellent - fun and kid-friendly, but with dashes of interesting vocabulary and lots of humor. DePaola's illustrations are in that same style everyone recognizes, but they work with Yolen's writing to maintain a sense of warmth throughout the book. There is also a section at the back of the book that includes recipes mentioned in the story and a glossary for new words. I could do without these, personally, but they seem to be a standard feature of this particular series. 

Finally, my last beginning chapter book is Bear and Bird: The Picnic and Other Stories by Jarvis. This is another book about friendship between characters who are opposites, but more on the order of the Elephant and Piggie books or the Poppleton series. In each of the stories in this collection, there is some miscommunication, or other problem that provokes a partcular interaction between the characters, whether that is a silly rescue mission when Bird gets stuck in a flower or an outburst at art class when Bear proves to be the more skilled painter. The tone of the stories is very sweet, and overall the book has a classic feel. The artwork by Jarvis is very gentle and welcoming as well, making this a good pick for kids who transition into chapter books while still very young.  

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Picture Book Review Rundown: May/June 2023

Our Dragon by Mem Fox and Linda Davick

Review copy provided by Beach Lane Books
Published 5/2/23

A mother and father are raising a toddler dragon who tries to follow the rules against setting things on fire, but tends to forget, especially when he's hungry. My favorite thing about the book is the impish little faces the dragon makes. He is so much like an actual toddler, just in dragon form, both in behavior and body language. I didn't think the rhyming text was that strong, and the punchline landed weakly.

Once Upon a Fairy Tale House by Mary Lyn Ray and Giselle Potter

Review copy provided by Beach Lane Books
Published 5/23/23

This is the true story of four imaginative sisters who always dreamed of fairy tales and grew up to put their various talents to use building fairy tale homes. I chose to read this book based on the author and illustrator, both of whose work I have enjoyed in the past, but I did question the reasoning behind writing a book about such obscure subjects. I didn't love Potter's art in this one, as I think a more realistic style suits nonfiction better, but Ray's writing was solid.

Amy Wu and the Ribbon Dance by Kat Zhang and Charlene Chua

Review copy provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Published 5/30/23

In this fourth Amy Wu book, Amy has discovered Chinese ribbon dancing, and she wants to try it out, but she doesn't know what to use for a ribbon. With some inspiration from her mom, she soon realizes that it's not having the right props but enjoying the dancing that matters. My girls have grown up reading Amy Wu, and they loved this latest installment. It's pretty typical of a later book in a series like this, but there's nothing objectionable about it either.

Truffle by David McPhail

Review copy provided by Peter E. Randall
Published 6/5/23

Truffle is a dog who doesn't like cats. He doesn't like seeing them on his farm, or in town, and he would prefer to vacation in a cat-free place. When he does take a trip, however, a moment of danger leads him to meet a feline friend, who changes the way he sees all cats from then on. This is a brand-new book, but it is written and illustrated in the style of McPhail's older titles. There are a lot of books out there about the rivalry between cats and dogs, but with the anthromorphic animals and cozy atmosphere, this one is a bit distinctive.

We Are Going to be Pals! by Mark Teague

Review copy provided by Beach Lane Books
Published 6/6/23

A friendly egret chatters away to a silent rhino about what great friends they will be in this story told entirely in one-sided dialogue. This book is funny because I think most people can see themselves as either the silent, introverted rhino or the gregarious, extroverted egret. The egret's monologue makes may statements about the nature of friendship that make good talking points for kids learning about social norms, and it's fun to read aloud because of his excitement and persistence. There is also an opportunity to remind more outspoken and chatty kids how it might feel to be the overwhelmed rhino in this scenario.

Moving the Millers' Minnie Moore Mine Mansion: A True Story by Dave Eggers and Júlia Sardà

Review copy provided by Candlewick Press
Published 6/6/23

This quirky book is the true story of Annie Miller whose miner husband built her a mansion, and then died, after which she lost her money and had to turn to pig-farming. The town where the mansion stood didn't allow pigs, so she had to have her house moved to the next town by rolling it on logs. The writing style is very tongue-in-cheek and the old-timey looking illustrations perfectly match that droll tone. Not very much really happens in the story, so readers who like this author's style are the most likely audience for this one.

Playful Pigs from A to Z by Anita Lobel

Review copy provided by Paula Wiseman Books
Publishes 6/13/23

This book (a reprint of a 2015 title) is very similar to the author's classic book, On Market Street, but far less distinctive. On each page, a pig with a named staring with the appointed letter of the alphabet performs some action which also starts with that letter. Both the names nor the actions seem totally random, and the pictures are largely very generic. We are big fans of both Lobels in our family, but this is not this author's best work, nor it is an especially good alphabet book in general.

Penny and Pip by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann

Review copy provided by Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Publishes 6/13/23

On a school field trip to the natural history museum, Penny encounters a small reptile baby who starts following her through the exhibits. All he can say is "pip," so that's the name she gives him. The two have fun together, but when Penny sees how sad Pip is at the sight of the dinosaur skeletons, she hatches a plan to be able to take him home without raising suspicions. This book follows a long tradition of children's books about museums, and is not that different from Danny and the Dinosaur, except that this dinosaur is smaller and easier to sneak home. It would be fun to read in anticipation of a museum trip, or with any child who dreams of a dinosaur of his/her own.

You Go First by Ariel Bernstein and Marc Rosenthal

Review copy provided by Paula Wiseman Books
Publishes 6/13/23

Cat and Duck are two good friends. Duck is enthusiastic about new things, while Cat is more cautious. Duck is eager to try the new slide at the playground, but Cat talks her out of it with his worries about safety. Feeling bad, Cat decides to face his own fears so that his friend can enjoy herself. This book has a main text that narrates the stories as well as lines of dialogue worked into the illustrations that showcase the characters' differing personalities. I enjoyed their exchanges, as they reminded me a little bit of my twins talking to each other. I also liked that the characters work things out for themselves without the intervention of an adult. The story also has a sense of humor about the subject matter which gives it just the right light touch. I appreciate the message that it is sometimes a good thing to take risks.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Picture Book Review Rundown: February, March, April 2023

Joy Ride by Sherry Duskey Rinker and Ana Ramírez González

Review copy provided by Candlewick Press
Published 4/26/22
(This was published last year, but I received it for review in April 2023.)

Joy and her grandfather build a bicycle together, and she loves it until some other kids tease her for not having a trendy new bike like theirs. She becomes so angry she tosses the homemade one into a ditch. It turns, out, though, that changing herself to fit in isn't that much fun, and she realizes that she owes her grandad an apology. This is a very different book for Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site author Rinker, and I really enjoyed it, as did my girls ages 5, 7, and 9. I liked that this was a different bike story, not just another tale about perservering when learning to ride.

Wild Blue by Dashka Slater and Laura Hughes

Review copy provided by Candlewick Press
Published 2/14/23

Kayla imagines her bicycle as a wild horse to be tamed. The illustrations reveal her fantasiesy always showing the shadows of the girl and the bike as a cowgirl and horse. The actual events of the story - trying to ride, falling off, trying again, and eventually succeeding - are typical of stories about learning to ride a bicycle, but the horse-themed references and vocabulary give it a fresh flavor. I really enjoyed this creative take on a perennially popular topic.

Bark Ship Bonnie by Stephanie Staib and Fiona Lee

Review copy provided by Harry N. Abrams
Published 3/7/23

A girl (Bonnie) and her dog (hence the bark) sail away on a ship in this poetic litany of sailing terms. Though the poetry is pleasant to the ear, there isn't enough context here to help young readers learn sailing terminology. I requested this after my kids read Swallows and Amazons in hopes that it might reinforce some of the vocabulary they learned there, but it's really just sailing jargon arranged into verse, with a glossary tacked onto the end. I didn't really like the pictures, which felt busy and hard to take in.

Birds Everywhere by Britta Teckentrup

Review copy provided by Big Picture Press
Published 3/7/23

This nonfiction title describes in brief the various habitats in which different birds live. Each page includes a few lines of main text and many little blurbs with additional facts. Names of birds are highlighed in bold, and they are depicted with realistic-looking digital illustrations. My three-year-old son is very interested in learning facts about nature, and this kind of visually appealing book is perfect for a pre-reader like him to look at while an older sibling reads aloud the information.

A Bed of Stars by Jessica Love

Review copy provided by Candlewick Press
Published 4/4/23

A boy who is afraid of the dark at bedtime goes on a road trip with his dad to camp out in the desert where he discovers the beauty of the night sky. This book is by the same author as Julian is a Mermaid, but the subject matter is very different. This story focuses on things like building a fire, studying plant life, and father/son bonding. This has a much more traditional feel to it than many contemporary picture books, and I thought it was a gentle comforting read.

The Loud Librarian by Jenna Beatrice and Erika Lynne Jones

Review copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Published 4/11/23

Penelope wants to be the school student-librarian, but her loud voice seems to stand in her way. The illustrations drive home her high volume levels by printing all of her words in giant bold letters inside of speech bubbles. This feels like a strange topic for a picture book. I don't think most people associate libraries with silence anymore. There are other scenarios that would have made more realistic settings for a story about learning to speak at the appropriate volume. I'm donating my copy of this one.

Let's Go Puddling! by Emma Perry and Claire Alexander

Review copy provided by Candlewick Press
Published 4/25/23

Parents (two mothers and a father) and toddlers (two girls and a boy), plus a baby, who all live in the same apartment building suit up and head outside to stomp in the puddles on a rainy day. I love how the joyful faces and appealing colors of this book make going out in the rain feel like a joyful experience. A more typical representation of rain in children's books is as an annoyance or obstacle, and I appreciated that this one looked at it as a fun opportunity to enjoy nature.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Picture Book Review Rundown: Nature Books, Spring 2023

Today's rundown is a list of recently published books about nature, appropriate for Earth Day or any day. 

How Old is a Whale? Animal Life Spans from the Mayfly to the Immortal Jellyfish by Lily Murray, illustrated by Jesse Hodgson 

*Review copy courtesy of Candlewick Press 

Writing: Though this book is in picture book format, the text is at the middle grade level. Each section describes the life cycle of a specific species, including details of when in their lives they begin to move, mate, hibernate, etc. The book begins with the shortest lifespan (5 minutes to 24 hours for the adult mayfly) and continues through progessively longer lifespans, ending with the ocean quahog (400 years), the glass sponge (11,000 years), and the immortal jellyfish which regenerates and never dies. It's a fascinating way to organize animals, and it puts the natural world into perspective in a way I hadn't even considered before. Though the table of contents does make it pretty easy to look up a specific animal, I think this is more of a book to read for fun than a resource for research. 
Illustration: The detailed colored pencil drawings fill every page and they capture the various phases of life for each creature, as well as the habitats in which they live and how they move and eat. The drawings are realistic scientific drawings, but they feel like pieces of art, not just diagrams. The book is very visually appealing and will draw in animal lovers easily. 
Content: I appreciate that this book keeps the emphasis on non-human animals, and leaves the discussion of human mortality out of it. I think it's more comfortable for kids to contemplate the often-short lifespans of animals when they're not also thinking about the fact that the people they love will die someday. I also like the detached tone of the writing; animal deaths are treated as facts of science and nature (which is what they are) and not as sad events requiring an emotional response. 
Overall: This is an excellent informational book for elementary readers that would pair well with other titles about interesting animal facts, such as Actual Size.

This is the Planet Where I Live by K.L. Going and Debra Frasier 

*Review copy courtesy of Beach Lane Books. 

Writing: This celebration of planet Earth is written in the style and format of The House that Jack Built. It begins with us, human beings, then our homes and fields, followed by the creatures and plants that make our life on Earth possible. There is a gentle rhyme scheme that makes the repetition feel very pleasant and begs for the text to be read aloud. It's deceptively simple, but it's clear the author was very deliberate in her word choice.
Illustration: The abstract illustrations incorporate silhouettes of people and animals, actual blooms and stems and insects from nature, and beautiful swirling lines to suggest the cyclical nature of life on Earth. The pictures are bright and engaging, filled with details to reward the careful observer, but also large and bold enough to translate well to a story time audience. The pictures embody the joyful, celebratory tone of the text.
Content: This is a love letter to the planet that does not preach. It emphasizes the inter-connectedness of all life on Earth, but steers clear of agenda-driven rhetoric that sometimes creeps into children's books about nature. It's a beautifully-designed age-appropriate book to help young children learn to love our Earth. (It does not mention a Creator, but it would be easy for religious readers to extrapolate to a religious discussion of who made all these things.)
Overall: I am a picture book skeptic most days, but this is a real gem. I really enjoyed it, and I think my kids will too. 

What Do You See When You Look at a Tree? by Emma Carlisle 

*Review copy courtesy of Templar. 

Writing: Rhyming text invites the reader to observe trees, then consider their feelings. Non-rhyming back matter then encourages the reader to think about ways to be more like trees.
Illustration: The color scheme of the pictures creates an earthy, naturalistic feel. The trees are artistic renderings rather than scientific diagrams, and the figures are fairly cartoonish. There are several sweet pictures of a family enjoying time together under a tree. 
Content: This is the kind of nature book I actively avoid. Ascribing human emotions to trees and encouraging kids to think of trees as their friends is confusing and it romanticizes conservation in a way that feels manipulative. We need to care for Creation because it's good for us, and it's good for our planet, not because trees' feelings might be hurt. 
Overall: This is an attempt to make kids care about the enviroment by appealing to feelings of guilt instead of feelings of responsibility. It's a weird take on the subject matter and will not be staying in our home. 

The Tree and the River by Aaron Becker

*Review copy courtesy of Candlewick Press.

Writing: This is a wordless book, but the jacket copy tells us we are in either an alternate past or a potential future The story follows the same scene over a period of many years, showing a timelapse of the development of civilization and the changes industrialization brings to the natural world.
Illustration: The pictures are very interesting because they portray the exact same scene, making major leaps forward in time with each turn of the page. The tree and river mentioned in the title remain in place throughout the book, and the changes they undergo represent the impact on the natural world of the human technological advances depicted by the surrounding scene. There is a lot of detail in each picture, and the scenes invite the reader to think about what is happening in each new epoch and how this is impacting nature. 
Content: I was afraid this was going to be a doom-and-gloom book, and I'm relieved to say it isn't. Because there are no words, there is no room for the author to guide the reader's thoughts. Rather, the reader can observe and draw his/her own conclusions. The final images of the book also portray a hopeful message, that if we go too far in our development of technologies, all is not lost and we can correct our course and start again. It also hints at the cyclical nature of all things on Earth. 
Overall: This is a beautifully illustrated book and it invites kids to think without telling them how to do it. I appreciate that, and I really enjoyed paging through this one. 

Amazing Insects Around the World by DGPH Studio
Amazing Animals Around the World by DGPH Studio

*Review copies courtesy of Penguin Workshop. 

Writing: These are informational books, and they are written similarly to a textbooks in that unfamiliar words are bolded and the author uses a straightforward, just-the-facts style. I wouldn't say the writing is dry per se, but it's direct and informative. There are sidebars and informational boxes in the margins of the pages, as well as labels identifying the different creatures that appear in the pictures.
Illustrations: The pictures are highly stylized digital drawings that are both useful as scientific diagrams and appealing to look at just as artwork. The images are organized well on the page so that even where this a lot of visual information it isn't overwhelming to the eye. Bold, capitalized headlines help the text stand out amidst the illustrations, which makes the amount of reading on each spread feel manageable too. 
Content: These are good resources for a first research project, as there is a table of contents and glossary in each, and the information presented is of the type typically requested by an early elementary school science report. The insect volume is a bit more general, and the animal one puts more of an emphasis on unusual animal characteristics, but both are solid general biology titles.
Overall: I requested these with my 3-year-old son in mind, as he loves nonfiction and especially enjoys books with a lot of pictures. I don't think he will be disappointed. We probably have enough biology titles to last all of our homeschooling days, but if you are building up a collection, these aren't bad at all. 

One World: 24 Hours on Planet Earth by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Jenni Desmond

*Review copy courtesy of Candlewick Press.

Writing: Like many books have done before, this one follows animal activity on Earth over the course of one day to emphasize biodiversity. I only requested it because the author is Nicola Davies and her science books tend to be a notch above the rest. She takes a conversational kid-friendly tone in this one, inviting the reader to observe various things in the different places the book visits. Each page's blurb is short, but well-written and engaging to read. She does, however, emphasize negativity, as she cautions about all the ways humans may be destroying the Earth and suggests that certain solutions are simple without getting into the nuance of those solutions.
Illustrations: The illustrator portrays a pair of children in each scene who act as the readers' guides through the book. Since these human characters travel to places that are uninhabitable, this adds a whimsical fantasy element to the book that makes the journey feel fun and magical. The illustrations do a beautiful job of emphasizing the beauty of various aspects of nature and of helping the reader imagine the weather conditions of each climate.
Content: The problem with simplifying a topic for a children's book is that it can make the problem look simple. In at least a few places, the author indicates that a plan exists for fixing a certain problem, if only we would just follow that plan, as though there are no disagreements or politics standing in the way. We did kids a disservice when we introduce them to topics they aren't ready to handle in full and try to win them over to a certain way of thinking by leaving out some of the facts. I wouldn't quite put this in the propaganda category, but I would definitely instruct my kids to consider bias if they read this one. 
Overall: I think there are books that handle this topic better and with less problematic content, but this one is mostly an admirable addition to this genre. 

Shall We Dance? by Robin Page

*Review copy courtesy of Beach Lane Books. 

Writing: This picture book explores animal dances, not just for courtship but also for communication and transportation. Each page describes a different creature's dance moves and their purpose. Large, bold text in various colors gives a one-sentence description of the animal's movement, and then a blurb in smaller text expands upon that information in a child-appropriate style.
Illustration: Each page shows an oversized animal or pair of animals against either a white background (for land animals) or an ocean backdrop (for sea animals.) The creatures and their movements are the main focus of each page, and even the text is made small to accomodate them. The artist does a beautiful job of portraying animals as they would look in real life, and of capturing their signature moves. (Page is the wife of Steve Jenkins, and readers who know What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? will recognize her style from their collaboration on that book.)
Content: This is an appealing look at an interesting aspect of nature. It can be read to a preschooler using just the simplified sentence on each page, or it can be a more detailed exploration for an early elementary reader. It's definitely a book to read for fun, not so much a reference source.
Overall: This is a visually appealing title on an engaging topic that young nature lovers will really enjoy.

Rain by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Lisa Congdon

*Review copy courtesy of Beach Lane Books. 

Writing: This book is an extended description of the reactions of various animals and people before, during, and after a rainstorm. The text reminds me of certain books by Margaret Wise Brown, in that it feels a bit disjointed and I can't always tells where it's going next. It's not as poetic or distinctive as I would expect this author's writing to be.
Illustration: The pictures are digital illustrations that zoom in and out on various scenes inside and outside of a home. Colors fill every page, which is very appealing, and the raindrops really capture the feel of a rainy day.
Content: This is a story celebrating the need for rain. It's not particularly memorable, but it's fine. There is no hidden agenda in this book, and it's not about anything other than enjoying rain for the gifts it brings us.
Overall: Other books about rain are more interesting than this one, so this would be an additional purchase for most people, whether for home libraries or public ones. 

Eric Loves Animals (Just Like You) by Eric Carle

*Review copy courtesy of Penguin Young Readers.

Writing: This book is essentially a visual dictionary of animals using the artwork of Eric Carle. The only real text in the book is the names of the animals depicted in the illustrations, which are organized alphabetically. A handful of times there are quotations from Eric Carle himself, but no other commentary at all.
Illustration: This is very much an art book, for fans of Eric Carle. My 5-year-old daughter is a huge Carle lover and she has spent hours poring over each page. It was thrilling for her to see a new book after his death. I think she likes having all this artwork to look back on even though he is no longer with us to produce anymore. It's fun to see the different ways he portrayed various animals using his signature technique.
Overall: This is a lovely tribute to a long career. It's a fun book for kids, but would also be a great coffee table book for a children's literature enthusiast of any age. 

The Very Hungry Caterpillar's Garden Friends by Eric Carle

*Review copy courtesy of Penguin Young Readers.

Writing: This is a gently written board book that invites babies and toddlers to observe what's happening in a garden. My three-year-old twins ask me to read it multiple times a day.
Illustration: The pictures incorporate touch-and-feel elements that are very appealing to the youngest readers. The familiar caterpillar guiding the reader through the book also really engages them.
Overall: This book is the perfect choice for a young Eric Carle lover in your life.

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