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Middle-school librarians Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan prove that two heads are better than one when it comes to discussing YA and children's books

Monday, August 18, 2014 9:16 am
Stone Giant by Jane Sutcliffe
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

stone giantLynn:  The giant lay in the courtyard of the Cathedral for 40 years.  It had been hammered on, had a large hole chiseled in it and the weather had scoured it.  And then Michelangelo’s friends wrote him a letter begging him to come home and take on the giant.  This is the wonderful true story told in Stone Giant:  Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be (Charlesbridge 2014).  Sutcliffe tells this remarkable story with just the right touch of wonder.  You can hear the “wow” behind the words.  She weaves just enough historical information and technical facts into the story to help kids understand the scale and difficulty of Michelangelo’s task.  John Shelley’s terrific illustrations are the perfect partner for the text as here too is both the wonder and the historical story presented in such kid-friendly way.  Shelley presents the city of Florence and its citizens in bright busy scenes, bustling with activity and humor.  Each page is filled with charming details:  here a scene of gossiping townspeople, there Michelangelo combing the stone dust out of his beard.  In stark contrast to the everyday scenes though are truly stunning classical drawings of the work itself.  The David is shown in all its astonishing beauty.  I love how Shelley has worked in Michelangelo’s sketches, and Renaissance decorative drawings.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Florence and see the David and its copy and I loved how wonderfully Shelley captured the beautiful city of Florence with its glimpses of the Cathedral dome through the narrow streets and the sheer breath-taking beauty of the David.  This is a book I shared with our older focus group and they loved it, each spending a lot time reading it and examining the illustrations and I’ve noticed them picking it up again and again from my work shelf.  A wonderful Author’s Note explains what happened to the statue in the subsequent centuries and an extensive bibliography of adult sources has me itching to read more.

Cindy: I hope that art teachers in schools are able to get their hands on the new picture book biographies and nonfiction titles that would be great additions to their classes. We’ve blogged about many of them with the tag “Art teachers take notice” that can be searched in the left column of our posts. Stone Giant is another such gem. Sutcliffe has chiseled out a great story, but John Shelley’s illustrations are delightful as well. The juxtaposition of the serious, focused marble statue of David against the colorful and slightly comic and busy scenes surrounding it is fabulous. Young artists will find many details in the pages to interest them from small panels of action American Horsesequences to full page spreads where the grandeur of art is fully realized. Earlier this week I walked our local treasure, the Frederik Meijer Garden Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids and stood in awe of many fine works, including The American Horse, a 24-foot tall horse sculpture by Nina Akamu, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s earlier work that had been destroyed nearly 500 years before. David is not the only stone giant in town, and not the only one that had difficulty coming to life. The da Vinci horse story, linked above, and available in Jean Fritz’s book Leonardo’s Horse (Putnam 2001) has many connections to David’s story.  Art teachers, take note!

Saturday, August 16, 2014 7:04 am
West of the Moon by Margi Preus
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

West of the MoonCindy: I have a faithful following of middle schools girls who love folktale retellings. Most of them are more familiar with the Grimm stories (or stories that Disney films have undertaken–commentary on that topic is available elsewhere online) than with traditional Scandinavian tales. When I introduce them to Edith Pattou’s East or Jessica Day George’s Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, both based on the East of the Sun, West of the Moon Norwegian tale, they are…um…enchanted. Newbery medalist Preus has written another creative twist on this tale in West of the Moon (Amulet 2014) that is sure to be popular with this audience.

Astri’s father has gone to seek his fortune in America and her mother is dead. She and her younger sister Greta are living a miserable existence under the care of her step-mother when Astri is sold to a local goat herder, who is no prince in disguise. Her circumstances get worse and worse and she discovers that she is not the only girl he has in captivity. She finds a young, mysterious mute girl locked in a shed with a spinning wheel. The story starts slowly but when Astri decides to escape and find passage to America for her sister and herself things get interesting. “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” is probably the most recognizable riff here for young American readers, in addition to “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” but they will recognize the motifs of other familiar stories even if they don’t know the Norse versions. This blend of historical immigration story with fairy tale infusion and a message that story can sustain us in hard times calls to mind Nancy Farmer’s African novel A Girl Named Disaster with another girl who uses folktales for strength on her journey to find her father. While the folk art cover is very appropriate for the story it may take some hand-selling with young readers. With five starred reviews, this is one book you don’t want to miss recommending.

Lynn: Count me in as one who loves fairy and folk tales and fairy tale spin-offs but also count me in as someone who doesn’t want readers to overlook what lay beneath those original stories.  Margi Preus does something really brilliant in this unforgettable book.  She captures both the grim ugly reality and the sweet hopeful solace of those traditional tales and threads both elements through a historical immigrant’s story that is also made up of those two elements.  And she tells this through the voice of Astri, who totally won my heart.  Tough, ruthless, fierce and practical, Astri does what she must to survive her horrible circumstances while being guided and comforted by the tales her mother told her.  What a book!

Preus also provides some fascinating back matter in an author’s note.  Her own grandparents immigrated to America from Norway and lines from Preus’ great-great-grandmother Linka’s diary gave her the idea for this book.  She includes a page from the diary, sketches and a photograph of her great-great-grandparents.  Also rounding out the book is additional information on some of the historical elements of the time such as cholera, rickets, charms and curses and a list of the folktales referenced in the book.  There is also a welcome glossary, pronunciation guide and extensive bibliography.  This is a book to read and read and read again.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014 9:38 am
Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas by Lynne Cox
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

Elizabeth2Lynn:  Picture books featuring adorable animals are commonplace.  Picture books about a real-life elephant seal who won the hearts of an entire town?  Rare!  In the author’s note, Cox,  a famous long-distance swimmer, tells of first hearing the story of Elizabeth during a trip to New Zealand.  She says she knew she would someday have to “pass Elizabeth’s story along.”  Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas (Random/Schwartz & Wade 2014) is that story and Cox tells it wonderfully.

A huge elephant seal made her home in Avon River in Christchurch, NZ and the townspeople named her Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas.  She swam in the river, basked and sunned on the banks – all 8 feet and twelve hundred pounds of her.  Everyone loved Elizabeth and all was fine until she decided to sunbathe in the middle of the road.  Everyone worried about Elizabeth causing accidents or getting hurt so a group of volunteers captured her and pulled her out to sea to a colony of elephant seals.  Elizabeth came back.  Two more attempts were made to relocate Elizabeth, each to more distant places but Elizabeth wasn’t having it.  Months after the last attempt, she swam back up the Avon again.  The people of Christchurch decided it was better to warn traffic than take Elizabeth away from her home.

Cox tells the story from the point of view of a little boy named Michael and very wisely doesn’t anthropomorphize Elizabeth.

“Maybe it was because the beach was too crowded and noisy, maybe she missed Christchurch, or maybe there was some other reason that we can never know, but Elizabeth chose not to stay.”

I loved this warm story of the endearing and determined Elizabeth and adored Brian Floca’s charming watercolor illustrations!  Oh those illustrations!  How do you draw an elephant seal???  But I’ll let Cindy talk about that.

Cindy:  We are big fans of Floca’s 2014 Caldecott Medal winning Locomotive but his efforts here to bring Elizabeth to life are excellent, too. While we were at ALA this summer we heard him speak about the difficulty of bringing an elephant seal to life but we believe he hit the mark. Sometimes Elizabeth fills the double page spread and other times her soulful eyes peer into your own and win your heart. Young readers will be entranced by this animal and they can learn more on the fact page at the book’s close or by visiting one of the recommended websites. It’s easy to understand why Elizabeth might have fled back to the Avon river after listening to just one elephant seal at the National Geographic site. Play that for your students and then imagine what it would sound like to hear hundreds of them at one time! Okay, perhaps an elementary teacher would not be daunted by that kind of noise. Homer ;) Cox and Floca also include a black and white photo of the real Elizabeth on the edge of a street near busy traffic. Yikes. If you want to see another New Zealand elephant seal in action, check out this video. Homer, a male, is probably 3 times larger than Elizabeth, and these parked cars don’t stand a chance against him.


Friday, August 8, 2014 7:59 am
Leaving China by James McMullan
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

Leaving-China-coverLynn:  We reviewers are supposed to be analytical about our reading and writing, assessing the elements of what we read and conveying those to you making decisions about what to read and purchase.  I try, really I do.  But sometimes a book comes along that I just love.  Period.  Leaving China:  An Artist Paints His WWII Childhood (Algonquin 2014) is just such a book.  I read the galley waaaay back in January and loved it even it its rough fuzzy black and white state.  When the hard cover full color book arrived I loved it without reserve.  So be warned.  It’s not that the book won’t stand up to analytic review because it does, it’s just that this book strikes a personal cord in me somehow and I have trouble dredging up my critical reviewer side.

This book is about journeys.  McMullen lived in China as a young child.  His extended family lived there; his grandparents first as missionaries and then as owners of a business that the sons ran.  The advent of war changed everything.  When the Japanese invaded China, McMullen’s father left to join the British army and James and his troubled mother began a long period of wandering that took them across the world with stops in his mother’s home in Canada and on to Bombay, Darjeeling, Calcutta, and back to China.  James was a shy quiet introverted boy who loved nothing more than to draw for hours.  His years of displacement were lonely miserable years but his artist’s eye was noticing the small moments of beauty around him.

I found the format of this book especially appealing.  It consists of 54 full-page full-color illustrations faced by a short vignette: a reflection on a moment, a place, a particular experience.  The passages are reflective and intimate, sometimes painful, sometimes sweet.  The illustrations are done in ink and watercolor with a muted palette and a  revealing use of light.  The sense of time and place is powerful as is the aching sense of a sad child searching for his own place in the world.

This is an unusual book but one that will speak loudly to kids experiencing this search for place.  It could be such a powerful book to use in the classroom, especially with its short essay format.  It is ideal for art teachers to use for those CCSS writing assignments, for English teachers teaching memoir or history teachers looking for primary sources.  Algonquin is a division of Workman and this is their first nonfiction in their new Young Readers imprint.  Don’t miss it.


Monday, August 4, 2014 8:27 am
Nesting books are hatching…
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

While the birds were building spring nests in Michigan, our mailboxes were nesting new books about birds and nests. We’ve read them and are ready to push a few out of the nest and into the blog. If we missed some other worthy new fledgling nest title, please leave a comment so we can train our binoculars on it.

MamaLynn: First up for me is the charming nonfiction book, Mama Built a Little Nest (S&S/Beach Lane 2014) by Jennifer Ward.  And what a treat this is!  Each large-sized two-page spread shows a different species of bird and the unique nest built by that bird.  On one page is a spritely 4 line poem from the baby bird and on the other in smaller print is scientific information about each bird and its nesting habits.  Gorgeous detailed collage illustrations by the marvelous Steve Jenkins will captivate young readers.  This is a wonderful way to introduce young children to the concept of nesting or to different bird species and can be used either as a classroom read aloud or a lap book.

Have You Heard the Nesting BirdCindy: The robin is Michigan’s state bird and it seemed to be chirping at us from many books this spring.   Have You Heard the Nesting Bird by Rita Gray (Houghton 2014) focuses on  the quiet, nesting robin. The pages open with mourning doves, “coah, cooo, coo, coooo” and a starling singing “whistle–ee-wee-tree” and a swallow’s “ha-ha-chit-chit-chit, ha-ha-twitter-twit!” Two children out playing hear the variety of birds but no sound comes from the robin’s still nest. More birds chatter and chirp with their unique sounds across Kenard Pak’s watercolor and digital art pages in nature’s soft palette. The robin’s nest is quiet until there comes a “tapping, cracking…breaking, shaking…ruffling, shuffling…cheeping, peeping.” The robin babies are here and things get active.  A final page spread is an interview with a robin, for instance, “Why did you fly off with something blue?” Young readers can refer back to the illustrations and clues in the spare text after reading the answer to the question. Gray’s text and Pak’s illustration combine for a solid entré to bird watching for young children.

NestNest by Jorey Hurley (Simon & Schuster 2014) uses only one word per double page spread to follow a robin pair through the year of raising their baby chick. Here is a subtle concept book that can teach colors, seasons, day/night, and simple vocabulary in addition to a simple version of a robin’s life cycle. The author’s note provides details for the adult reader who can then share them with the child on future readings. The blue robin eggs on the end papers are a nice touch. I’ll be eager to see more books from debut author/illustrator Hurley.

Two Speckled EggsFinally, who would know that a homemade nest with two speckled malted-milk eggs makes the BEST birthday gift? Children’s birthday parties are fraught with emotion…the excited anticipation and the sometimes disappointing reality. Ginger’s mom makes her invite ALL of the girls in her class to her birthday party, including the odd girl, Lyla Browning. It will be no surprise to adults that odd is often better and through the ups and downs of the birthday party, a new friendship is in the making. Don’t miss this delightful book by Jennifer K. Mann, Two Speckled Eggs (Candlewick 2014).

Wednesday, July 30, 2014 11:14 am
Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

eggLynn:  Masterpieces, museums and Manhattan all feature in Fitzgerald’s intriguing mystery debut Under the Egg (Penguin/Dial 2014).  Theodora has never had things easy but after her artist/museum guard grandfather’s death in a pedestrian accident, the situation gets overwhelming for the thirteen-year-old girl.  Theo’s mom lives more inside her head than in the real world and now with Jack’s death, Theo has only $384 dollars to keep them going.  Their 200-year-old townhouse is in serious need of repairs, food is getting scarce and Theo has been living on beets from their garden.  To make things even more worrying, Jack’s dying words to Theo were, “Look under the egg.”  At first Theo isn’t at all sure what he meant and then she spills rubbing alcohol on one of her grandfather’s paintings and discovers what looks like an old masterpiece hidden underneath.

Who painted this stunning painting and where did her grandfather get it?  Theo has grown up in museums, getting a first-rate art education from her grandfather and she knows Renaissance quality when she sees it.  Terrified that her beloved grandfather might have stolen the painting, Theo sets out to discover who painted it and where it came from.  Along the way she meets her first real friend, daughter of two celebrity musicians who moves into the neighborhood.  Bodhi jumps into the hunt with vibrant enthusiasm and a knack for research.  As the girls follow the clues, their investigation opens doors to some fascinating history and family secrets and Theo learns that she doesn’t have to take on the world alone.

Kids intrigued by the recent movie, The Monuments Men, will twig to the answer quickly but will also find this related story doubly interesting.  Mature responsible Theo is an appealing narrator and I was pulling for her right from the start.  Some quirky adults show up to help out with the satisfying resolution – and especially fun is the tattooed young librarian.  Young fans of Blue Ballet’s mysteries will devour this fun mystery with glee.


Monday, July 28, 2014 11:06 am
National Geographic Super Readers
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

What child isn’t curious about their world?  Books about nature and science are always popular with young readers and Slothsfor librarians and teachers, there is an endless demand for books about bugs, birds, animals and our physical world.  With the addition of CCSS, that demand is even higher.  National Geographic has a relatively new leveled series that will make adults and young readers very happy.  National Geographic Super Readers are available in five levels.  All the books feature National Geographic’s trademark fabulous photography.  The text is clear, often assisted by icons and full of fascinating information.  The series uses correct terminology and vocabulary and understanding is aided by examples and descriptions that are well-suited to young readers.  A Super Reader website provides access to posters, videos, badges, prizes, quizzes and games.  And don’t miss Cindy’s interesting information about using this series with middle schoolers!

PenguinsLynn:  The two levels designed for preschoolers are Pre-Readers and Explore My World, both series intended to be read to the child by an adult.  High interest topics such as monkeys, butterflies, and frogs will quickly snare busy youngsters.  A Vocabulary Tree is a feature of the Pre-Readers that will help young readers to begin to understand and categorize vocabulary.  I tested several of these books with Henry, the youngest member of our focus group and he loved everything about them.  Penguins, for example, opens with an irresistable picture of a baby penguin snuggled on a parent’s feet.  The text explains that these penguins are as “tall-as-a-first-grader,” something a child can easily picture.  A simple map and key conclude the book.  And did I mention those fabulous photographs?  These are books that a child will return to again and again, sometimes with an adult reader and often on their own.

Cindy: I have a Level 1 title Sea Otters and a Level 3 title Mars and both have attractive “creatures” on their covers and content that will appeal to their audience.

What does an otter say in an emergency? Kelp! Kelp!

Sea OttersThat groan-worthy joke complements a page about where sea otters dwell and a boxed “Otter Word” in which “kelp” is defined.

Another feature, “What in the World,” will appeal to young readers, too. There are close up photos of sea otter life to be identified..answers appear on another page.

The Mars book has some similar features ratcheted up a notch for the more experienced reader and includes extras like “Weird but true” fact boxes: “Frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice, forms frost and falls as snow on Mars!” An illustrated timeline of major Mars exploration events from 1964 to 2012 is helpful. A section on what astronauts might eat if they travel to Mars includes Marsinformation about a 3-D printer that is in development that could make foods at the push of a button. The photos of a pizza being “printed” is sure to grab attention! A multiple choice quiz and an illustrated glossary wrap up the book.

As Lynn hinted, I’ve had some success with this series in my middle schools. We have a section in our collection for early readers that I have named “GRAB” books. It stands for Get Reading a Book and the signage encourages students to check them out for themselves or to read to a younger sibling. Our special education and English Language Learner classes use this section heavily but many students check them out to read to their siblings and the GRAB name, instead of “easy,” cuts down on the stigma of checking out these books. The nonfiction titles in this National Geographic series help even further as the books do not look “babyish.” Last year we used the Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart titles from the Readers Bios series with our 6th grade scientist/inventor/explorer project. These titles were a big help to our ELL and low readers and I hope that series continues to expand. Elementary and public libraries will want all of these for sure, but middle school librarians should take note if your students have similar needs. These books can’t help but grow more Super Readers!


Wednesday, July 23, 2014 2:12 pm
Skink–No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

skinkCindy: ‘”Hold my eye,” (Skink) said, and plucked the left one out of his face.’ By page 8 reluctant readers are going to be hooked by Hiassen’s latest mystery, Skink–No Surrender (Knopf 2014). Skink won’t be new to Hiaasen’s adult fans who may have encountered the hermit Vietnam vet, ex-governor of Florida in a half dozen of his adult titles, but he will delight teen readers meeting him for the first time. Richard finds Skink on a Florida beach using a straw to breath under the sand in a fake Loggerhead turtle egg nest while he waits to catch a thief who sells the prized eggs on the black market. Richard soon learns that Skink has no hesitation in administering vigilante justice to those who harm the environment. Teens will be laughing as they get some lessons on the dos and don’ts of responsible stewardship of natural things.

The mystery in this new Hiassen novel, aimed at a slightly older audience than his previous children’s novels, extends beyond the environment. Richard’s cousin, Malley, doesn’t show up for the beach outing and then goes missing. Turns out she’s been corresponding with an online boyfriend and has run away to meet him and avoid boarding school. In an unlikely pairing of “secret agent bounty hunters,” Skink and Richard hit the road and the shenanigans begin. Malley is in danger but the details are left vague and teens can fill in the blanks for themselves.

I laughed out loud while reading this and have already shared it with two 7th grade teachers who both stayed up late turning pages. We are all eager to test it on their students in the fall. I think I need some eye gumballs on hand when I booktalk this. “Here, hold my eye!”

Lynn:  I want to be there for THAT booktalk!  Cindy’s going to need a zillion copies!  Hiaasen’s books are always popular here anyway and this one is sure to make past fans happy and create a lot of new ones.  Skink is toned-down a bit but not much in his first appearance in youth books.  There plenty of ewwww moments with road-kill and eating the leeches that stick to his beard but Skink’s motives, as always, are on the side of nature and justice.  Alligators, feral pigs and even the ivory-billed woodpecker make appearances too and the theme of respecting the environment is strong.   Skink’s responses to littering may be a bit drastic (filling a BMW convertible with garbage after the owner throws a wrapper onto the highway) but the thought IS cheering.

The main character, Richard, is a nice guy – reliable and responsible, if a bit guilt-ridden about something he did a year ago – AND he worries about his mother.  He also worries about his wild impulsive cousin and the plot thread of an online-stalker is what pushes this book to a slightly older audience.  We are assured that thanks to Malley’s tough character, nothing much happens to hurt her, but a definite uneasiness lies under the surface and the stalker meets a gruesome end.  I think readers will love this fun, fast-paced story and respond to the underlying messages.  As Richard notes:

My father used to say that you live most of your life inside your own head, so make sure it’s a good space.”


Monday, July 21, 2014 8:02 am
Swim, Duck, Swim! by Susan Lurie
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

Swim Duck SwimCindy: Swim season is upon us making Swim, Duck, Swim (Feiwel and Friends 2014) a perfect book to share. My own children took to water like, ahem, ducks to water, but not every child does. Murray Head’s close up and expressive photographs are paired with Lurie’s spare words to tell the story of a duck who does not want to learn to swim. His parents encourage him and wait patiently for him to be ready to join the other ducklings who are happily paddling away, but he does not. want. to. get. wet. Little duck finally makes the plunge and his self-esteem soars at his achievement. This is a book that will acknowledge many types of fear in little ones (and perhaps even in the adults reading the book aloud in laps or groups). It understands the heart of a three-year-old who wants to be “big” but is afraid of the leap sometimes. Bravo little duck!

Lynn:  Even if the text weren’t wonderful and so well suited to pre-schoolers, and the message SO appropriate for the age level, Murray Head’s photographs would make this book a gem for me.  The enchanting close-up photographs are full-page with the large-size text imposed over the top.  It’s not easy to choose a favorite as these wonderful pictures of the duck family would win over the hardest of hearts.  However, one stands out as the most adorable of all the adorable shots.  A close-up of our reluctant swimmer with his feathers fluffed and ruffled is one I’d like to keep forever.  This book is the definition of cute!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 5:14 am
Boundless by Kenneth Oppel
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

BoundlessCindy: There are times when Lynn’s and my literary tastes don’t match up, but usually when she begs me to read a book I should listen to her and respond immediately. She has been raving about The Boundless (Simon & Schuster 2014) for months, as have many other readers (it published in April so you can get on board the caboose of this Kenneth Oppel fan party with me if you haven’t read this adventure novel yet.) Yes, young Will Everett is in for quite the adventure when he takes the first ride on the newly finished Boundless train, one that stretches for miles and includes a traveling circus among its nearly 1000 train cars. It’s also historical fiction with statistics and details about the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s woven into the story, and fantasy too with sasquatch beasts roaming the countryside (and one captured for Mr. Dorian’s circus–a man who rivals Barnum for trickery and hoax). There’s murder and mystery and plenty of danger. Will gets separated from his first class accommodations and has to keep safe the key that would open the funeral car and endanger its treasures to thieves, but Oppel keeps the plot twisting. From moonlit runs and leaps across the top of the moving train to hypnosis to the evil Muskeg hag to circus acts there’s plenty of action to keep readers turning the pages and Oppel keeps the story elements securely coupled for a smooth ride. This journey is a true coming of age story as Will witnesses the social class structure on the train and also comes to terms with his own talents and dreams and how those clash with his father’s plans for him. All aboard, my friends. You don’t want to miss this literary trip.

Lynn:  Ahem, did you all read Cindy’s first line?  She should listen and respond immediately??  Take note of that please!  Of course I won’t mention the books on my stack that SHE has asked me to read and I haven’t gotten to yet.  Still, I’m savoring the moment.

But back to Boundless.   I did love this journey and its many twists and turns.  There is a lot to keep track of from lovely young escape artist Maren, to “imaginary” creatures that are anything but imaginary.  The train itself is practically a character and I loved the way Will’s eyes are opened to the realities of social stratification as he moves forward through the cars.  The world-building is as compelling as the dangerous adventure and the door is left ajar at the end for readers to imagine what Will’s next journey will be.  This is a trip readers will love taking.

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