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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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 9:30 am
Tin Star by Cecil Castellucci
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

tin starLynn:  As a life-long science fiction reader I’m always begging for science fiction that is accessible, inviting, thrilling, something other than dystopia and shorter than door-stop length.  Cecil Castellucci has galloped to the rescue.  Tin Star (Roaring Brook 2014) is exactly what I have been looking for!  Strap on your phase gun and step aboard the Space Station Yertina Feray.

14-year-old Tula Bane is smart and highly perceptive – qualities that will eventually save her life but when the colony ship Prairie Rose lands on the space station for repairs, it is those qualities that almost gets her killed.  Tula notices that the ship’s cargo of grain, critical for the establishment of a new colony, has been off-loaded on the station.  Brother Blue, the charismatic leader of the Children of Earth, has just announced that he had been summoned to an important meeting with the League of Worlds and the colonists will have to go on without him.  Tula tells him about the grain and at first he reassures her, then he takes her to the cargo hangar where he beats and kicks her mercilessly, leaving her for dead.  The Prairie Rose takes off without her, bearing Tula’s sister and mother, and then explodes mysteriously killing all the colonists aboard.

Tula is found and nursed back to health but her situation is grim.  No human colony claims her, she has no money and she is the lone human – a much despised Minor Species – on the space station.  She is entirely on her own.  But Tula is a survivor and, aided by another bin-dweller named Heckleck, and powered by her urge for revenge on Brother Blue, Tula learns to barter.  Jump ahead three years, and Tula’s fairly comfortable world is turned upside down when 3 young humans arrive, survivors of another mysterious explosion aboard a human ship with a connection to the hated Brother Blue.

As a teen one of the things I loved most were books packed with interesting aliens, set on places light-years away and wildly different.  Since feeling alien is a very normal part of being a teenager, I have always wondered why there were so few YA books of this type.   Tin Star is exactly that sort of book.   It does a lot really well and setting and character are especially nicely crafted.  Wisely, I think, Castellucci, resists the urge to do too much.  Instead, the dusty gritty frontier setting of the space station is a manageable choice and filled with evocative details that make it come to life while feeling totally unearth-like.  The aliens too are drawn with just enough intriguing characteristics to give them personality and physical form without getting mired in details.  I really enjoyed the intriguing plot which is full of enough twists and turns to keep readers guessing and the pacing is fast.  Tula is the real star of the book and it is her interactions, developing relationships and growing self-understanding that is the core of the story.  There is a nice story arc here but there is also a sense of this being the stage-setter for some great adventures to come.  Castellucci dangles some enticing bait here for readers who want to know much more about these characters, alien and human, and the many worlds they inhabit.  Can’t wait!


Monday, April 21, 2014 11:19 am
Stubby the War Dog by Ann Bausum
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

StubbyLynn:  If I had a nickel for every kid who ever told me history was boring, I’d be living in the south of France eating glorious cheese and sipping a crisp Provencal rosé.  The trick to gaining history converts, I firmly believe, is in showing kids that history is really just people’s stories.  Well, here is another terrific arrow in the quill of fascinating stories but this is the story of an exception dog.  Stubby the War Dog:  The True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog (National Geographic Kids 2014) is guaranteed to win kid’s hearts – and they will learn a lot of history along the way.  And for those of you who are also allergic to books in which the dog dies, please be assured that Stubby miraculously survived the war and lived a long and happy life!

No one knows where Stubby came from.  Probably a Boston bull terrier mix, Stubby started hanging around the Yale University athletic grounds in 1917.  When the Connecticut National Guard started training there, Stubby had access to lots of food scraps and people who found him friendly and charming.  One soldier in particular, James Robert Conroy, took special notice of Stubby and very quickly the two formed a strong bond.  Stubby learned military ways just as quickly and Conroy even taught him to salute.  But when it came time to deploy, James knew that Stubby would have to stay behind.  Stubby was having none of it though and he sneaked onto the railroad car and Conroy eventually smuggled him aboard the ship headed for Europe.  Once there, Conroy was assigned to an intelligence unit and Stubby proved to be an invaluable part of the unit.  He hunted the rats that swarmed in the trenches, warned of incoming missiles and comforted wounded soldiers.  Stubby brought love, friendship and reassurance to the soldiers around him.  He is even credited with capturing a German soldier!

Bausman does a wonderful job of incorporating those dreaded facts of history into a heart-warming and inspiring story.  Reader will come away with a good understanding of WWI warfare, the conditions in the trenches and the reality of a soldier’s life but it will be anything but “boring.”

Cindy: National Geographic is known for excellent photography but the many visuals of Stubby are still impressive. Young readers will enjoy seeing Stubby in his uniform, with his medals, and in action or at play and rest. It’s evident in the photos and the text that Stubby was never far from Conroy’s side. Even when Conroy was hospitalized with the Spanish flu, Stubby got special dispensation to stay next to the soldier’s cot. Sports fans might be interested to know that Stubby was one of the early Sergeant Stubbymascots for the Georgetown Hoyas, and that he entertained the crowds during halftime by pushing a football around the field. While this book is perfect for elementary and middle school students, older teens might prefer the title she wrote for an adult audience: Sergeant Stubby: How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation (National Geographic 2014).

Common Core Connections

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

Report on a topic or text or present an opinion, sequencing ideas logically and using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.

Not everyone agreed with the special treatment that Stubby received during and after the war. Prepare an oral presentation defending Stubby’s role in WWI, summarizing his contributions and using evidence in the text.

nonfiction-mondayRead additional Nonfiction Monday reviews at the official round up blog hosted by Anastasia Suen.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014 11:25 am
Firefly July Selected by Paul B. Janeczko
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

Firefly JulyLynn:  I know it is early in the year to be announcing favorite books but I have no doubt that Firefly July:  A Year of Very Short Poems (Candlewick 2014) is going to be one of mine.  Let me count the ways that I LOVE this book!

The book is divided into seasons beginning with Spring.  Paul Janeczko has gathered VERY short poems, as the title says, reflecting each season from world class poets, some that may be familiar to children and many that won’t.  Each poem is indeed very short, a few lines at most, but each is a small gem to be tasted and savored.  There are some famous ones like “The Red Wheelbarrow” and Carl Sandburg’s “Fog,” but each and every one is a small gift to share.

Melissa Sweet’s illustrations are simply gorgeous, capturing the heart of each poem with a contagious joy.  There are so many ways to use this amazing book.  Use it to introduce poetry to children in a classroom or start each morning with a poem or as part of a seasons science unit. It is lovely to use as a lap book, snuggling up with a child, as part of bedtime.  This is the perfect book to use for Random Acts of Poetry to brighten days in your school or library.

Me  – I’m going back and reading the Spring poems again.  It’s got to get here some time!

Cindy: If anything can make me still appreciate winter at this point (yes, we had 3 inches of snow in Michigan yesterday) it is this collection of poems and Sweet’s art.

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

–Robert Frost

Lynn can dally in Spring; I’m moving on to the bright colors of the summer pages with the titular poem by J. Patrick Lewis and beach scenes with April Halprin Wayland’s “Sandpipers,” and Charlotte Zolotow’s “Little Orange Cat,” stalking across a daisy- and buttercup-filled double page spread that may help me make it through to the warmer days ahead. The fall poems will have to wait…their turn will come soon enough. This book should be in every K-12 classroom or school library and it is a perfect gift book or treasure for adults who want a lift.

Melissa Sweet’s illustrations always make me want to get out my paints and scrapbook supplies to do my own collages and I think this book in particular could inspire an April Poetry Month project. Imagine if children and teens each selected a poem and then built their own 8 x 10 frame-able collage to illustrate it? I may have to make one myself while the snow piles start to melt.



Monday, April 14, 2014 4:56 pm
Here Comes the Easter Cat by Deborah Underwood
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

Here Comes the Easter CatCindy: The Easter Bunny had better watch out…Cat just might take over in Here Comes the Easter Cat (Dial 2014). Cat is jealous that everyone loves the Easter Bunny. Bah humbug (wrong holiday, but you get the idea). Cat communicates wordlessly with the narrator through drawings he holds up and his facial expressions as he works through his jealousy. Cat decides to take on the challenge, but he quickly learns that it is a hard job. Filled with humor, Claudia Rueda’s sprightly illustrations, and a mischievous cat who likes chocolate bunnies so he can bite off the ears, this holiday story delivers more than colored eggs. Young children (and some teens and adults I know) often think that someone else has it made. Their life is more fun, more glamorous, more entitled. Usually it is an uneducated position, and one that changes with experience. Cat learns a few things about what it’s like to be in the Easter Bunny’s shoes and that he can’t get in his accustomed number of daily naps. The snarky humor is fun, but Cat learns that being nice has its merits as well. I guess I should share my jelly beans…


Thursday, April 10, 2014 5:33 am
Cheers for a Dozen Ears by Felicia Sanzari Chernesky
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

Cheers for a Dozen EarsCindy: What a perfect title for this book. When our farmer’s market finally opens, I will be cheering! Cheers for a Dozen Ears: A Summer Crop of Counting (Albert Whitman 2014) is the perfect tonic for we who are weary of winter…children included. In fact, I have to disagree with the final line from the Booklist review that this book is… ”best savored in the summertime.” Perhaps that is true under normal circumstances, but after the winter we’ve had here in Michigan I can’t tell you how this book cheered me from the bright colors to the promise of fresh produce available at our Farmer’s Market. With it still snowing on the first day of spring here, tasty berries and yellow sunflowers seem a distant possibility.

On a hot August day a mother takes her children on a drive to a country farm stand and the counting begins… “1 watermelon so smooth and round…2 purple eggplants that weigh two pounds”…etc. The bouncing rhymes and the digital collage art combine to make a joyful addition to early nutrition units and might encourage picky eaters to help select the food the family buys (although the children are working off mom’s list in the book). My list is ready…now I just need spring to sprout!

Lynn:  “Dog Day August and it’s steamy hot.”  Oh – if only!  It’s March 22 and only 17 degrees here as I write this.   I am with Cindy on this enticingly illustrated book.  Don’t wait till summer for this.  Use it to remind winter-weary children that summer and all that fabulous produce will be here eventually.  Pair it with another book on plants to lift spirits just the way we gardeners look at seed catalogs when the snow is falling.

I am crazy about Susan Swan’s bright mouth-watering illustrations.  Her website says that she creates digital cut paper/mixed media illustrations and I love the rich colors and interesting textures of her work.  This steamy August day feels so real from the stripy wasps on the fuzzy peaches to tomatoes so red and delicious looking that I want to bite one.  I think kids will love counting the items of produce and the story opens the door to to a wide range of classroom uses.  And what a lovely reminder that someday the snow WILL melt!

Monday, April 7, 2014 5:48 am
Handle with Care by Loree Griffin Burns
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

Lynn:  For many years our family has enjoyed a wonderful rite of spring that fortunately doesn’t depend on the outside temperature in Michigan.  We are lucky to live close to the outstanding Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids.  I could go on and on about the wonders of the Gardens but today I will stick to the annual Butterfly Exhibit.  Like many museums and botanical gardens, Meijer Gardens hatches tropical butterflies in their Rain Forest building and the butterflies fly free throughout the exhibit.  It is a complete delight and we go every year to watch these gorgeous creatures fly among the deep green plants.  We often wondered where the pupae come from and I’m sure it is a question asked over and over by visitors to these exhibits everywhere.

handleLoree Griffin Burns has come to the rescue with her terrific new book Handle with Care:  An Unusual Butterfly Journey (Millbrook 2014)!  Burns takes readers to a very special farm, a butterfly farm in Costa Rica.  At El Bosque Nuevo farmers raise butterfly pupae that they sell to museums and gardens around the world.  As Burns explains this unique business, she also clearly describes the fascinating process of metamorphosis for young readers.  Burns chose the stunning Blue Morpho butterfly as the focus of the story – a butterfly that is one of the most eye-catching of the species raised at the farm.    Ellen Harasimowicz’s wonderful photographs do a great job of illustrating and expanding the text.  Close ups of the caterpillars and pupae are a delight but I especially enjoyed the pictures of some of the processes particular to the farm such as trays of pupae being readied for packing and the inside of a puparium.

Children familiar with butterfly exhibits will be fascinated by this peek inside the supply side of the exhibits and those interested in the life cycle of butterflies will find this a refreshingly different approach.  With large pictures and text, this book can be easily used to read to an entire class as well as being wonderful for independent reading.

There is also some good back matter including more about insect metamorphosis, a discussion of insect words a glossary and bibliography.  Lerner also provides free downloadable resources for this book.

butterfly and meTo close, I’m adding a picture of me and a friend taken last  year at Meijer Gardens.





Common Core Connection

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.2.5 Know and use various text features (e.g., captions, bold print, subheadings, glossaries, indexes, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text efficiently.

Have students select a term for one of the stages of metamorphosis in the glossary, then see if they can find it in the index.  Then find the page.  Have students draw a picture that illustrates that stage of a butterfly life cycle.

Thursday, April 3, 2014 1:09 pm
Babies, Babies, Babies
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

Baby2Cindy: We recently received a 30th Anniversary edition of 101 Things to Do with Baby (Groundwood/House of Anansi 2014) and I looked at it, thought, “cool, glad to see this adorable book is still around,” and set it aside. This picture book classic illustrating 101 ways you can interact with a baby was first published by Viking Kestral (Penguin) in 1984 when I was a baby librarian working my first professional job as a public library children’s librarian. The pastel illustrations of a big sister, a mother and a father…and of course a baby…provide a delightful “owner’s manual” for new older siblings. I saw the familiar cover, assumed it was identical to the one that I had handed to many a young mother as I started my library career.

Lynn’s reaction to receiving the book was a little different and she did some digging so I’ll let her tell you what she found.

Baby1Lynn:  I missed this wonderful book when it first came out.  My sons were then 7 and 4 and we had moved on to bikes and blocks and T-ball.  But I have 5 grandsons now and the youngest two are 3 1/2 and 6 months so babies and all that go along with them are fresh in my mind.  I loved this really sweet book and it’s story told in panels of the 101 ways a small girl interacts with her baby brother.  When Cindy told me about loving the original, I  had to find it of course.  One of our consortium libraries had it to my delight and it was fun to compare the two.  Much is still the same – the charming, often humorous and very perceptive depictions of a little girl and the new baby in her family.  My little grandsons are just about these ages and it felt a bit as if Jan Ormerod had been peeking in on them.  She has updated the book in several ways too.  The color palette is fresher and more modern, changing oranges and browns to brighter tones with a crisper feel.  Very noticeable, is the change in the types of baby equipment and furniture in 30 years.  Baby buggies are replaced with jogging strollers and an up-to-the-minute car seat replaces something that looks like a bassinet!  And the Grandmother in the story has gone from a house-dress clad white-haired lady to something a lot more like the way we baby boomer grandmothers like to think of ourselves.  Another change is to the title.  The original is 101 Things to Do with a Baby and the new one is 101 Things to Do with Baby – a subtle shift from a baby as object to Baby as individual.  Ormerod’s use of panels was innovative 30 years ago and the book design retains a fresh current feel aided by all the updates.

What hasn’t changed is the warm charm of the book,  After 30 years, this  funny book still captures the sweetness and occasional challenges of life with a young family.  So celebrate with us.  Congratulations, Jan Ormerod and thank you!

bluesCindy: Babies aren’t always as happy-go-lucky as the chap in Ormerod’s book, though. Sometimes Baby’s Got the Blues as Carol Diggory Shields tells us in her new picture book (Candlewick 2014). Sing along with me…

“Woke up this morning soggy,
And that smell
kept getting riper.
But I can’t talk,
no way to say,
‘Won’t somebody change my diaper?’”

No teeth to chew…he cannot walk…jailed in a crib…no wonder he has those poor little baby blues, complete with chorus. With her tongue planted firmly in her cheek Shields gives older siblings something to ponder when they think the baby has the easy life. Lauren Tobia has fun with the illustrations, too, giving lots of play to music in the colorful illustrations and there’s a happy ending for all.


Monday, March 31, 2014 11:01 am
I Met a Dragon Face to Face…
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

Cindy: March is Reading Month is winding to a close but before it does I want to share a creative project made by our video productions teacher at Harbor Lights Middle School, Heather Postma. Heather and her students support the library and reading often with interviews, book talks, and other literary features but she outdid herself in this video that our students enjoyed at the beginning of the month. I’ve used Jack Prelutsky‘s poem, “I Met a Dragon Face to Face,” in many presentations over the years, but I love Heather’s artistic take…and it’s a good launch for April’s National Poetry Month. Enjoy! Click on the image to play the video.

I Met a Dragon

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 1:42 pm
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

OpheliaLynn:  “Ophelia did not consider herself brave but she was very curious.”  So Karen Foxlee introduces the heroine of Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy (Random/Knopf 2014), eleven-year-old Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard.  Ophelia and her older sister Alice have accompanied their father to his new job as curator on an important upcoming museum exhibit in a strange snowy foreign city.  The small family is grieving the recent death of Ophelia’s mother and each is managing their grief in a different way.  Mr. Whittard is a leading authority on swords and he immerses himself completely in the museum’s upcomng exhibit, barely aware of his daughters.  Alice listens to her music at first and then falls under the spell of the gorgeous Miss Kaminski, the museum director, who showers her with beautiful gifts.  Ophelia is left to wander the museum alone and it is when she peers through the golden keyhole that she sees an eye looking back.  It is the Marvelous Boy, a centuries-old prisoner of Miss Kaminski, actually the Snow Queen.  In three days, a protective spell will expire, the Snow Queen will kill the boy and the world will turn to ice and snow.  Ophelia must find a way to release him, locate his magical sword and save the world.

Foxlee’s enchanting story is, of course, based on one of my favorite Hans Christian Anderson tales, The Snow Queen.  Here Ophelia is a scientific-minded young pragmatist, who clutching her inhaler, must open her heart to magic, love and the power of friendship to learn that she is in fact very brave.  Foxlee’s story is wonderfully accessible for young readers, aiding them subtly to discover the rich themes for themselves.  The characters are an appealing mix of fantastical and solidly flesh and bone.  Sisterly bickering plays off against the delicious wickedness of the Snow Queen while the oblivious father thinks only of the swords that are his academic passion and misery birds and ghost girls inhabit locked museum rooms.  The family’s grief lends the story a somewhat melancholy feel that works so well with the fascinating setting of the strange often scary museum and the snowbound city.

There is so much to talk about here but I’ll stop and hand it off to Cindy.  This is one I want to read again!

Cindy: The current popularity of the animated Disney film Frozen, should make this an easy sell to middle grade readers. Who can resist a scavenger hunt in a haunted museum when the fate of the world hangs in the balance? Adults who read this aloud for young listeners will be entertained as well. Ophelia is a marvelous character who would rather look at the fossils on display in the museum than spend time in the dollhouse exhibits. At one point in the race to find the Marvelous Boy who has gone missing, Ophelia makes a guess about where to look next, saying, “I have a. . .feeling.” She is taken aback:

“A feeling! She hated saying that. Psychics had feelings. Fortune-tellers and clairvoyants had feelings. Not amateur scientists from the Children’s Science Society of Greater London.”


“Wizards, she thought, when she gained her composure. What good were they if they couldn’t tell you how to do stuff, if they were always talking in riddles and saying they knew everything before it even happened? It wasn’t very helpful.

If she were a wizard, she’d write reports for people. She’d make sure everything was very clear. She’d write, Looking for a magical sword? No problem. Go to the fifth floor, turn left, open a large wooden chest, et cetera, et cetera. She have check boxes. Found your magical sword? Place X here.”

Throughout the adventure Ophelia hears her mother speaking to her: words of advice, encouragement and love. Her mother, though dead, is with her and is rooting for her…as strongly as readers will.



Monday, March 24, 2014 11:00 am
How the Beatles Changed the World by Martin W. Sandler
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan

How the Beatles ChangedCindy: Yesterday…I thought I knew a lot about the Beatles, but I should have known betterHow the Beatles Changed the World (Walker 2014) is an attractive, colorful chronicle of the many ways in which Beatlemania had more influence than just making young women scream. Sandler chooses to organize the book topically (and loosely chronologically) starting with the unforgettable first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and makes an argument for the ways in which the four boys with long hair went on to make a lasting impact on our culture. 23 million viewers witnessed the show, Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964, and the waves are still rippling through our culture fifty years later.

Sandler highlights a list of Beatles musical firsts (first band to play in a stadium, first to print song lyrics inside the album, first popular music band to use electric keyboards and synthesizers in some of its songs, etc.) but the impact goes well beyond music. Movies, music videos, clothing, hairstyles, religion, politics and even (as one chapter title proclaims) the world were influenced by the band. The stories in Chapter 12 about the Beatles’ impact behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union was fascinating. It was forbidden to play Beatles music or to own their albums. Even electric guitars were not for sale. Russian teens were not to be deterred and were tape recording songs from Radio Luxembourg, making records on X-ray film (the sale of vinyl was regulated), and stealing magnetic coils from pay phone receivers to use as pickups for their homemade guitars. A variety of soviet leaders give credit to the Beatles’ influence on the Soviet youth but this quote sure speaks volumes:

“More than any ideology, more than any religion, more than Vietnam or any war or nuclear bomb, the single most important reason for the diffusion of the Cold War was … the Beatles.”
–Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party

The world, indeed. There’s something to be said for listening to music that champions love, peace, hope and freedom. Imagine.

Lynn:  Wow do I remember the first time I heard the Beatles!  My father who scorned popular music and ruled our household, forbade the playing of “such trash” when he was around so of course any chance I got I tuned into WLS out of Chicago and rocked the house.  I was listening to Dick Biondi laying down the tracks one day when out of my tiny little radio came a sound that literally froze me in my steps.  It was “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and I was paralyzed by the sound.  It is hard today to convey just how enormously different the Beatles were.  It was a sound like NOTHING I had ever heard before and I couldn’t get enough of it.  Teens today know the Beatles but I don’t think anyone who wasn’t a teen then can ever quite appreciate how totally unique they were to the music scene.  It felt like nothing less than being struck by lightning.  They certainly changed my world then and I was fascinated by Sandler’s intriguing look at the many ways they changed so many worlds.

I loved the structure of this book and even though I lived through this time and have been a huge fan of the group, I felt that I learned so many things!  Like Cindy I was amazed at the impact on Russian teens and the lengths they went to hear and play Beatles music.  I really appreciated the list of Beatles innovations from albums with all original songs to the first group to use an electronic synthesizer to essentially inventing MTV.

One of the many things I loved about this book was the wonderful selection of photographs.  Each one was so interesting to study and perfectly suited to illustrate the focus of the text.  As a visual chronology, it was fascinating too to track how the group changed in appearance as their music changed and developed.  I hadn’t seen some of the pictures of the group in the Hamburg period and I either hadn’t known or hadn’t remembered how young George Harrison was when he started with the band.  Neither had I known the story of how Ed Sullivan happened to land in Heathrow as the Beatles, unknown then in the States, were mobbed by fans as they returned from a tour.

I think this is a very accessible and appealing book for teens and the attractive cover should lure in readers.  There is a little something for everyone here from old fans to youngsters who are only vaguely aware of the group.  Sandler’s focus on how they pioneered so many of the elements that are fundamental to current music gives teens a great toe-hold into understanding the relevance of its amazing subjects.


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