Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Adventure’ Category

Fox News broadcast meteorologist, Janice Dean, is back with her fourth Freddy the Frogcaster picture book. In her attempt to both entertain and educate, Dean has packed a lot of content into the forty pages of Freddy the Frogcaster and the Terrible Tornado. The resulting story feels rushed and overloaded with information. Even so, fans will enjoy revisiting Freddy and the Frog News Network as they face the latest weather emergency. The colorful and cartoonlike illustrations are a stable in the series and always a delight.

At this point in the series, Freddy has stopped needing to prove his worth to the Frog News Network crew and has instead become an accepted member of the crew. So, every weekend he heads to the TV station and delivers the weather on camera. One spring day, while studying his weather charts and forecasting tools, Freddy realized that his town of Lilypad could face some dangerous weather. But that wasn’t what caused the most excitement at the station. Instead all three felt psyched because the bad weather might mean a visit from the infamous storm chaser Tad Polar.

Dean’s created a good setup for a potentially adventurous, but then unfortunately hurries through the narration. She could have made Freddy face so many different obstacles: His parents might have refused to let him to ride along with Tad, but he could have snuck out anyway and faced danger because of it; On the ride along, the two might have initially gotten too close to the tornado and found their lives at risk because of their daredevil choice; While Freddy was out on the ride along, the tornado might have hit unusually close to his home, causing him to face guilt for not being there. Instead Freddy and Tad spot a tornado, report it, and a few minutes later are back safe at the news station. The story is simple, safe, and bland.

There are positives. First, as with other Freddy the Frogcaster books, detailed explanations of weather fill the back pages. Dean tells what tornadoes are, where they’re most likely to occur, how their measured with regards to strength, and tips to being safe during one. In addition, Dean offers up some cool trivia about the longest a tornado has traveled in the United States and the largest recorded hailstone in the United States. Second, the artwork by Russ Cox is captivating with its colorful palette. In addition, it changes to reflect the weather. When the skies are clear, pages shout with yellow, orange, and blue. When the skies are dark, pages rumble with purple and black.

Hurricanes. Blizzards. Tornadoes. Despite my disappointment with Dean’s fourth entry, I am a fan of her science-based stories. Dean has done much right. She featured animals. She wrote about weather. I’m already brainstorming a list of other types of weathers, in an attempt to figure out what the fifth entry will be.

The 2017 National Ambassador for Children’s Literature is Gene Lune Yang. A requirement for each ambassador is to have a platform, and Yang’s is “Reading Without Walls”. Yang challenges readers to:

  1. Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
  2. Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.
  3. Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun.

With these criteria in mind, I’ve decided to post roundups once a month on the theme of diversity. I’m starting with picture books about the immigration experience.

In The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman, a grandfather invites his granddaughter to pick an item from his library for him and he’ll tell its story. She picks a matchbox diary. The rest of Fleischman’s picture book reveals the assorted items inside the matchbook diary and their significance. For example, an olive pit reminds the grandfather of Italy, where life was hard, and he’d suck on an olive pit to help with his hunger. The photo is of his father, who like many Italians moved to America to earn money to send back to their poverty-stricken families back home. A hairpin served as a reminder of the dreams his family had. They believed America had streets of gold, and that the mother would soon wear big hats like the other wealthy women. My least favorite part of The Matchbox Diary is the style. I often couldn’t tell who the speaker was. In addition, in writing the story as a dialogue exchange, Fleischman sometimes left out transitions that would have made the context clear. My favorite part of The Matchbox Diary are the detailed illustrations. The watercolor paintings look like old photographs. You can read more about the inspiration behind The Matchbox Diary here.

When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest tells of Jessie and her grandmother, who live in a poor unnamed village in Eastern Europe. One day the rabbi, who teaches the community’s young people to read, shares the news that his brother has died and left him a ticket to America. The rabbi doesn’t feel that he can leave his people, and so he gives the ticket to Jessie. He tells her she can live with the rabbi’s brother’s widow in New York. On the ship that takes Jessie to America, immigrants swapped stories of their dreams of America, with its streets of gold and land of plenty. Upon arriving in America, Jessie discovered that instead there were too many people and too much traffic. But she also learned to read, made a living sewing beautiful garments, and found a beau. When Jessie Came Across the Sea is a sweet story about love and bravery, both it and The Matchbox Diary lack the nuances more often found in books written by those with personal immigrant experience. Similar to The Matchbox Diary, my favorite part of When Jessie Came Across the Sea are the panoramic watercolor paintings.

The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.–Grandfather’s Journey

In Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say, the narrator described the conflict one feels by being from two countries. The story started out being about his grandfather, who left his home in Japan to see the world. He explored North America by train, riverboat, and foot. Deserts amazed him, and endless farm fields reminded him of the ocean he had crossed. Factories and skyscrapers bewildered and excited him. He marveled at mountains and rivers. For a long time, the grandfather longed to see new places, but then eventually he wished to see his homeland again. He settled back in Japan with his wife and they had a daughter. She gave birth to a son, the narrator of the story. The grandfather always told him tales of California, and one day the narrator visited California for himself. Grandfather’s Journey is a poignant story with lavish illustrations. I related to the grandfather’s sense of adventure, and to the narrator’s longing for his two homes.

Hannah is My Name by Belle Yang is about a Chinese family who emigrate to the United States and try to assimilate while waiting for the arrival of their green cards. The family wants to become Americans more than anything in the world. Why? Because in America one is free. Yet becoming American isn’t easy if one is born elsewhere. The first thing they needed to do was find an economical place to live. The next thing they needed to do was file papers and hope that the government accepted their applications. Without those papers, the family can’t work. But without work, they can’t pay bills. Naturally then, the parents get jobs. While they live in fear of capture, Hannah learns English in school. My own immigration experience as a Canadian was much easier, and sometimes I even forget that I too was a foreigner. Yet I faced enough hurdles with paperwork, and anxiety over whether my visa would get renewed, that I can sympathize with the struggles of the family.

Yang concludes his “Reading Without Walls” challenge by encouraging readers to take a photo of themselves and their books and post to social media. In doing so, he says, readers will inspire others. Will you join me over the next year in reading books that take you outside your comfort zone?



My seventh year of attending the Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival was special in two new ways. For the first time, I had the opportunity to attend the sessions for students. I accompanied the grade two classes at the school where I taught on the bus drive to and from the festival. When we arrived, students scattered to participate in literacy activities. Around 10:00, they were gathered back together to listen to one picture book author, eat lunch on the lawn, and then listen to a second author.

For the first time, I also had the opportunity to attend the adult sessions with my group of writing ladies. We drove to and from the festival together, browsed available books by featured authors together, and attended the luncheon together. Most of the presentations we attended separately, as we all had unique author interests. A couple of the ladies focused on picture book authors, while two of us mostly wanted to hear those who wrote for teenagers.

As usual, at the end of the day, I walked away with a bagful of signed books and dozens of typed pages of notes. This week’s post will focus on the authors who write mostly for younger readers. Notes are transcribed as I heard them, but at times edited or rearranged for a more cohesive read.


lorenlong_snoopyLoren Long never saw his parents draw pictures but someone in his life must have been interested because he grew up liking to illustrate. As a child, he used to turn to the funny papers in the newspaper and try to draw the comics the way they were in the newspaper.

Like many kids, Long liked sports. He followed his brothers around. They all liked to play football. His only interest in museums was one that he called the cowboy one. He would draw horses.

Something conventional that Long’s parents did was read to him. His mom read many books to him. Long himself had a hard time sitting and reading a book. He never dreamed that he’d become an author. He thought they were smarter than him. “It’s not about smartness but about ideas.”

In college, Long didn’t know what he wanted to do. He worked on horse farms, but got told to stay away from horses. “College boys don’t know anything about horses.” His job was to weed, rake, pile hay, and stack. Long also got to drive an old tractor. “You’ll see right away that I used from something from my experience in my Otis books.”

I like to think of my books as little movies. The pictures are movies. Page turns create suspense. We can have quiet and loud images. Otis and the kittens was a tribute to those who run toward danger to save people. Read Otis and the Kitten. Read the original Otis.

lorenlong_otismsAfter sharing his background, Long turned to giving advice about how to write. He said to start with a character. Create a main character and then a secondary one. This is the entry to a story. Next comes setting. Then mood and emotion. “These are needed for songs, movies, anything really and are especially needed for a story.” Of course, in every story, something has to go terribly wrong. Long develops a framework: There is a problem, then Otis always saves the day, and then he returns to the tranquil start.

Long switched here to once again talking about his background. He was illustrating magazines and never dreamed that he’d ever write, but then he started illustrating other people’s books and getting his own ideas. He started by writing down his sons’ stories and changing them to make them more interesting and simple. His sons used to make up stories about a green tractor and a farmer’s son and a cat who got stuck in the mud. It’s not hard to see where the inspiration for Otis came from.

lorenlong_otisLong starts with a painting. It takes about seven months for a story to unfold. He puts the paintings in front of him and let them surround him. Then he writes and rewrites. It takes about fifteen rewrites. Then he’ll ship off his manuscript and the artwork. He’ll receive three or more pages of edits asking him to provide more details. “My wife says you know this will happen. I say I thought this was perfect this time. It hurts to have the critiques but it also makes me a better author.”



Sara Pennypacker started her presentation by showing a photo of her laying down. This is when she does her best work. She tells kids that writing is a lot about dreaming.

sarahpennypacker_sleepWriting is hard. One can make it easier by writing about what makes them passionate. That might be what you love OR what terrifies you. Students will ask her what makes her passionate. When she was younger, she used to love mannequins and feel terrified of moss. One day she combined those two passions. The result reminds her everyday of what she should be writing about.

I hope what I share will inspire those working on the other side of the book. I think we’re all working on the same side. I met with a bunch of other authors at a conference. We were asked, “Why do you do what you do?” Their answers were similar: To make order out of chaos; To make beauty out of what was ugly. To heal or make something feel good that originally felt bad. Mine was to make just out of what was unjust. I realized we all said the same thing but in a different way. Good books have to connect people by their goals.

After this ice-breaker, Pennypacker shared her thoughts on books. She believes that they connect readers to the rest of “their tribe” through time and space. Readers may not know they’re connected. But they are every time a kid reads something and thinks they were the only one.

sarahpennypacker_mossShe also believes books also raise questions. Questions are more important than answers. Answers separate people. Readers should toss a book that is trying to teach. Yes, books will have a moral. They’ll have a strong compass. Authors don’t write books about nothing. It’s hard to keep morality out a book. But a book shouldn’t preach.

To illustrate, she explains how her own books came about. “What happened with the Clementine books is I had a child who struggled with paying attention and having impulse control.” The series shows that these young people might also be problem-solvers and possess creativity and empathy. Pennypacker is passionate about this issue, but her job is to keep morality out of it. “As many times as my character is criticized, someone also compliments her. But you need to keep proselytizing out of it.”

In the Clementine series, Pennypacker writes about a character who has strong views. Her job is to threaten those passions. “Look for how an author feels about character. Do they feel honest and kind?” Books are windows and mirrors. Everyone should be able to see themselves in books; that they’re worthy of stories. Books should also show what’s out there and what’s possible. “I start every book with faults. A standard is to begin with a character who messes up.”

The character of Clementine has been compared to that of Ramona, the famous creation of Beverly Clearly. While Pennypacker acknowledges that she wants to write the same way as Clearly by telling stories of ordinary kids, she feels Clementine is a different character. Pennypacker believes that readers need books about dysfunctional families, but she also missed seeing functional character books. “I told my kids that I know I failed as a parent but I made up good parents for you.” From the start, Pennypacker knew she wanted a limited number of books. She wanted Clementine to be a strong presence and not dry her out. She also wanted to give Clementine privacy as she matured into adolescence. So she choose to end the series after seven books. “In the last book I wept at the signature scene with the principal.”

The Waylon series came about because Pennypacker loves the idea of chapter books, where one can live with a character as a friend and expand upon that character’s life. After Clementine, she wanted to write about a different type of character, but stay in the school system. Pennypacker believes that ten-year-old kids can be highly developed in some ways such as being gifted in science) but young in other areas such as emotional maturity, and wanted to explore these contradictions. “One day they’re two years old and another time they’re one hundred years old.” Pennypacker picked to have a boy as the main character, because she feels it’s tougher to be male in elementary school than female. “They’re fewer molds that keep you safe, reflected in the fact boys get into trouble more, drop out more, and commit suicide more. Boys have more rigid modes that he’s allowed to show,  boys are denied being allowed to show humanness and Waylon will say there’s a science reason.”

Pax is one of Pennypacker’s most recent publications. She heard a story of a mother’s son who went to war and who got injured and will never be able to walk. This inspired Pax. It just won The National Book Award. Pennypacker refers to it as, “the book of my life”. Pax started six years ago. Pennypacker wanted to write about the injustice of war and about the passion that children have for animals. When someone complimented her on her book Sparrow’s Song and said it reminded her of Elephant’s Compassion (a sentient animal in WW11), she realized the two stories needed to be combined. She couldn’t write about war without writing about animals.

sarahpennypacker_signingPennypacker switches back to talking about the importance of books. The story is a map of life. All stories start in an ordinary world. The character doesn’t get to actualize. Then there’s a call to a different world. The hero refuses the call, which leads to all kinds of questions:

  • Do you seek a mentor?
  • Do you need to bond and seek allies?
  • Are you surprised by a trickster?
  • Have you avoided fixing a problem and isn’t that real challenge?
  • Does it require you to develop a new facet of yourself?

In the end, the hero brings back an elixir. Stories help us process our life as stories and share those stories with the tribe.

Pennypacker concludes by telling of a conference she attended where she heard ones talking about Carl Jung and the question, “Why is their evil in the world?” The answer according to Pennypacker? “When people can’t tell their stories.” People need voice, power, platform, and audience. Children don’t have this. But adults do. And so authors can tell stories for young people. “This is why it’s important for children to read and have access to books. I tell young people that they need to tell their story and in a way that they will listen.”


Salina Yoon is from  Korea. There, she grew up in a house with a thatched roof. There were no books, television, toys, or even plumbing. “I tell my kids that I grew up with sticks and rocks. My grandmother would use two mirrors and reflect them to tell a puppet show.”

salinayoon_ideaEven after the family moved to the United States, English was never spoken by her parents. Yoon would look at the pictures in books. This sparked her imagination. She grew up to write almost 200 books.

As an adult, Yoon discovered she enjoyed producing “really creative books” for children, the type she would have liked when a child. She keeps an open mind. Everything can inspire an idea. Eventually, the idea will turn into something beautiful.

Yoon started out in the novelty book industry. She would build the entire book and then send it to a publisher to get them to purchase it. If a project doesn’t sell, she’ll move on to the next project. She doesn’t obsess over it. One idea can lead to many other ideas. Out of fifty submitted books, Yoon used to sell an average of ten.

After this sharing her background, Yoon gave specifics about some of her novelty projects.

  • Do Cows Meow? “I had to research to find out the inside of animal mouths. I had to look at the diagrams of biology of animals. I like the large flaps because kids can grasp hold of them. You can’t sell an obvious concept book; those are done in-house or by a book packager. For me to sell a concept book, it must go beyond the basics. Publishers hate to acquire because they have to spend money on these. So my books have to be unique.”
  • OppoSnakes: “It’s tricky as an illustrator to make it interesting. So straight snake is also sheriff snake. The opposite is tangled snake and is also a bandit snake. Art has more layers to it than just the text. If I start out with an idea, I always have to ask: How can I push it? When I design my books, I have to think of their size and shape too. I made a horizontal book to accommodate the snake.”
  • Pinwheel book: “I used a pinwheel. Everyone knows them. It’s fun to blow on and see in the dark. I want to bring this into a book. How can I put something so thick into a book? This is when I have to use my ingenuity to design a book. I created the book pinwheel. It was special and one of my hardest to create. One can spin the wheels in the book and you get to see all different designs. It doesn’t require batteries. If you spin it enough, a horse pops up like in a carousel. The carousel page took me three weeks to figure out. I want kids to grab my books and to learn from them. The books are interactive toys but also books.”

salinayoon_noveltyIn 2010, there were a lot of transitions in the publishing market and downsizing in novelty books. “Novelty books have less of a profit. They are made by people not machines. So publishers began buying fewer of them.” Yoon started to feel the pinch. She submitted her usual fifty projects and received only two acceptances. She considered leaving the book world and going into a paying world, but the dilemma was what career to pursue. She used to be a designer but hadn’t kept up with that field. She also considered Barnes & Noble or Starbucks. A third option was to create picture books.

Yoon hadn’t grown up drawing or writing and so that idea terrified her. The agony over not wanting another job led her to try. Life experience and relationships give Yoon ideas for picture books. Her oldest son would always pick up things including sticks and pine cones. One day her son asked Yoon to make a blanket for his pine cone. From that idea, Yoon wrote Penguin and Pinecone. Her first attempt caused her many doubts. “What were you thinking? Of course you can’t write! Am I being selfish wanting to do something that I like?”

salinayoon_storyboardYoon now has six books in the penguin series. She explained that a lot of decisions are made to create a spread. She wanted to start out with a character who wouldn’t know what a pinecone would be. A penguin would be in the woods. An opposite would be a pinecone. She used animals because this made the story less problematic and she used a simple palette to create a cold cool feeling but also a gender neutral and warm color. Her mother loves to knit and so she had penguin knit. Penguin is a blend of her son and her mother. The penguin books have made a connection with adoptive parents and empty-nesters.

Yoon also talked about her Bear series, in particular the title Found. It was inspired by her son who couldn’t live without a floppy toy.

salinayoon_plushOne of her most special picture books is Be A Friend, originally called Silent Adventures of Mime Boy. The book draws on Yoon’s own life. When she first came to the United States at age four, it was tough for her to make friends. She spoke, ate, and dressed different. She felt alone. The Mime in Be a Friend represents how different Yoon used to feel. She made the illustrations in black and white, so that the red line adventures and the mime’s red heart would stand out. Yoon tells of how a whole class acted the story out and shared it with her through video. The book has also connected with autistic kids because of the nonverbal communication in it.

Novelty books are pretty anonymous. I never got fan mail. That was fine by me because I’m introverted. Picture books brought me fan mail. This makes me realize the importance of books.

Among my circle of pet-loving friends, The Cat Club books by Esther Averill have become popular. We’re unable to resist these adorable tales of a cute black kitty named Jenny and her feline companions. One of my friends even bought a few of the books for her daughters. After which, she lent two of them to me that I had yet to read. Now I’m bringing them to your attention.

Jenny Goes to Sea is about the adventures of four cats at sea. Soon after Jenny and two brothers board The Sea Queen, they meet the ship captain’s cat. Jack Tar tells Jenny and Edward that the two have come from a long line of the noble cats of Egypt and then gives their other sibling the mysterious news that some of his relations may have come from Siam. For several weeks, the cats amuse themselves by strolling decks, climbing ropes, counting whitecaps, and walking the gangplank. Just as they start to get bored, they see land ahead and decide to go ashore. This is when this sleepy adventure story starts to pick up pace. Sometime after getting his fortune told, Checkers goes off in search of a palace in Siam. This act results in Jenny disobeying her master and Jack Tar almost losing his job as the ship captain’s cat. At times the story felt almost too light-hearted and fanciful, but nonetheless this tale from 1957 contains an enduring innocence and charm.

Captains of the Streets is about how three rough-and-tumble street cats became part of The Cat Club. Born and raised in New York, Sinbad and The Duke took off for the south side of then city but soon found themselves hungry and desperate. They sought out Tramps Last Stop, a place known for providing cats with handouts. Here, they meet up with Patchy Pete who tried to steer them towards the east side. But nothing can deter the two brothers from searching for a place of their own. Patchy Pete accused them of being soft. They proved him wrong with their boxing abilities and with their cunning in finding food. Then through finding compassionate folks and intelligent feline companions, they also showed Patchy Pete why having a place of one’s own just might be a good idea. This tale from 1972 feels real to how street cats might live, while also providing readers with the satisfaction of a happy end. The story has a lot of heart and is one of my favorite Cat Club books.

Fans of the Cat Club books will be happy to know that many of their favorite characters make an appearance in one of both books. Besides Jenny and her brothers, Pickles the fire cat appears in two chapters of Jenny Goes to Sea. The President and other Cat Club members are featured in more than one chapter of Captains of the Streets. These two titles should take a cherished place on your shelves, along with Jenny and the Cat Club.

The better the quality, the harder it is for me to resist a Newfoundland picture book. This summer, during an annual visit to my home province, I succumbed to temptation and bought three relatively current titles. Each tells an engaging story, boasts attractive illustrations, and even educated me about the world where I grew up. One can’t always say that about regional books and so I’m super proud to introduce three must-read books to you.

A “national best seller” for three consecutive years, Newfoundland and Labrador Lullaby is a soothing ballad written by songwriter Mary Jane Riemann. Each page of this board book contains short and simple phrases, mostly about six to eight words and one to three syllable words. Several of the spreads feature contrasting phrases. For example, “When the sun rises …. Under moonlit skies.” There’s always the reassuring refrain: “I love you.” The artwork is just as charming and sweet. I appreciate too how the paintings capture the multi-faceted culture of the island. Not only are puffins and whales featured, but so are hockey and picnics. The back pages contain ten bulleted points with random interesting facts such as who the first settlers were and what the provincial wildlife is. My favorite tidbit, simply because of the cute wording, is: “Newfoundland is an island. To get here you must fly, take a boat, or be born here.” If you scan the QR code on the back cover, you can hear the song while looking at the book with your little ones!

A Puffin Playing by the Sea is also based on a song. Author Gina Noordhof has rewritten “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to contain a Newfoundland flavor. As a representative on the Canadian Tourism Commission for four years, Noorhof had the unique opportunity to realize how special and individual each province is—including her own. With the help of a whimsical puffin character, aptly picked as the puffin is Newfoundland’s provincial bird, Noordhof highlights twelve distinct features of the island. The first spread starts out with the familiar refrain: “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me.” Then Noordhof mixes up the traditional carol by ending with the words: “A puffin playing by the sea.” Pictured is a colorful line-drawing of a puffin with a fish in its mouth and looking out to sea. The spread also contains an educational sidebar that details the origins and lifestyle of the puffin. Within the sidebar is also an actual photo of a puffin. On subsequent pages, all just as professionally-rendered, other gifts include: tea dolls, Norsemen, canines, caribou, lighthouses, seals, mummers, whales, codfish, fiddlers, and drummers. As with the Newfoundland and Labrador Lullaby, I appreciated diverse the subjects were that Noordhoff featured. Both those familiar and unfamiliar with Canada’s most eastern province will find themselves educated in an entertaining manner.

A Good Day for Billie is my only pick in this round-up that contains a tale told in a traditional narrative format. This picture book is the result of the author, Rodger Blake, telling bedtime stories to his children. At the forefront is a puffin who enjoys exploring the coastal shores of Newfoundland. One day while Billie is flipping seashells on the beach, he encounters a reddish-orange creature with eight legs. Lava instantly informs Billie that penguins and crabs being friends would be a waste of time. Billie leaves Lava alone but, for the entire rest of the day, both creatures wrestle with doubts about their decision. Although the text is of length that an adult will no doubt need to read the story, the tale is perfectly told. Part of what I most appreciate about A Good Day for Billie is how integral the island’s distinctive features are to the story. Billie encounters fishing villages, icebergs, and many other coastal images all as part of his journey to ask a friend for advice. Even the character of a whale named Charlie is a natural fit. Just as perfectly rendered are the gentle color-pencil illustrations of blue, green, orange, and brown hues. A Good Day for Billie is an absolute delight!

After stockpiling a collection of twenty-one Newfoundland picture books, I decided in 2013 that it was time to become more selective over my purchases. No longer would a title being written by a Newfoundlander and being set in my home province satisfy my literary tastes. Instead I wanted the quality of subsequent purchases to reach the level of the average commercial picture book. The three selections reviewed here I believe will tempt any young reader as much as they did me.

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Spring Reviews

Almost a year after I announced that it was time to take a step back from this blog, Allison's Book Bag is still here. I'm slowly working back up to weekly reviews again. Each week, there will be one under any of these categories: Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, religious books, or diversity books. Some will come in the form of single reviews and others in the form of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

  • Freddy the Frogcaster and the Terrible Tornado by Janice Dean
  • The Distance Between Us by Reya Grande
  • Hearts of Fire from The Voice of Matyrs



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