Tag Archives: booktalks

Booktalking Awards: Letting Students In On the Buzz by Amy Estersohn

downloadIf your readers have ever played fantasy sports or filled out a March Madness bracket, they’ve experienced the same feelings that book lovers do over awards announcements.   And just the way sports fans are making predictions about championship winners all season, readers spend all year making predictions about which books will win which awards.

The recently announced longlist for the National Book Awards’ Young People’s Literature category gives readers a lot to talk about.  When I introduced the list, I did a brief book talk on each title and added some color commentary as well.

Obvious picks: Pax by Sara Pennypacker, Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, and Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina are three of the best books I’ve read this year.  All three books have received heaps of critical praise from a variety of sources, including from Book Whisperer Donalyn Miller.   

download-1Pleasant Surprises:  March: Volume 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, Booked by Kwame Alexander, and GHOST by Jason Reynolds.  These three books have tremendous teen reader appeal, and I was concerned that reviewers wouldn’t find them distinguished on their own merits.   

Unknown Quantities: When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson, The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon, and When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin haven’t been released in bookstores and libraries yet, so it’s hard for me to weigh in right now.

Introducing these books to my readers was an effective way for books to gain exposure without my being the primary endorser.  I had five readers yelping for my two copies of Pax, I encouraged my graphic novel readers to check out March, and my World War II buffs are now deeply interested in reading about the United States’s aggressions in Japan.

I’ll continue to monitor the National Book Awards announcements for their finalist and winning books.  By then, I hope more readers will have a chance to read these books and chime in on how they feel about the results.


Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in Westchester County, New York.  She  reviews comic books for http://www.noflyingnotights.com and is a judge for the CYBILS book awards this year.   Follow her on twitter at @HMX_MSE


#3TTWorkshop — Why Teachers Must Talk about Their Reading Lives

#3TTWorkshop Meme

Why is it important to talk about our reading lives with our students?

Amy:  If I want my students to be readers, I have to be a reader myself. The same holds true for writing. I am always surprised to meet English teachers who do not read and who do not write. This is our content! Seems like if we want to have any kind of credibility, we must practice the craft we want our students to learn. At least that’s what makes sense to me.

Of course, I’ve grown into this philosophy and this practice. When I first began teaching, I taught literature instead of teaching students. I think when I learned enough about my role as a secondary English teacher, and when I began challenging the status quo, I learned the importance of walking my talk. If I want students to read, I must model for them my life as a reader.

Shana:  Many of my students don’t have a role model who’s a reader.  I know that a large part of my identity as a reader growing up was shaped by my mother who was a reader.

I remember weekly trips to the library, a mom who held up her hand to finish a page before I could ask her a question, and having a bookshelf for a headboard in my childhood bed.  I lived a reading life from day one, because my mother did.  That is not the case for many of my students.  There is no one to model for them self-selected reading, the act of reading for pleasure, or the skill of choosing texts that will absorb a reader.  That’s why I have to be that person for my students–or at least, another person to model those skills for them.

How has your reading life changed since you began sharing it with your students?

Shana:  I know that when I’m tempted to be a lazy reader, remaining on the downhill portion of my reading roller coaster, I think of how often I encourage my students to push themselves with an unconventional genre, an award winner, or a lengthy tome. Then I feel like a hypocrite if I just pick up another trashy romance novel, so I challenge myself with something weightier instead.  Now, during pregnancy, I find myself much more deeply affected by difficult themes in books, so when I’m tempted to avoid them, I remind myself to be a better role model (as I’m doing now with Leaving Time, whose themes of a missing mother and elephant grief make my cry at the drop of a hat).

Amy:  I didn’t know you read trashy romance novels, Shana. Ha. I love a good romance, but I rarely find time for that kind of pleasure of late.  I’ve been a reader since the time I fell in love with Anne of Green Gables way back when. Now, I am a purposeful reader. Maybe that’s why I have a hard time relaxing — I always have some master plan. I cannot even remember the last time I just read for the pleasure of it. Shana, you and I both wrote about that in the past. Here and here. Look at this recurring theme.

While writing this I’m realizing that I have not been a good reading model lately. I haven’t snuggled under the covers with a book and let the language carry me away. I   read because it’s a responsibility. Kinda the way many of my students feel about reading for my class.

Aha! I need to do some things differently. Starting now.

During which portion of class do you tend to share your reading life with your students?

Amy:  Sure, I share my reading life during class, but my favorite time is the impromptu talks that happen with students in the hall or just before class starts. I love talking about books, and students come to know that about me.

Just today, a former student stopped in my room and asked if I could tell him about a book. I said sure, and he proceeded to tell me in a waterfall of words about the midterm this week in his new English class.

“They read The Crucible, and I need you to tell me what it’s about.”

I know, not exactly the same as sharing books for the love of them, but hey, this kid knows I know a lot about a whole lot of books. (I did not tell him about The Crucible. I might have mentioned Sparknotes.)

Shana:  I share mostly during conferences or booktalks.  When I booktalk, I tend to tell the story of my reading of the book (like on the treadmill at the gym, when I cried publicly while finishing We Were Liars), including when and where and how I read it.  During conferences (both formal at a student’s desk, or informal at the bookshelf), I use anecdotes to help illustrate a skill’s development with students.  And, occasionally, I use a snippet of my reading life to introduce a quickwrite–like creating an ideal bookshelf.   

Amy:  I am glad we discussed our reading lives. As always, you’ve pushed my thinking here. I can do more to model and talk about my reading life with my students, especially reading for pleasure. That means I need to walk the talk I give my kids a lot more often. Maybe I’ll take a stroll through the shelves at Barnes & Noble, asking myself:  If you had nothing on your schedule — no expectations from anyone or for anything — what book would you want to curl up and read?

Readers, I’d love your suggestions. Any amazing books you’ve read lately?

Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.

YA Fiction That’s Funny and Full of Voice

After millions of snow days, my student teacher, Mike, and I are finally wrapping up our Siddhartha self-reflection unit and jumping into a new writing unit I’m really excited about–comedy!  We’ll study satire, sketch comedy, stand-up, commentary, and monologues for mentor texts, then work with our students to craft strong comedy writings that exemplify the skills of pacing, payoff, “punch-up,” and one other skill that I think is the most important:


Writing voice, for me, is where humor, sarcasm, and personality come alive in a piece of writing.  “Voice,” Tom Romano writes, “is the writer’s presence on the page.”  Voice is the most elusive quality of writing to teach, I think, because it’s not really quantifiable and cannot be duplicated or imitated.  Each writer must craft his own authentic voice.


Brainstorming the bare bones of a comedy unit

While discussing the very bare bones of our comedy unit, we brainstormed mentor texts, seed prompts, and writing skills.  After we hammered those out, Mike wondered about which books to booktalk for the unit.  “Nonfiction comedy is easy,” he said.  “Bossypants, Yes Please, Confederacy of Dunces.  But I’m not sure what to booktalk for fiction.”

“But YA fiction is so hilarious!” I exclaimed.  I started rattling off narrators who cracked me up.  Their writing voices were the perfect mentor texts for our students, who’d be focusing on crafting a humorous writing voice over the course of the unit.

“Looks like I know what I’ll be brushing up on for my weekend reading,” Mike remarked.  So here, in part, is a list of what I recommended to him–YA fiction that’s funny and full of voice.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie — This novel, paired with illustrations by the narrator, is loosely based on Alexie’s own upbringing somewhere between two identities–his poor Indian self who lives on the rez, and his striving-to-succeed “white” self who attends a better school up the road.  It’s infused with Alexie’s signature wry humor even against a pretty dark plot backdrop.

49750An Abundance of Katherines by John Green — This is, to me, the funniest of Green’s novels, although all of his narrators are pretty hilarious.  Colin Singleton has dated 19 girls named Katherine, and has been dumped by all of them.  If that’s not funny enough as it is, Colin is trying to write a mathematical formula for relationships and likes to find anagrams in random places.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by e. lockhart — For me, Frankie is the female version of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.  Determined to subvert the male-dominated traditions at her private school, Frankie gets into all kinds of mischief, and I loved her headstrong voice.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang — This excellent graphic novel pairs multiple storylines, all of which are made hilarious primarily through dialogue and stylistic choices in Yang’s illustrations.  From antagonists so dumb they’re funny to Yang’s monkey alter ego, this is a humorous look at growing up different in America.

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins — I identified so much with the quirky narrator of this novel.  Forced to change schools right before her senior year, Anna is self-deprecating, sarcastic, and delightfully bewildered when she moves to the International School of Paris.  There’s also a great cast of hilarious supporting characters here.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy — I just loved Willowdean, the narrator of this terrific, important novel.  Most of her snide comments are made through internal monologues, but her interactions with her mom through dialogue are also quite funny, too.  Like Part-Time Indian, there are some heavier themes, but all in all I smiled throughout most of this book.

9464733Beauty Queens by Libba Bray — An all-girls’ Lord of the Flies, this book was fantastic for a variety of reasons.  The colorful cast of alternating narrators means there’s someone every reader can identify with, the interactions between those characters are often ridiculous and hysterical, and interwoven with it all is a series of broadcasts from a corrupt third party who are so evil it’s funny.

Noggin by John Corey Whaley — I finally read this book after it was stolen from my library countless times, and it’s hilarious from page one.  The story of a boy whose head is transplanted onto another teen’s body after he dies of cancer, Travis’ tale is at turns heartbreaking and hilarious as he tries to navigate the world five years after he last left it.  A fantastic series of supporting characters elevated the humor in this book for me, too.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews — For me, this was a more realistic version of The Fault in Our Stars.  I found Greg’s writing voice engaging and entertaining right away, and it made me read this book in one sitting.  His frequent addresses to the reader combined with his hilarious interactions with his friend Earl made Greg a favorite narrator of mine, and makes me eager for Jesse Andrews to write some more books!

Winger by Andrew Smith — All of Andrew Smith’s writings are hilarious at times, but for me Winger was the funniest.  Ryan Dean West is a scrappy fifteen-year-old making his way through freshman year at a private school, and his escapades with his rugby teammates, his crush, and his teachers made for a lot of laughs–up until I completely broke down in sobs for the last 30 pages or so of the book.  Still, Ryan Dean’s voice was so great that I couldn’t wait to devour this book’s sequel, Stand-Off.

What are some of the best-voiced YA books you’ve read that have cracked you up?  Please share in the comments!

Wrapping up with book trailers

After a slew of snow days and an extended year that pushed the end of school into the second-to-last week of June, my students’ motivation lagged as we approached our final month together. They needed an engaging project that still proved to be challenging and fun. Inspired by Amy’s work, my students and I celebrated the end of the reader’s workshop with a final book trailer project.

The process was organic; students latched onto the idea of watching mentor texts and dissecting the craft to gain a firmer understanding of the writing genre. Over the course of a few days, we analyzed and discussed the differences between the book and movie trailers for John Green’s upcoming film Paper Towns, a class favorite. We combed through countless examples of professional book trailers, dissecting the craft of the films and looking at the cinematography, hook, pacing, script, music, and scene choices. Finally, after brainstorming and storyboarding, students used Stupeflix, WeVideo, Puppet Edu, or iMovie to generate stunning book trailers. The results blew me away.  Here is a small sample of some of the trailers I’ll be using to supplement my book talks next year.

**Make sure to unmute the video. In some cases, the sound doesn’t automatically play.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown–Created by Matt


Perfect by Ellen Hopkins–Created by Emily

Missing Pieces by Meredith Tate–Created by Alyssa

Looking for Alaska by John Green–Created by Tristan

Missing Pieces by Meredith Tate

24903132I love receiving e-mails from students—not the “Is this due tomorrow?” or “Why do I have a zero in PowerSchool?” e-mails—but the ones that are written bleary-eyed, late at night (or sometimes early in the morning) from students who have just finished a book. Recently, Alyssa, one of my Advanced Composition juniors e-mailed me at 10:30pm after finishing Missing Pieces. She wrote:

“Wow, I just finished the book and I am completely shocked! Was definitely not expecting…[Can’t put this in because I don’t want to spoil it!]…I am extremely happy the way it ended! This was most certainly one of my favorite books that I read this year and if any of my friends ask for a recommendation I would without a doubt recommend it.”

As a teacher, finding a book students can connect with is a victory! But in this, case the victory was even sweeter. I grew up with Meredith Tate, the author of Missing Pieces, and even as children playing in the sandbox at our tiny four-classroom elementary school, Meredith knew how to weave a story.

Missing Pieces is the story of Tracey (Trace) and Piren, two best friends growing up in a dystopian world where they are matched with their spouses at six years old based on genetic compatibility. Despite Trace and Piren’s undeniable friendship and eventual attraction, they are paired with different partners. It is a fight between fate and free will.

While the plot might sound generic, resembling the many dystopian romances novels we’ve seen lately, Meredith succeeds in weaving together a distinctly unique story. Trace and Piren are flawed and frustrating and real. They live in a world of messy mistakes. As a social worker, Meredith doesn’t skirt around issues of alcoholism and abuse—instead she confronts them head-on, addressing the harsh, debilitating nature of addiction. I love that this book doesn’t cleanly fit into any distinct genre—it’s a romance, but it isn’t mawkish; it’s categorized as “new adult” but it begins when the protagonist is 14 years old; it’s dystopian yet it distinctly resembles modern society. Despite the numerous questions posed throughout the book (including those in the excerpt below), we learn that life is a series of difficult decisions; it’s the pure beauty of this rawness that makes this book relevant to teenagers.

“What if the one you’re supposed to be with, and the one you want to be with, are two different people? My entire life was mapped out for me before I was born. Is my only choice to silently follow the course already plotted? To blindly accept my future and walk that trail until I die? To smile and pretend everything is okay and I’m happy and in love with my Partner when I’m spiraling downward and drowning in my loneliness? I’m drowning, like in my childhood nightmares. Only this isn’t a nightmare; I can’t wake up from this life.”

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

persepolisIn honor of ALA’s recently released 2014 Banned Books List, I can’t help but recommend the second most banned book Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.   Persepolis was one of the three graphic novels that made the top ten list this year. The book is criticized for its use of gambling, offensive language, and political viewpoints as well as for being “politically, racially, and socially offensive” and for having “graphic depictions.” In reality, this graphic memoir isn’t afraid to tackle the horrifying and at times comedic realities of growing up in a community faced with political turmoil. After all, Satrapi wanted readers to recognize that Iranians are normal people, just like everyone else. They enjoy music and parties and clothes; the difference is that the characters in Persepolis are living during the Iranian Revolution. Satrapi begins her narrative at six years old, relaying the stories of every day life as the Shah’s regime is overthrown, the Islamic Revolution takes hold, and the war with Iraq destroys her community.

What I love most about Persepolis is its ability to attract my reluctant readers, particularly my students who would otherwise steer clear of the international shelf in my classroom library. These students are drawn to the simple black-and-white cartoons and the rebellious teen protagonist. They love her quirky sense of humor and her obsession with American music icons like Michael Jackson. Like many of our students, she is an angsty teen coming of age. The difference is that she grows up during political conflict and war. Her world is changing around her, war has becomes standard, and she, as a teenager, is attempting to find normality in completely abnormal circumstances. But it’s Marji’s ability to navigate this morbid world and go through complex transformations that make her come alive on the page.

I tend to use graphic novels towards the beginning of the year when my students are becoming acclimated to analyzing writer’s craft (or even when they need a refresher on it). Oftentimes students are more in tune to looking at the details of drawings than of writing; they find it easier to pick out the eccentricities of images yet rarely do they question why the artist made the choices they did. Graphic novels give them the opportunity to do just this.

I have students work in small groups to analyze the artistic decisions of the illustrator. For example, in Persepolisthe scene to the right, Marji has been taken into custody by the Women’s Branch of the Guardians of the Revolution, a group in charge of monitoring women’s wearing of the veil. When they stop to study the images, students notice the repetitive stern expression of the guardian and the way Marji’s face appears to melt into squiggly lines as the frames progress. They notice the transition of the lines surrounding the word bubbles from smooth curved lines to sharp zig-zags. They recognize changes in font size and effects as well as the underlying narrative strand at the bottom of the frame that shows internal dialogue. As they analyze these details, they also begin questioning the choices that lead to the depictions of these conversations and emotions and what they ultimately mean in the context of the story. By the end, the graphics take on a more complex tone. The images come alive, the artist’s intentions become clearer, and they have immersed themselves in a new lens that allows them to take a second look at literature.

The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo

10460266Marjorie Richards could be my student. In fact, she could be anyone’s student. The seventeen-year-old main character of The Talk-Funny Girl by Roland Merullo haunted me for weeks after I finished the book. I had seen her before, lingering in the eyes and mannerisms of some of my teens. The fact that she was so relatable yet so distant was disturbing.

Marjorie’s story is complex and multilayered. She lives in rural New Hampshire where teen girls are being abducted. Her abusive parents are so isolated from society that they have developed their own obscure dialect of language, a language that earns Marjorie the name “the talk funny girl” amongst her classmates. And her town has fallen under economic hardship with the closing of the local mill; in turn, she is forced to take on a job with a stonemason building “a cathedral” to support her unemployed parents.

Marjorie’s transformation is raw, inspiring, and cathartic. Her story is riddled with poetic lines that provide this quiet character with a strong internal voice. In one passage she says, “I had my protective shell of funny talk and shyness, but underneath that lived a wilder me, a girl who would take punishment, and take it, and take it, but who would never let go of herself all the way, never completely surrender” (Merullo 87). As a reader, I both relished and resented her authentic responses to her surroundings. At times she was open with her emotions, clear and contemplative. Other times I struggled yet understood her willingness to stand silent. This ebb and flow made her even more real.

Merullo found balance between maintaining a plot that lasts over years while also intertwining a thread of suspense. I began the book expecting one storyline and was forced to revise my predictions with the turn of every page. In the end, Merullo’s vivid writing, unique dialogue, and brilliant character development left an indelible mark.

March Book Madness for Choice Reading Books

Can you believe it’s already the middle of March!?  This school year is flying by…and so is the list of titles I’ve booktalked so far.  I’ve exhausted the bestsellers of YA, dystopian sci-fi, classics, books for the beach, war books, and sports books.  At this point in the year, I’m starting to booktalk new purchases, which means I’ve often not yet read them–which means that sometimes, the quality of my booktalk decreases.

FullSizeRenderSo, because I want to shift the balance of not just grading from myself to my students, but also some of the teaching, I’ve turned to my own version of March Book Madness.  I heard about this competition from Tony Keefer’s Nerdy Book Club post, and I pitched it to kids, but they wanted to choose their own titles for the bracket.

So, blank brackets were printed, and to fill them, the guidelines were broad:  in each of my four English classes (which worked out well because they each get one corner of the bracket), students could choose a book and a partner to face off against.  Simple.

That was all I said, but as students began penciling in round one of the brackets, I was impressed mightily–they intuitively paired related books together, much like I do during booktalks.  Two boys in 8th period paired the excellent graphic novels Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Maus by Art Spiegelman.  Two girls in fifth period paired John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Gayle Forman’s If I Stay–two viral tearjerkers.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie will face off against Mexican White Boy by Matt de la Pena in sixth period.  And so on.

FullSizeRender (1)

Shae vs. Mariah in the Battle of the Tearjerkers…TFiOS vs. If I Stay

As book battles began, I laid out equally simple guidelines for voting.  Each student in a faceoff would give a short (1 minute) booktalk about their chosen text, and audience members could vote for one title based on any criteria–their own experience reading that book, the person’s booktalk, the presenter’s enthusiasm, the book’s stats on GoodReads behind the presenters, etc.

This modification to our daily routine–which is that students begin with reading, then hear my booktalks–has accomplished several wonderful things in our classroom.

First, students’ what to read lists, which had recently plateaued, are lengthening rapidly once more.  The sheer social capital of having a kid share his or her own reading experience of a book makes certain titles more tantalizing than I ever could.  Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like a Rock Star, for example, never quite flies off the shelves after I booktalk it.  It’s only after one or two kids read it and enthusiastically share it that it goes viral–and it does–year after year.  I see the same thing happening now during March Book Madness with lots of other books.  Kids are clamoring, suddenly, for several of the same titles.

FullSizeRender[1]Second, students are learning more about one another’s reading tastes.  They look at the brackets from other classes every day to see which books are advancing, and are sometimes surprised by who’s booktalking what.  “Huh…I didn’t know Jordan loved A.S. King too!”, I heard Hannah say yesterday.  “You read that book too!?  Wasn’t it awesome?!” Tyler said to Hunter, as he stood up with Ned Vizzini’s Be More Chill.  Despite my efforts to make their reading lives transparent with reading groups and notebook passes of book blogs, some of my larger classes haven’t quite unearthed the darkest corners of one another’s reading preferences.  MBM is fixing that quickly.

Third, this is not for a grade.  This is just a semi-structured celebration of books, with bragging rights as the purely intrinsic reward of the whole endeavor.  The five or so minutes we spend on this in class daily are a worthy time investment for the revelatory feel they bring to the start of our learning.  Kids are excited and upbeat after the two daily faceoffs, and excited to often add one or more of the four daily books discussed to their to-read lists.  The post-winter doldrums are quickly lifting…and the sunshine certainly isn’t hurting, either.

Is anyone else doing a version of March Book Madness?  How’s it going?  Please share in the comments!

The Importance of Being Reflective (as well as Earnest)

ocsI’m going to be honest…I’m feeling pretty bummed as I sit here to write this post. I have had my first “wish-I-could-do-over” teaching days of the school year.  I haven’t felt this icky about a teaching day since…2005.  Oh Amy, you would have flipped out to see my utter lack of zen today.

It’s all too easy for me to focus on what I’ve not been doing well this year, how I have been falling oh-so-very short.  But I’m going to view this opportunity to reflect on my practice as a way to reset and to return to the core of my teaching soul for the coming week.

One bright spot in all of my classes this year has been a small change I’ve made in how I talk about books. One thing Penny Kittle emphasized this past summer (love to #UNHLit13) was the importance of book talks as part of her class every day.  I’ve always gushed about books I’m reading (see Shana’s post “Fangirling About Books”, which may as well have been my post! Kindred spirits!), and I’ve always prided myself on being able to match students with books that resonate with them.  But I decided to make book talks a regular part of each day, right after starting class with independent reading.

This Monday I’ll talk about books #51 (Invisibility by Andrea Cremer and David Levithan) and #52 (Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan).  My students like finding the connection between the two books, though the connection between these is kind of obvious!

There are myriad benefits to having these daily book talks.  Some of the great books I read from and talk about are new to my students, and sometimes there are some who have read them already.  This has created community and conversation around books, as students share opinions, do their own spontaneous plugs for the books, ask questions, and start fighting about who gets to read them first!  Students started a Book Wait List on the white board.

It has surprised me how much the students enjoy the book talks.  One day a couple weeks ago, I forgot to book talk (it’s a verb now!), and Stephanie, who doesn’t ever say anything in class raised her hand and asked, “Are you not going to talk about a book today?”  When a new student joined our class, I had Noe help her get oriented, setting up her notebook and so forth.  I overheard her say, “After we read, she introduces a couple of books. It’s one of my favorite parts of class, no joke.  There’s a lot of cool books she shows us.”  The other day, students pointed out that I neglected to update the titles for book talks on the agenda.

All of the energy around books has helped create a culture of reading in our classroom so that even the most reluctant readers are giving books a try. The books have become a bridge between me and some of the students who are typically “hard to reach.”  It’s still a challenge to be sure, and there are days some students are fake reading, but for the most part, students are realizing the books are here to stay!

For me, it’s always easier to dwell on the negative, but when I stop to think about it, there are quite a few things going well. It’s a process, and I’m growing and figuring out how to make my class an authentic reading and writing workshop. It is a source of strength to know there are people in my PLN all over the country striving to do the same!

(Coming up next month: How to respond to the question, “How do you assess that?!”)

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