Revisiting ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas’

Some books are worth a second read.  Such was the case with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

I’d read the book years ago and remember the impact it had on me. Then, a week ago, I spotted it on my ‘special’ bookshelf, wedged between other books that I deem worthy of further reads. I’d been looking for an example of a story told in third person as this one is, and that gave me an excuse to dip into the book a second time.

Boyne’s story tells the tale of two nine-year-old boys – Bruno and Shmuel – who live on opposite sides of the concentration camp fence at Auschwitz during the second world war. Bruno is the son of the German commandant in charge of the camp.  Shmuel is a Jewish prisoner. As the story evolves, the two become friends and meet at the fence almost daily. The conclusion – which I won’t spoil for you – is deeply affecting and memorable.

Although I had viewed the movie version after my first read, I found myself more engaged in the text the second time around than in any scene in the film.  A number of things about Boyne’s writing struck me as I read the book again.  One was its simplicity. Boyne’s writing is sparse and unadorned. Not a word is wasted. The sparseness of the story matches the sparseness of the setting, and it echoes the loneliness and horror facing those on both sides of the fence at Auschwitz.

Another striking feature is the way Boyne immerses us in the thoughts and feelings of his main characters. We see and feel almost everything from Bruno’s perspective. He’s a nine-year-old who is trying to make sense of what is happening around him.  He is curious, asks questions, and when answers aren’t forthcoming, he formulates conclusions that – to him, at least – match circumstances that he doesn’t quite understand. All this deepened my reading experience and had me asking some of the same questions as Bruno.

Some of the best examples of this nine-year-old sense-making come from the names that Bruno assigns to people and places. To Bruno, the Fuher sounds like the Fury and so that is the name he assigns Adolph Hitler. Auschwitz is Out-With. He calls his sister, Gretel, a Hopeless Case and Trouble From Day One. His father’s office is Out Of Bounds At All Times And No Exceptions.

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, John Boyne writes:  “Fences such as the one at the heart of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas still exist; it is unlikely that they will ever fully disappear.”

With border walls cropping up between countries, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas seemed even more relevant and striking to me on my second read. It is a thought-provoking story, not suitable for nine-year-olds, but excellent for more mature readers.

Bonding with My Kids Over the Hideous Twits

 

Reading to our two young kids was a nightly ritual in our house, right after baths and brushing of teeth. Read alouds were as regular as sunset, a pattern that the kids loved and so did their parents.

Recently, I asked my now 37-year-old son what books he remembered from our read-aloud times. One book he mentioned was The Twits by Roald Dahl. I’d forgotten much of the plot, but the mere mention of the book brought back a wash of memories. He must have been 8 or 9 at the time, perhaps younger, but somehow, we’d connected over the silliness of the story, the preposterous characters, and Dahl’s twisted humour.

In Dahl’s book, the Twits are a hideous, spiteful husband and wife who hate one another. They play outlandish practical jokes on each other as they try to outdo the nastiness of their partner. Just to give you a taste of the humour, in one scene Mrs. Twit removes her glass eye and pops it into Mr. Twits’ beer mug when he isn’t looking. Mr. Twit downs the beer and discovers the glass eye. His shock delights Mrs. Twit, but also sets him on a path of revenge.  He hides a large, ugly frog in her bed and…. You get the gist – one-upmanship of the hideous kind.

Quentin Blake’s illustrations add delightful quirkiness to the story

Being former circus owners, the Twits try to form the world’s first upside-down monkey circus. They set about trapping animals in bizarre ways, leading to even more dubious acts as the story continues. As with all good stories, villains get their just desserts at the end, and the Twits get theirs in a particularly wacky way.

While children love Roald Dahl’s humour, many adults deplore it.  They find it questionable, and of the bathroom variety that is inappropriate for young readers.  In The Twits, Dahl portrays a couple with few redeeming qualities, wreaking havoc on each other in a broken marriage. What kind of role models are these for young children?  What does the book teach them about relationships?

Speaking for myself, I don’t believe my kids were damaged in any way. The story has a moral component and reading was our time together. We laughed through the silly passages, recognizing that this was a fictional couple. For a real couple, they had only to look at the example set by their parents.

Because we so enjoyed the book, we read others of Roald Dahl’s like James and the Giant Peach and George’s Marvelous Medicine. We balanced Roald Dahl’s strange humour with books by other authors.

Now, thirty years later, talking together as adults now, my son and I once again laugh at the ridiculous nature of the story. We see the book for what it really was for us, and still is – an enjoyable reading experience shared between a father and his son.

For other takes on Roald Dahl’s use of humour, see

Roald Dahl’s Subversive Storytelling | The New Yorker

The Grotesque and the Taboo in Roald Dahl’s Humorous Writings for Children


For other posts in this Raising Readers Series, check out

How Superman Taught Me Story Structure
This Mummy Changed Me: National Geographic
My Intro to Sarcasm & Parody: MAD Magazine
A Lesson in Flexing Language: A Tale of Two Cities
Why I Cheered for August, Via and Other Characters in Wonder
How Truman Capote Gave Me Nightmares: In Cold Blood

 

How Truman Capote Gave Me Nightmares: In Cold Blood

If recall is anything, I believe I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood while I was in grade 12. It wasn’t required reading or even recommended reading, but when I spotted the book on a rack in the library, it immediately grabbed my attention.  The reviews on the cover jacket promised great rewards to those brave enough to read the story of murder and violence outside the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. 

“A masterpiece…a spellbinding work” – Life Magazine.

“A remarkable, tensely exciting, moving, superbly written ‘true account’” – The New York Times.

“The book chills the blood and exercises the intelligence …harrowing” – The New York Review of Books

Somewhere I’d heard that with In Cold Blood, Capote had practically invented a new genre.  Using story-telling techniques borrowed from fiction, he’d woven a compelling factual story. In some circles, it was called a non-fiction novel.  Others termed it narrative non-fiction.  To still others, it was creative non-fiction.  Whatever the label, it was a relatively original approach at the time.

Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped here.
  Truman Capote, In Cold Blood –

From the moment, I opened the book, I was hooked.  The story follows two ex-cons recently released from Kansas State Penitentiary – Perry Smith and Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock – as they invade a farm house on November 15, 1959.  With calculated precision, the pair rob and slaughter four members of the Clutter family – Herbert, the father, Bonnie, his wife, and two of their children, Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15.  Smith and Hickock are eventually captured, convicted, and receive the death sentence.

Capote caught wind of the crime through a 300-word account in the New York Times that was published the day after the murders. Intrigued, he travelled to Holcomb to interview locals. Later, after Smith and Hickock were sentenced, he interviewed the pair.  All told, he compiled 8000 pages of notes and spent 6 years writing the book.  By integrating vivid descriptions with quotes from the killers, local residents, and the lawmen involved, Capote created a gripping story. 

Capote’s telling was so captivating that I finished the book in record time.  To say it deeply affected me is an understatement.  The chilling story haunted me for weeks afterwards. Even to this day, when I drive past a lonely prairie farmhouse, I think of the Clutter family, the fear and panic the four must have felt, and the ruthlessness of the killers who committed the act. 

When it comes to non-fiction story telling, Truman Capote set the bar high.  Whenever I write non-fiction stories, I think of the example he set and try to aim high, too.

For more about In Cold Blood and Truman Capote, you might want to check these sources:

Sparknotes: In Cold Blood 

Shmoop: In Cold Blood 

Wikipedia: In Cold Blood


For other posts in this Raising Readers Series, check out

How Superman Taught Me Story Structure
This Mummy Changed Me: National Geographic
My Intro to Sarcasm & Parody: MAD Magazine
A Lesson in Flexing Language: A Tale of Two Cities
Why I Cheered for August, Via and Other Characters in Wonder

 

Why I Cheered for August, Via and Other Characters in Wonder

When February’s I Love to Read Month swings in action, I like to do my bit by reading something new and different.  After seeing Wonder, R. J. Palacio’s middle grade novel, in bookstores across England, Greece, Italy as well as Canada and the United States, I figured it would be a good choice.

Wonder is the story of August (Auggie) Pullman, a 10-year-old boy living in Manhattan who has a rare craniofacial disorder often equated with Treacher Collins syndrome.  Because of his condition and multiple follow-up surgeries, August’s face is disfigured. His hearing also affected, and he suffers other health set-backs. After years of home-schooling, he enters fifth-grade at Beecher Middle School. The novel follows August’s adjustment to his new school, and the impact it has on characters in the story. 

The novel is written from first-person perspectives of several key characters, starting with August himself.  Later, it switches to his older sister, Via, then later to August’s new friend, Summer and then to other characters as the story evolves. It ends with August’s account of his final few days at school that year.

Initially, I had trouble making the switch to other perspectives. August’s voice is so strong, and his telling so entertaining that when the narration switched to Via on page 37, I didn’t see the change coming.  I really didn’t want to leave August either. But Palacio gives each character a unique voice.  She starts transitions by going back to key events to show us how they impacted the character currently telling the story. Then, she adds to the plot and moves the story along before switching viewpoints again.  With each viewpoint, I understood more about the character’s relationship with August, and also some of the problems and challenges they faced.

the first time i meet olivia’s little brother I have to admit i’m totally taken by surprise. i shouldn’t be, of course. olivia’s told me about his ‘syndrome.’ has even described what he looks like. but she’s also talked about all his surgeries over the years, so i guess i assumed he’d be more normal-looking by now…                                                                               Justin, from Wonder

Jacob Tremblay plays August in the movie version of Wonder

The themes of acceptance and friendship ride throughout the novel.  Palacio switches perspectives with ease, giving each voice a personality all its own. She uses humour effectively to buffer delicate situations. Young readers will relate to August’s predicament, that of his classmates, and they might even see themselves in the cast of characters.

Palacio gives readers a well-woven story, rich in details and strong characters.  By embracing a difficult subject with sensitivity, she gives readers much to discuss and weigh.  Wonder is suitable for the 8-14 age group, but there is much here that older teens and even adults will enjoy.  This would be a great read-aloud for home or school, and a valuable resource for classrooms.


From an interview with NPR, here’s what R. J. Palacio had to say about an encounter with a girl with a severe facial deformity. The encounter occurred while she was in an ice cream shop with her two sons, and it became the driving force behind Wonder.   

I was really angry at myself afterwards for the way I had responded. What I should have done is simply turned to the little girl and started up a conversation and shown my kids that there was nothing to be afraid of. But instead what I ended up doing was leaving the scene so quickly that I missed that opportunity to turn the situation into a great teaching moment for my kids. And that got me thinking a lot about what it must be like to … have to face a world every day that doesn’t know how to face you back.

For the full interview, click here.

For more about R.J. Palacio, click here.


For other posts in this Raising Readers Series, check out

 

A Lesson in Flexing Language: A Tale of Two Cities

When I first read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, I was in high school, probably grade 10. I believe it was assigned reading, though I cannot be sure. Memory fogs when I dip into the high school period.

At any rate, I read A Tale of Two Cities, and was wholly captivated by the experience thanks to Dickens masterful telling. I was thrust into French Revolution from the very beginning and read with gusto to the very end. The story moves between London and Paris, and weaves a dozen or more characters through the political turmoil of the period. As young a reader as I was, I never felt overwhelmed. I rode the waves of love, treachery, brutality and intrigue to the book’s tragic, but hopeful, conclusion.

Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. Story-telling styles have changed since his day. Dickens wrote with elegant flourishes, long asides, and used elevated language that seems out of place in our fast-paced age. And yet, the book is hailed as one of the best-selling novels of all time. According to Wikipedia, an estimated 200 million copies of A Tale of Two Cities have been sold since it was first published.

Many books about writing stress the importance of establishing a gripping opening using action to captivate readers. Many, too, talk about sentence structure – simple is better, variety is important for pacing and interest, and so on. One book whose title I cannot remember, even cited a hard and fast rule: sentences should be 15 words or less. Anything longer might confuse and discourage readers, and add unnecessary complexity.

Dickens’ opening to A Tale of Two Cities is not steeped in action. Sentences are not simple, nor brief. Dickens’ opening is but one long sentence. At 119 words, it surpasses the suggested limit by a long shot. Yet, the opening to A Tale of Two Cities remains one of the most evocative, cherished and remembered beginnings of all time.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In his opening, Dickens gave more than just a memorable start to his book. He painted a vivid picture of the period and showed just what might be gained when a masterful writer flexes language.


For other posts in this Raising Readers series, check out 

My Intro to Sarcasm & Parody: MAD Magazine

Growing up, my younger brother and I shared a newspaper route. We delivered newspapers in the afternoon after school finished. Our route bordered the street where we lived, so the job suited our not-very-busy schedules.

Every second Saturday, we walked to a depot a few blocks away to turn in the money we had collected from customers. At the same time, we received a portion of the cash – our income for two weeks of steady delivery. When you are 12 years old, job opportunities are limited. The money we earned meant that we could indulge in a few frills, and MAD magazine was at the top of our list.

Whenever we could, one or both of us bought the latest edition. We spent hours thumbing through its pages, absorbing the nuances of its witty commentary and off-beat drawings. We didn’t catch on to everything, but there was enough there to send us into fits of laughter. For us, it was a bonding experience, but I doubt my parents understood our fascination with the quirky and sometimes questionable material.

Looking back, I can see how MAD shaped the reader and writer I became. MAD taught me that no topic is off-limits. MAD’s writers and illustrators questioned authority, skewered sacred cows, and deflated puffy egos. They did this with sarcasm, parody, and carefully delivered barbs. For a 12-year-old, this was sophisticated material and I’m sure that my reading comprehension skipped ahead because of my exposure to MAD’s pages.

Spy vs Spy quickly became one of my favourite features. In Spy vs Spy, two agents – one dressed in white, the other in black – engaged in war-like activities against each. Using bombs and booby traps, one tried to outsmart the other. In one issue, the white agent won. In the next, it was the black agent’s turn. I read the strip for its laughs, but hidden below the surface was a clever commentary on the cold war conditions of the time.

Reading MAD influenced me is several other ways. I became fascinated with cartooning. I purchased pens, ink, and how-to-books, spent hours doodling, and even built a light-box like the one animators use to trace images. I also became enamored with the sarcastic approach of MAD. As an adolescent in search of a voice, I tried my hand at dealing sarcasm, often unsuccessfully. Apparently, neither friends nor foes appreciated put-downs and smart-ass comments as much as I enjoyed delivering them.

According to Wikipedia, as of January 2017, MAD had published 544 regular issues as well as many special editions. I don’t know how many readers and future writers the magazine has influenced since its debut in 1952, but count me as one.


For another post in this Raising Readers series, check out How Superman Taught Me Story Structure

This Mummy Changed Me: National Geographic

Everyone has moments from their past that stand out as clear today as the day they happened.  For me, one of those moments occurred on a Saturday morning when I was 13 years old. I was at our local library, stalking the non-fiction stacks, plucking books off shelves, doing quick scans, then putting them back.  Nothing really grabbed my interest.  Then one book with a yellow spine caught my eye. It was a thick National Geographic publication with dozens of photographs and articles about the Institute’s expeditions. 

I flipped through the book and landed on an article describing a mountain-top discovery in Chile.  In the high Andes, a centuries-old tomb containing a mummy had been found.  Photographs showed the interior and the haunting image of a young boy sitting inside, frozen in death, one arm across the other, his head resting on his knees, his eyes closed as if asleep.

I sat on the floor by the stacks and read, lost in the story of the boy-mummy and the tragic circumstances of his death.  The article mentioned that the boy was about 8 years old , not much younger than I was, and that he’d been alive when placed in the tomb. I read to the end, fascinated, but at the same time horrified.    

An hour later, I surfaced from the fog, suddenly aware of my surroundings. It was a magical feeling, as if I’ve been transported through a portal that linked past to present.

That experience sparked an life-long interest in archaelogy, but it did more, too. Whenever I write, I write to the transported young person that I was.  Whether I am conscious of it or not, I write for the me of long ago, a reader so entranced by a story that time slips by unnoticed.  I try to recreate that feeling by crafting compelling yet readily understood material, and by blending facts with explanations that keep the momentum moving.

A replica of the boy mummy on display at the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural in Santiago, Chile.

The story of the boy affected me in another way, too.  I wanted to write about it, and I have – twice.  Once as The Boy in the Mountain for Mysteries of Time, and then some 20 years later I rewrote the story for The Case of the Mountain Mummies in Case Files: 40 Murders and Mysteries Solved by Science. 

In the span of time between the two writings, over 35 mummies of children have been found in remote tombs on Andean peaks.  They are evidence of an ancient Inca practice called capacocha where young children were ceremonially sacrificed on mountain tops to appease the gods.

 

For another post in this Raising Readers series, check out  How Superman Taught Me Story Structure

How Superman Taught Me Story Structure

When I was six or so, I wrapped a small blanket around my shoulders and jumped off the top step at the front of our house. I fully expected to fly like my hero, Superman. He wore a cape, after all, and he could fly so why shouldn’t I?  That was the logic behind my courageous leap.

Of course, I didn’t fly.  Gravity took over. I crash landed and rammed my knee into my jaw, which in turn shoved my teeth into my tongue. I was a bloody mess.   

It was a harsh lesson in the fine distinction between fiction and non-fiction.  Since I can recall the painful details of the experience many decades later, it was a lesson I never forgot.

Superman was the first of my super heroes.  Others would follow, but like first loves, he would always be special.  Not even Batman, Spider man, the Hulk or others in the superhero realm could knock him off his lofty perch. Although each of them fascinated me for a while, it was faster-than-a-speeding bullet, leap-over-tall buildings Superman I returned to time and again. 

When I was a kid, Superman was alive and well on the weekly episodes I watched on our grainy black-and-white TV.  But mostly, he was alive and well in the comic books I relished. At 6, I could hardly read, yet but there was enough action on the pages to keep me occupied.  Even without dialogue, I could make out much of the story. The plot unfolded panel by panel across the colorful pages.

From Superman comics, I learned about story structure – first an opening to set the stage, then rising action that led to a climax and resolution.  I didn’t know the technical terms then, but I understood the concept of beginning, middle and end.

pramit_marattha / Pixabay

From Superman comics, I learned about protagonists and antagonists, and how important it was to have struggle and conflict in a story.  When Superman clashed with a villain like Lex Luthor, I turned pages faster. Complications keep the story moving, and for every hero there must be a villain – or at least, a counterpoint.

From Superman comics, I learned about good and evil. I learned about unrequited love. I learned that worlds exist beyond ours, and the possibilities for adventure are endless. And when Superman turned to mush in the presence of kryptonite, I learned that even the strongest and bravest among us have flaws.

Above all, I learned that capes alone do not a superhero make.

To Write a Great Beginning

For many writers, the beginning of any story – long or short, fiction or non-fiction – is a challenge.  Where to start?  What to include?  What not to include?

I’m in such a place now with my work-in-progress middle grade novel.  I’ve finished the first draft.  I’ve started revisions. I know now what the story is about now.  I know the theme, the characters, how the plot evolves and yet….  I’m not quite satisfied with any of the half-dozen beginnings that are stored on my computer.

Why?  Because so much is riding on those first few lines, especially for writers of youth material.

A strong beginning pulls readers forward.  A limp start leaves readers – especially youngsters – floundering and wondering if it’s even worth plowing ahead. This may be particularly true for boys who might be reluctant readers. A few lines, a paragraph or two, maybe a page, and if they’re not captivated by the story, many less proficient and inexperienced readers will simply give up.

A few years ago, while I was visiting Arizona, I browsed through the children’s section of Barnes & Noble, pulling novels off shelves to scan the first lines in some popular books written for 7-12 year-olds.  How did the pro’s begin? I wondered.  To emulate the experience of young readers, I gave each book a maximum of five lines to establish the basics and draw me into the story. Anything longer and the book went back on the shelf.

Here are ten beginnings that passed my rudimentary test.  Each one teased, prodded or enticed me with a creative hook to read further, sometimes in less than my 5 allotted lines.  Do you agree with my selection?

“I’m going shopping in the village,” George’s mother said to George on Saturday morning. “So be a good boy and don’t get into mischief.”  This was a silly thing to say to a small boy at any time.  It immediately made him wonder what sort of mischief he might get into.

George’s Marvelous Medicine – Roald Dahl

l

   Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  – J.K.Rowling

Tale of Despereaux This story begins within the walls of a castle with the birth of a mouse.  A small mouse.  The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive.

                                                                          The Tale of Despereaux – Kate Camillo

My English teacher, Mr. Selkirk, says I have to write something, and it has to be long, on account of the thing that happened over winter recess – which in my opinion, doesn’t amount to much.  It’s not like I meant for Danley to get hurt, and I don’t think that what happened was one hundred percent my fault, or even a lot my fault, even though I don’t deny that I was there.

                                                                                                   Twerp – Mark Goldblatt

  It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.  No.  Wrong word, Jonas thought.  Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen.  Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice.

                                                                                                   The Giver – Lois Lowry

The Whipping Boy

The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat. Not even black cats would cross his path.

The Whipping Boy – Sid Fleischman

red pyramid We only have a few hours, so listen carefully.  If you’re hearing this story, you’re already in danger.  Sadie and I might be your only chance. Go to the school.  Find the locker.  I won’t tell you which school or which locker, because if you’re the right person, you’ll find it.

The Red Pyramid – Rick Riordan

There was a town, and there was a girl, and there was a theft.  I was living in the town, and I was hired to investigate the theft, and I thought the girl had nothing to do with it.

Who Could That be at This Hour – Lemony Snicket

girl who could fly  Piper decided to jump off the roof.  It wasn’t a rash decision on her part.

                                    The Girl Who Could Fly – Victoria Forester

whimpy kid

I wish I started keeping a journal a lot earlier, because whoever ends up writing my biography is gonna have a lot of questions about my life in the years leading up to middle school.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel – Jeff Kinney

Little Free Libraries – Your Chance to be Creative

Todd Bol’s first Little Free Library

Todd Bol’s library looked nothing like conventional libraries seen in towns and cities worldwide. His was much smaller, hand-built out of scrap wood, and modeled after a one-room school house. He added a sign above the school house doorway that read ‘Little Free Library’.

In 2009, Todd stocked the little school house with books, mounted it on a post in his front yard, and invited friends and neighbors to browse. It became a popular attraction, with visitors selecting books, dropping off others, and sharing in the joys of reading.

Todd Bol’s simple act spawned a world-wide movement.  Today, there are over 50,000 registered Little Free Libraries (LFL) around the globe with new ones sprouting up on every continent except – so far at least – Antarctica.   Most bear ‘take a book, leave a book’ signs, but that is more a suggestion than a rule.  There are no enforcers, no guardians, only stewards keen on spreading the written word.

Little Free Library along Carpathia Street, Winnipeg

Winnipeg, my hometown, caught the wave in 2012 when Charlene Roziere erected the city’s first one at 273 Mandeville Street. Today there are dozens more, most in front yards, but others in school playgrounds, coffee shops or along lanes – wherever book lovers are likely to congregate.

Anyone can join the movement.  The Little Free Library website provides Instructions on how to build and register a Little Free Library.  Once registered, the new LFL is added to a website map that pinpoints the location of each registered Little Free Library.  Click on the pin, and a box opens providing details and a photo or two.

The LFL website has downloadable blueprints and if you are so inclined, you can even order one pre-built.  But for handy folks and those with a creative edge, here’s your chance to go shine. While there are some basic guidelines, your Little Free Library can be constructed out of almost any material and in just about any architectural style you desire.

To whet your creative appetite, here’s a small sample of LFLs, drawn from a variety of sources across the Internet.

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