Category Archives: history

So magnifique

FMwraparound_v03This is not the book I was looking for.

Often I’m working on something – well, let’s be honest, working on anything – at the library, and I come across something that sparks my interest, or maybe one of my coworkers leaves a book on my desk, and all I can do is wonder, “How did I miss this before?”

But I do.  I miss all kinds of great books – some intentionally, some by forgetting to write a title down, some by just not looking in the right direction.  There is much joy for me in the library – so many reasons to be curious, to laugh, to cry, to think about something that usually doesn’t cross my path.

Anyway, this is a must-read if you like history, especially feminist history, or nonfiction graphic novels. That might make it sound a little off-putting, but this is the opposite of off-putting.  It’s inspiring, really.  Like many other books that have come out in the past few years, it highlights both well-known and not-so-well-known women who did incredible things with their lives.

Femme Magnifique: 50 Magnificent Women Who Changed the World – a comic book anthology edited by Shelly Bond

And for more great books about women’s history, including some for kids, see these previous posts:

Trailblazers, thinkers, smart girls

What to read while planning your personal resistance

Girl power –  now with comics!

Girl power – rebels and visionaries

When 63 pages = powerful

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amazing iowaI have a certain fondness for books that tell sometimes-forgotten stories of women who overcame or did something incredible or just didn’t give up in the face of a society that wanted them to be something else other than what they were.

This is whole alphabet and more of Iowans who did amazing things while also being women.  It’s a beautiful book to look at, and it’s got so many interesting stories and lives that you want to find out more about these people who did incredible things.  It also acknowledges the problematic legacies of some, a much-appreciated addition, since people in the past were just as imperfect as we are.

So grab a cup of your favorite beverage and settle in for an enlightening afternoon.

Amazing Iowa Women by Katy Swalwell, published by RAYGUN

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Trailblazers, thinkers, smart girls

I woke up thinking about picture books today–specifically picture book biographies and how much interesting history and culture you can learn from them.  So instead of a lot of words today, I offer you a reminder of just a few amazing women’s lives:

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The particular sadness of the news cycle

unwantedNot long ago, our government announced that it would again cut refugee admissions, following the whole ridiculous farce last year about needing to make an already multi-year process more difficult.  Do I have strong feelings about this?  Yes, yes, I do.

As this book notes in the postscript, “There are about 5.7 million Syrian refugees.  In the first three months of 2018, the United States has accepted eleven for resettlement.”   Eleven!  When I wrote the White House about the issue, the reply I got back was a full page of what a wonderful job ICE agents are doing on the border.  I wasn’t at all surprised, but it was a little depressing.

I look at all that refugees I have personally known have done to make this country, state, and city a better place, and I am appalled that our government feels like it’s ok to do so little in the face of unspeakable horror and tragedy.   But that’s the news cycle for you.  It’s as if it isn’t even happening anymore.

Do yourself a favor and read this book.  It’s probably not ideal for younger kids –there are some visuals suggesting executions, bombings and other violence – but it would be eye-opening for teens (and adults).

The Unwanted: stories of the Syrian refugees by Don Brown

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Have we learned anything? Do we ever learn?

1947It’s easy to feel like the world is in chaos, but hasn’t it always been a little that way?

1947: where now begins  is a reminder, not just of how much can happen in one year – a lot – but that some fights we think we’ve won really just putter on, hiding out or growing or morphing into some new awful thing over weeks, months, years.  People in power make dumb decisions that hurt people all the time and frequently lose little sleep over it.  Justice can be more about keeping people in their places than fairness or democracy.

I wouldn’t call it a fun read, but it is a powerful one.

1947: where now begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink

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One person, many stories

usvjrAnyone who’s ever gotten in trouble because of who they are and not what they did will understand this one.  When the rules about segregation in the military change, Jack is following the new rules when he gets on the bus and doesn’t move to the back.  But who gets in trouble?  Jack, of course.  He has to explain himself at a court martial.  Other people on the bus make up things about how disrespectful he is, white people make threats and no one does anything, the bus driver doesn’t get in trouble for trying to force Jack to follow the old rules.  And the list just goes on and on.

Jack does win the case, when the truth finally comes out.  But this is only the beginning of a lifetime of standing up he will do.  Jack will leave the military and become the baseball-playing Jackie Robinson we all know.  One person, many stories.

The United States v. Jackie Robinson by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and R. Gregory Christie

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We children led the way

let the childrenSometimes adults are afraid to speak up.  But when children use their voice, they can be heard, too.  Their message can be just as powerful or even more powerful.

This one’s a good reminder to kids that they can change the world, too, and it presents civil rights history in a way that young kids can understand and relate to.  The art is a much-appreciated bonus.

Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson and Frank Morrison

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Good guys and bad guys, survival and struggle

1saboteurI’ve loved historical fiction about World War II since I was first reading chapter books.  One of my all-time favorites as a kid was Snow Treasure, a story about kids who foil the Nazis by sneaking gold out of the country on their sleds.  Over the years, I’ve also read a lot of nonfiction on the topic, everything from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts to Double Cross by Ben Macintyre and quite a lot in between.  I also have a fondness for World War II era mysteries – everything from the Foyle’s War TV series to the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series (which actually starts at the end of World War I) and the Maggie Hope mysteries by Susan Elia MacNeal.

So it’s no surprise that I loved The Saboteur: the Aristrocrat who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando by Paul Kix.  French Resistance, Nazis, escaping certain death several times – I’m there!  The story of Robert de La Rochefoucauld reads like a spy novel instead of a series of documented life events, which has ensured that I’ve suggested it to all of my patrons who like reading about spies, war, or French history.  It’s also a wonderful book, because it addresses the gray areas in which people exist during war.  Not everyone is 100% good or bad; there are compromises and bad decisions in addition to all of the luck and occasional happy endings.

While I can see many adults and even some teens enjoying this book, you might also consider some fictional favorites of mine on similar topics.  Some are specifically for younger readers; others work for many ages.

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Luck and love and survival

survivors clubI first heard Michael Bornstein’s story on Iowa Public Radio this spring.  By the time I remembered to put myself on the holds list for it, there were quite a few people in front of me.  Anything they talk about on public radio, whether on the local shows or national shows, gets a bump in holds at the library.  It’s a nice reminder that there are other people out there listening to the same things I like, although I sometimes have to wait a while.

It’s such an incredible story – at any point, a wrong word or move could have and did mean that people he loved were led off in a different direction and killed.  Why is it that we humans seem to find, over and over, so many opportunities to dehumanize and kill each other?  It’s horrifying, and yet unsurprising, that after surviving Auschwitz and other camps, Michael and some members of his family returned home, only to be kept out of their homes and attacked by local bands of thugs who were looking for someone to brutalize and blame after the fact.

Michael was very young and very lucky.  What a gift to all of us that he shared the story, particularly now.

Survivors Club:  the true story of a very young prisoner of Auschwitz by Michael Bornstein and Debbie Bornstein Holinstat

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For library nerds and all the Goody Two-Shoes sorts out there…

balderdashHow have I lived this long without knowing the story of the “real” Little Goody Two-Shoes?  Apparently, she was a raggedy little girl who always bettered herself despite misfortunes.  And of course, she ended up with a rich husband who had a coach and six.  Holy cats!  Why didn’t anyone tell me this?

Calling someone a goody two-shoes was still quite a popular way to taunt nerdy girls in my youth, although it was directed less at the smarts of the girl in question and more at being a rule-follower of any kind.  All kinds of things stay hidden in the back of your brain for years, and I never thought to look into where that particular taunt came from.

Then, today, I was zipping through an awesome new picture book about John Newbery, and there she was!  John Newbery published some of the first books specifically written for children, including The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes.  No one’s sure who wrote the book, but it was a hit, and Newbery went on to publish many other children’s books.  Some 150 years later, his name was the one attached to the American Library Association’s Newbery Medal — to recognize the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children each year.  And while this book, despite excellent illustrations and a fun story, might not seem like the first thing a kid would pick out, it’s got a lot of discussion starters and eye candy for slightly older kids, especially those who love learning about history and books.  And now I can think about that childhood teasing in a whole new way, too.  Nicely done.



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Never give up

undefeated When I was in a different job and the kids were in first grade, we’d sit together and read in a quiet corner or a loud hallway.  Some would ask me, “Why don’t you just read it?”  Maybe they weren’t interested, didn’t want to, or were afraid they’d do it wrong – it could be any number of things stopping them.  But when you’re learning to read, you need the practice.  You need a lot of practice.

Jim Thorpe practiced constantly.  Even when he sat down, he visualized the next race or what he could do differently the next time. Things might have slowed him down once in a while, but it doesn’t sound like anything stopped him.  Whether on the football field or in an Olympic stadium, he and his teammates worked and prepared for excellence, even when many of the words written and thrown out at them were racist, belittling, and just plain wrong.

I’ve been waiting for this book for several months, because I’ve enjoyed Steve Sheinkin’s past work for young people.  The Port Chicago 50 and Most Dangerous are non-fiction favorites of mine, and this is a great addition.  Even if you aren’t a football fan, you might find yourself reading about the big games with a surprising amount of intensity.

I’m also a fan of Bill Bryson–graduate of the high school up the road from me.  I’m always telling people how much I like his work.  He could write about pineapple plantations or particle physics, and I’d read it.  He can write about things I’m not interested in at all, and I know I’ll still love reading it.  Bill Bryson, here’s your new buddy.  Write about anything, Steve Sheinkin.  I’ll read it.

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin

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Pathfinders and Visionaries

There’s nothing like a nasty cold to get me reading nonfiction.  I don’t know why.  Is it a strange attempt to keep some kind of grasp on reality?  Does it remind me how lucky I am compared to historical figures?  Do I just like the pictures?  No idea.

For whatever reason it happens, though, it’s a gift.

My latest cold brought me these two:

  • Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls by Tonya Bolden. Whether it’s Venture Smith’s memoir or Jackie Ormes and cartooning, there is much to learn here about both leaders and regular people.  There are a lot of pictures (yay!) and infographics, which help move the text along.  For kids learning about history and biography, this will be a great addition to the wide range of books highlighting forgotten historical figures which have come out in the last few years.
  • Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer by Fiona Robinson. Ada Lovelace keeps popping up lately.  Even though I knew her story, this picture book adds a joyful and creative boost to the mix.  The artwork is expressive and fun, and it manages to represent math concepts and the emotional struggles of a woman trying to excel within a system that limited her.

For more books with similar themes, see these past posts: (Women in science and math) (Smartypants biographies) (5 on getting the vote)

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Not so hidden now

hidden-figuresI haven’t seen Hidden Figures in the theater yet, but having just finished the young readers’ edition of the book, I can appreciate what we’ve been missing all these years—one more chapter of our history that should have included much, much more.  The African American women “computers,” mathematicians, and engineers who worked on the race to build better and faster aircraft and then the space program were up against a host of low expectations, not because they weren’t good at what they were doing, but because they were not white and not men.  It’s an inspiring story, and one that will be interesting to kids and teens on its own or as part of any curriculum that addresses the civil rights movement or how the workplace has changed for women since World War II.

Looking for more on women in science?  See this post for even more recent resources.

Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly

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When to stay and when to go – 40 years of tough choices

fortyautumns I don’t read a lot of books for adults these days.  It might be my abysmally short attention span.  It might be the pretty colors in the graphic novels and picture books.  It might be the fact that reality is feeling a little surreal these days, so nonfiction is usually out.  I’m just not enough of a smartypants to read literary fiction anymore.  The genres just fall away as my excuses pile up.  Too preachy, too cute, too violent, too angry, too much substance abuse….

But then something happens.  Like the flu.  On New Year’s Eve.  Perfect for avoiding my many social invitations but not so great for actually doing anything fun.  And with a strangely small stack of books-to-be-read, I picked up Forty Autumns, read the preface, then a few chapters.  And before you know it, I was halfway through it.

My brain on a virus can be a little confused, but I’ve found that certain things actually work better when I’m not able to do anything but lie around for long periods of time.  It’s the only way I could ever get myself to watch Schindler’s List, for example.  Usually I read or watch a lot of Jane Austen, which I find exceptionally comforting and can dip in and out of.  Today, in recovery, I can do the entire collection of Harry Potter movies, but that doesn’t work when I can’t move my head because it hurts too much.

So Forty Autumns ended up being perfect.  It is a really good read, but reading it mostly in one go – something I’m not usually able to do — made it even better.  The lingering and unsettled feelings surrounding those left behind in what became East Germany stayed with me.  In addition to the family stories, there is a lot of history here – how leaders supposedly working for the good of the people let everyone else suffer while they lived in gated communities with fancy cars and imported food, keeping others trapped in a twisted system that actually built walls to stop them from depriving the government of their labor.

It might be a strange thing to recommend on the beginning of a new year, but sometimes looking back can help us see our own moment in time more clearly.  And we can use all the help we can get right now, right?

Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willner

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Women in science and math – a few favorites


I happened to notice that Hidden Figures, a book about African-American women mathematicians, will be available in a youth edition soon.  (I’m on the list for it when it comes into the library already – woo hoo!)  That got me thinking about all the great books about women in science I’ve come across lately.  So, today I offer a short list of recent goodies:

 Finding Wonders:  Three Girls Who Changed Science by Jeannine Atkins.  Maria Merian, Mary Anning, and Maria Mitchell had a few things in common – they loved science and they lived in times which didn’t accept women as scientists.  This novel in verse imagines their lives and research.  It’s very accessible and would be a new way to get younger readers thinking about the wonders they see in their own lives and the extent to which they’d be willing to fight for the right to investigate them.  What matters enough?  When do you stand up for yourself, even if it’s uncomfortable?  Do others still face these challenges now?  So much to think about…

I am Jane Goodall by Brad Meltzer & Christopher Eliopoulos.  This one’s part of the “Ordinary People Change the World series, and it’s a keeper.  It’s a sort of picture book-graphic novel blend, and it really shows how the kid who hid in the hay to observe chickens became the woman who studied chimpanzees and taught us so much about animal relationships.  This one was so fun that I’ll be adding the others in the series to my TBR pile.

Ada Lovelace:  Poet of Science by Diane Stanley and Jessie Hartland.  I mentioned this one in an earlier post.  When I checked it out again to show to a friend, I reread it.  Still great!

Trailblazers:  33 Women in Science Who Changed the World by Rachel Swaby.  You’ll find Ada Lovelace, Maria Mitchell and Mary Anning in this one, along with thirty other amazing women – some well-known and others not so much.  Their biographies are short but very readable, and a nice way to find out about someone you might want to learn even more about!

Rad Women Worldwide and Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz.  These books cover everyone from political leaders to athletes and singers, but some of the noted women are scientists, mathematicians, and environmental activists.  Like the Trailblazers, these biographies are quick bites, not in-depth, but they’re perfect for kids looking for report subjects (they can research them more through other sources) and adults who are looking for shorter pieces to read on a commute, while waiting at a doctor’s office, eating lunch or whatever.

Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs & Sophia Foster-Dimino.  This one’s super sassy and full of unexpected fun.  Annie Smith Peck was both a suffragist and a mountaineer.  Brita Tott was a spy and forger. Jacqueline Felice De Almania was a physician.  Again, it’s all in quick bites, but when you think about women from what seems like long ago doing all these amazing things…. well, the future looks a little brighter.

So much to learn!  So much to uncover!  So much fun!



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March forward

march-book-three-cover-100dpi_lgThis book, this story, these images—it’s powerful stuff.  It’s not easy to read it–the racism and anger, the pain and loss—but it shouldn’t be easy to read, should it? Is this really a world long passed into history?  Have things changed so much?

Take a look at the life’s work of John Lewis from the 1960s, his involvement in SNCC, throughout the civil rights movement, and up until today.  Think about who we were as a country and how hard African American citizens had to work to be able to do what they had a constitutional right to do.  Ponder whether things have changed for the better for everyone.  Decide what you believe true patriotism is.

The surprise of this book is the underlying feeling of hope for the future and for the present.  I know there would be resistance from some quarters because of the book’s language, but the entire March series is perfect for teaching teenagers the history of the 1960s.  (It’s not as if most teenagers aren’t bombarded with profanity of all kinds every day already.)  It is raw and uncomfortable, but it is also a well-written, beautifully illustrated biography of our country as well as John Lewis.

One person really can change the world, it turns out.  What are we all waiting for?

March, Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

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Remembering 9/11 with kids who aren’t old enough to remember it

nine-ten-a-september-11-story-9781442485068_lg“People always talk about the weather when they don’t have anything else to talk about…But after that day the weather, and the way people remembered it, became something more; something potentially more deceptive, and yet something much more meaningful, more fragile and rare, and even more beautiful.” (nine, ten, Baskin.)

Like many people, one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of what happened on September 11th, 2001 is how beautiful the morning was.  I’d been married less than a month, and my husband and I both remember talking about what a perfect day it was.  (This is Iowa, after all, and even newlyweds talk about the weather!) By the time I was on my way to the dentist, NPR was talking about the the first plane hitting, and while my teeth were being cleaned, I could hear the TV in the other room reporting what would become days of confusion, disaster, missing people, and so many questions.

Nora Raleigh Baskin’s book, nine, ten, arrives almost exactly fifteen years after the tragedy, and its timing is fitting in more ways than just that.  We might have lost a piece of our innocence that day, and we might have come together in shock, but as a country we also quickly fell into the easy habit of creating heroes and villains to explain away what happened.  Seeing Baskin’s characters in the days just before 9/11 gives readers some perspective on how the day might have affected very different kinds of people, making it easy to imagine how life-changing 9/11 would be for all of us.

With four main characters and what seemed like an intentionally choppy beginning, it could have been a more challenging read than I might have liked.  But somehow, as I got to know the characters, jumping between them became much smoother and effortless.  Although they aren’t connected until the very end of the book, they seem connected.

9/11 is not an easy topic for a middle grade book, but nine, ten would be a great way to introduce what it was, how it happened, and who it affected.  We are still looking for heroes and villains today, and painting a whole group of people as being good or bad is very definitely a part of kids’ lives.  This book could lead to a variety of discussions with kids.  It might take place in the past, but the challenges continue.

nine, ten: a September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin

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A little history, a little physics

Well, friends, summer’s at full blast, and with the garden jungle calling and some mountain hikes and road trips, I haven’t been reading as much.  My first day back at the library, though, I found these three in my stack.  What fun!

Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas presents the amazing life of Vivien Thomas, an African-American growing up in the segregated South who found work with a White researcher (despite negative attitudes about his potential), developed experimental medical procedures, and later taught student doctors.  His attention to detail and tiny stitches created techniques which saved thousands, and yet he received relatively little recognition until late in his life.  This one’s especially great for biography projects which touch on how we all have the power to change the world.

Professor Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure, where have you been all my life?  Not only do you have an awesome title, but your illustrations are absolutely fun, wacky and cheerful.  You explain the scientific method, mass, density, gravity…and so much more.  Along the way, Professor Astro Cat flies a balloon, explains the nature of the universe via flowers and the Fibonacci series, and sits on Isaac Newton’s head.  Whoa!  Now I must find more of these!

Clara: The Mostly True Story of the Rhinoceros Who Dazzled Kings, Inspired Artists, and Won the Hearts of Everyone…While She Ate Her Way Up and Down a Continent!  Emily Arnold McCully has done some wonderful illustrations to tell Clara’s story, and it’s fun to see what an alien creature she must have been to Europeans in the eighteenth century.  It’s also an interesting way to begin talking to kids about how our treatment of animals has changed over the years.

They’re very different books, but wonderful in their own ways.  Pick one up!

 Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks, illustrated by Colin Bootman

Professor Astro Cat’s Atomic Adventure by Dr. Dominic Wallman and Ben Newman

Clara: The Mostly True Story of the Rhinoceros Who Dazzled Kings, Inspired Artists, and Won the Hearts of Everyone…While She Ate Her Way Up and Down a Continent! by Emily Arnold McCully

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When stories really come to life..

Not all picture books are stories about bears or small children who don’t want to nap or pigeons—although I’m partial to anything with pigeons who want to drive.  Not all nonfiction picture books are about animals in the wild or different kinds of homes or even historical figures – although I’m partial to those about artists and outside-the-box thinkers.  I especially like the quirkier or less known historical figures like Louise Bourgeois and Alfred Ely Beach.  Add in some really fantastic illustrations, like those in Cloth Lullaby and The Secret Subway, and I’m there.

With all of the interest in innovators out there, both of these books seem perfect for classrooms, as well as your favorite nerdy young scientist or artist.  I won’t tell you what they’re about, because I don’t want to spoil anything about them.  Take a look.  See if you agree.

Cloth Lullaby  by Amy Novesky and Isabelle Arsenault

The Secret Subway by Shana Corey and Red Nose Studio  (Be sure to look at the back side of the cover to see how the art for the book was created.  Very cool!)

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Women’s History Month + liowabrary = packhorse librarians

cutshin1Some years ago, before I worked at a library or knew about Kathi Appelt’s other awesome books (The Underneath, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Keeper, etc.), I came across Down Cut Shin Creek: The Packhorse Librarians of Kentucky, which she co-authored with Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer. These days, I am a huge Kathi Appelt fan, which makes it all the stranger that I didn’t realize she wrote this book until it popped up on my radar again last year. It qualifies as an older book now (2001), but it’s still well-worth the read, and is full of interesting stories, pictures and people. You can learn more about the WPA packhorse librarians – women and men who took books to people by horse during the Great Depression and into the early 1940s – by doing a little online research, but this book does the work for you, drawing you in to another place and time.

that book womanOur library also has a copy of That Book Woman, a picture book by Heather Henson about a packhorse librarian. It says a lot about our country and who we were that we valued literacy and reading enough back then to invest in a program that reached out to people with no real access otherwise. It’s something libraries still try to do now, although in much different ways.

Read either one for a women’s and/or library history fix. And if you’ve never read Kathi Appelt’s other work – she writes picture books in addition to her great middle grade novels, for Pete’s sake – get on that right away. You’ll be glad you did.

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