Category Archives: young adult

And now just one more alternative history

The+Incredible+True+Story+of+the+Making+of+the+Eve+of+Destruction+picI’m not sure what’s lighting the escapist fire in me these days, but it’s not all bad.  Books that have been on my to-be-read list for a while are bubbling up to fill the empty spaces, and while I maybe could read a bit less of the doom and gloom, there is one potential mushroom cloud I’m not sorry I stuck around for.

Laura Ratliff is living in Griffin Flat, Arkansas in 1984.  The Cold War is on. People still talk about thermonuclear destruction.  There is lots of eighties music and stupid crap in high school.  This is a scene I recognize, having grown up in the middle of the country in the eighties, down the road from a major military installation known to be on the to-be-nuked list of the Soviets, a place where we were told than if the war began, we should all drive north – as if driving anywhere at that point would make a difference – in the same direction as the nearest ICBM base.  Oh, the gut-busting fun of the Cold War!

And it’s exactly this kind of snarky humor that carries Laura through what may or may not be the Eve of Destruction, a film that may or may not show the world what will really happen in a war of atom bombs and retaliation.  Also the footnotes are a kind of awesome that even the older folks like me will love.

The Incredible True Story of the Making of the Eve of Destruction by Amy Brashear

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Bingo and grandmas and love is love

bingo-loveOnce in a while, I’ve got something on my list at work that doesn’t even make it to me before someone else snags it–with the hold slip for me already in it– and reads it.  Co-workers, you know who you are. (But not you, CK.  At least I don’t think so.)  This is that book.  And once you read it, you will see why.

First off, there’s an intriguing cover and many wonderful illustrations.  Then there’s the story, which sucks you in, bingo-related as it is, and before you know it, you’re so emotional, you’ve almost cried three times.  Or so I hear from one of my co-workers.

It is great, and it’s not any kind of usual, but all wonderful just the same.  And love is love is love.  Really.  Steal it from a co-worker if you can.

Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge

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Crabby, grief-filled, dysfunctional and such a hoot

dear rachel maddowI hope Rachel Maddow appreciates how skillfully Adrienne Kisner has swept her up and into a book about a teen who is struggling, because this one is fun, really, even with characters struggling with grief, the after-effects of substance abuse, domestic violence, and the general jerkiness the world throws at us all the time.

I am almost always a fan of a good epistolary novel  — one written in letters – and I’m especially amused by the tweaking Brynn’s teacher does to her drafts of her emails to Rachel.  Mr. Grimm is a wonderful character on his own, and he comes to life in Brynn’s comments about him and his edits of her work in a way that makes you remember, if you’re lucky, the high school teacher you had/have who actually cares about you as much as cranking out statistics for a messed-up school system.

There is some salty language in this one, but for parents who don’t care, older teens, and even adults, it’s a nice break from reality with some secrets, some friends, and a rebel with a cause or two.  Worth a look!

Dear Rachel Maddow by Adrienne Kisner

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Some day I will shut up about this book.

vangoToday is not that day.

Way back in my younger days, I studied languages a lot, starting with French and German, dabbling in a little Spanish, leading up to some Thai and Vietnamese, which I somehow managed to include in my graduate degree program – which had nothing whatsoever to do with languages or linguistics.  I think the university didn’t really know what to do with me, since I didn’t appear to fit the mold of whatever they thought people in my degree program might do, and really it was just coincidental that they were even teaching Vietnamese the two summers I was there.  Life is like that, right?

Well, for me it is.  I don’t know about you.

But now it’s oh so many years later.  Aside from the occasional French language movie and German newspaper website views, I don’t actually use these languages every day, and they are sliding away from me as my brain is filled up with other stuff.  I fight back with an annual reading of Harry Potter in French or German, because somehow wizarding words are even more fun in German, but it’s hard to get around to working that part of my brain most days.

Now, thanks to the affordability of a global economy, I can also re-read Vango: Entre Ciel et Terre whenever the spirit moves me, reminding my brain that a hirondelle is a swallow and speeding through pages where I know what’s going on, but I’m not entirely sure what some of the words are.  Why would my brain love this?  Who knows?  It does.

I’m convinced that great books, great stories, are ways to do more than just escape our own present world.  Vango is more than a story of a boy with a mysterious past, a zeppelin, a secret island of monks, some Nazis, and maybe Stalin.  For me, once in a while, stories re-connect with an old me or find a new me through languages I haven’t spoken for years.  It’s especially wonderful when I need a break from this bizarre reality we find ourselves in.

Bring on the hirondelles.  Bring on the fun.

Vango, books 1 & 2, by Timothée de Fombelle

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Not seeing it does not mean it’s not there

hearts unbrokenWe connect with books in all kinds of ways.

You might think that today high schools would be less outwardly racist and more open to diversity, even in smaller towns, even in flyover country, where I have lived much of my life.  You might think that people would get that having the Indian or a brave be your mascot would finally be passé.  But I’m here to tell you, it’s still out there.  The high school I graduated from still has that mascot, even after multiple attempts to get it changed by groups which include the people it’s somehow now supposed to honor.  It periodically comes up in a Facebook alumni group I follow, mostly by people who are trying to deny that it could ever be taken as offensive or racist, because, you know, that would mean they are racist or offensive and didn’t realize it.  Which is really what this book highlights perfectly.

But — SURPRISE! — this book is not about me.  It’s about witnessing the daily stupidity, offensive behavior, and tiny reminders of other-ness thrown at Louise, as well as the love and support she gets from her family and her culture.   It’s a perfect book, really, because its story is one that’s familiar to everyone – a coming-of-age, trying-to-figure-out-where-you-fit kind of thing.  Because it’s about Louise, however, we see a character we need to see more of – a Native young person in today’s world.

Take a walk in her shoes.  You’ll be glad you did.

Hearts Unbroken by Cynthia Leitich Smith

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What to read while planning your personal resistance

Need tips on what to read, where to begin, what you need to know to resist, change, or protest?  These (very different) books will open your mind to any number of issues and actions you might not have thought about, especially if you are privileged in some way.

Do not miss Tony Medina’s “One Day Papí Drove Me to School” or Margarita Engle’s “All Nations are Neighbors.”  Dip into essays on climate change, racial justice, intersectionality, LGBTQIA issues, women’s rights, and how to be an ally.  Think about Patrice Khan-Cullors’ “Black Ancestry and Artistry Wielded Against the Police State.” Educate yourself.  Share with friends and family.   Make your voice heard.  And vote if you can.  Please vote.

We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson

Steal This Country by Alexandra Styron

Nevertheless We Persisted: 48 Voices of Defiance, Strength, and Courage, foreword by Amy Klobuchar

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Feeling a little spacy?

apolloHeroes are men and women like the rest of us.  They make choices–some good, some bad.  They have moments of perfection and times of failure.  Maybe they happen to have a dream that launches them, literally, into the stratosphere of their field.  Maybe they are in the right place at the time.

I can’t remember the day Neil Armstrong took a step onto the moon, though I’ve read and watched movies about the astronauts, their families, and their support teams.  This graphic version was a little hard to follow at first for me, but what seemed disjointed at first gelled into perfection.  The art is, of course, amazing, and the layout and moments chosen to highlight bring the whole thing together into something special.

Apollo by Matt Fitch, Chris Baker and Mike Collins


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Pain finds its voice

neverthelessOne of my library friends passed this on to me not long ago, suspecting that I might appreciate both the language and the art of it.  Many of us have revisited long-set-aside incidents in the wake of the #metoo movement, either in quiet moments on our own or while chatting with our previously labeled “feminazi” friends.  Now we are part of something bigger, right?

speakI started reading this new graphic novel version of Speak just a day or two after getting O:the Oprah Magazine’s March 2018 issue.  (I don’t read a lot of magazines these days, but once in a while, I’ve been known to splurge on a magazine subscription.  My $5 is paying off big-time now, too!) If you have time to seek it out, take some time to appreciate the #USTOO art on page 105. It is painful to read, but most women I know can relate to multiple incidents on it.  Key to what it and some of the pieces accompanying it relate is the fact that change will not come from silence.  We are not alone, but if we keep things quiet, we feel like we are, and things don’t change.

Melinda feels like she’s alone, despised, ignored, and so many other adjectives.  Her story – being raped at an end-of-summer party by a popular predator – comes out over the course of her freshman year.  The art in this version is brilliant, highlighting and connecting the words and story with images that make you feel it all the more intensely.  Can she see the people who would help her?  Can she trust the people who are supposed to be supporting her?

This moment is the perfect one for this book – one more opportunity to start some tough conversations with young people, as well as our friends, partners, families.

Speak: the graphic novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll

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Intensity can be illuminating

I’m sure Dr. K doesn’t remember this, some thirty years on, but while discussing personal essays in class one day, he talked about the intensity of living and how when you are young, you feel things so powerfully that the feelings consume you in a way that they never will again.  I remember thinking that I hoped I never lost that intensity about life and what was important to me, but, of course, I did, since to operate in the adult world successfully, you kind of have to calm down, plow through, and let things go sometimes.  And thank goodness, really, because living with that level of feeling is exhausting if you try to do it all the time.  Most of us just can’t maintain that.

The main characters in Turtles All the Way Down and The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily are dealing with that intensity, plus the added challenges of being on the spectrum, ADD or OCD.  The anxiety is high here, made worse by the feeling that so much is new and uncharted and frightening, even though the characters know themselves and their challenges exceedingly well.  In fact, what is so illuminating and wonderful (although difficult at times) is how clearly their feelings and thoughts speak out to us readers in ways we can relate to and empathize with, even if we are not on the spectrum, ADD or OCD ourselves.

Love Letters struck me as a sweeter young love story, partly because the ending ties the characters together in a more positive way, but both are windows into the paths we walk when we are young, the opportunities we take and leave behind, and the mistakes we make while we are trying to move forward.

The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily by Laura Creedle

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

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This just isn’t going to end well.

dolssaHeretics. Zealots and inquisitors.  Uppity women and girls in the 13th century.  Recipe for disaster?  Oh boy, yes indeedy.

Dolssa is a young woman whose relationship with Jesus is so intense, he has become real to her.  She can see him, sense him, feel him close to her.  She is a mystic, and not one sanctioned by the church.  She speaks his message to others and quickly lands in trouble with the Church, most particularly with Friar Lucien, an angry and toxic being who believes the only way to end her corrosive influence is to kill her.  She and her mother are sentenced to burn at the stake.

Meanwhile, Botille and her sisters Plazensa and Sazia have finally landed in a town that seems to accept them and their drunk father figure.  They run the tavern, tell fortunes and do a little matchmaking.  They find ways to help out here and there, and they seem to have found a home after many years of instability.

Then these lives intersect.  And really, a happy ending is never all that likely, although there are moments of hope even at the very end.  It’s clear that life for most strong women during the Middle Ages was not easy, because having an opinion or making your own life choices really didn’t fit into the plan the men in charge had for them.  It’s not a quick read, but it’s worth the time it will take you.  There are some really wonderful historical notes at the end of the book which explain the times more fully and provide more resources for anyone interested in learning more.

(As noted in the comments, this book was named a Michael L. Printz  for Excellence in Young Adult Literature Honor book.  The award winner was another favorite, March, Book 3 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell.)

The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry

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Tell me three things


  1. There will be a secret admirer.
  2. There will be mean girls.
  3. There will be drama.

In some ways, Tell Me Three Things is predictable YA – new girl in town, mysterious boy, struggle, annoying family drama.  It’s what you do with these issues that makes or breaks a book if it’s taking place in the real world and not some fantasy of a royal kingdom or dystopian imagining of the future.  Really, when it comes down to it, good writing is what makes or breaks the fantasies and dystopian fiction, too, right?

And this one works.  I say that as a middle-aged reader who heard about it from her teenaged son.  It reaches out in ways that most of us can relate to – being an outsider, having to start something new, being the target for a bully, hoping for something really special.  It’s not life-changing or anything, but it’s a really wonderful break.  Sometimes, that’s enough.  Sometimes a book stands out through its simplicity.  Give it a try when you’ve had enough and need a maybe happy ending.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

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2016 – Finally over?

1,165 books later, we’re almost to 2017.  Or was it 1,265?  I lost count and either added or dropped 100 in my count, and that’s sort of how the year seemed to go sometimes.  I don’t feel like going back and re-counting, though.  It was a long year any way you look at it.

I didn’t read all of those – some were for my family, some were books I was taking to show kids at school, some of those items were DVDs, and some just never got read, even if I renewed them a time or two.

Although I mostly write about picture books and middle grade these days, some others for teens and adults also stood out to me.  So here, finally, is the last of my favorites of 2016:

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

Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy

Snow White: a graphic novel by Matt Phelan

Secrets in the Snow by Michaela McColl

Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

Britt-Marie Was Here  by Frederik Backman


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Of bullies, witches, and serendipity

Once in a while, without any particular plan, I come across two books which seem to go strangely well with each other, despite being different genres or about completely different characters.  So it is with Samantha Mather and Queen.

A Boy Named Queen is a short middle grade story.  Queen arrives in Evelyn’s fifth grade class with a sense of style that is completely out of the ordinary – brogues, a pink t-shirt, occasionally sparkly clothing.  He’s immediately the target of bullies because of his name and clothing choices, but Evelyn becomes his friend anyway.  She’s not one to take many chances, but there is something about Queen she wants to learn more about.  Evelyn’s transformation makes this book a great discussion starter for kids.

How to Hang a Witch  is a teen fantasy, but at its heart is another kind of bullying – the kind where everyone stands around and lets someone be attacked while doing nothing to stop it.  Samantha Mather is the descendant of someone tied to the Salem Witch Trials, and when she and her stepmother move back to Salem following her dad’s health crisis, Samantha is instantly thrown into the middle of 300-year old curses and intrigues.  You’re not quite sure until the very end who the good guys are – is it the ghost, the crazy neighbor, the mean girls, someone else?  And Cotton Mather in a teen novel?  Who’d have seen that one coming?

Both are worth a look, and if you have time, you might even read them one after the other and see if the connections strike you the same way.  Standing up to bullies is tough, whether you’re an average fifth grader or a savvy New York teenager transplanted to a new community.  Having allies can change the whole dynamic.

How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather

A Boy Named Queen by Sara Cassidy

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Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you

luckyHere’s a list of things you might not be looking for in a book:

  • Spunky orphans, especially girl orphans
  • Historical fiction about people getting by in the Great Depression
  • Teenagers who smoke
  • Gas stations before they become known as “convenience stores”
  • Characters named Earle or Dudley
  • Any mention of the War Between the States
  • Saviors who roll into town (literally) and are described as a bum or a mongrel

So you might not be looking for Lucky Strikes.  But you might want to give it a try anyway.  It’ll grow on you.  The main characters—orphaned kids—just want to figure out a way to keep running the gas station (as they’ve been doing throughout their mother’s illness) and stay together.  There’s a bad guy who wants to take over their station at any cost.   There are all kinds of local color and slightly unbelievable happenings.  People lie.  Things get screwed up.  It’s hard to see how it will all end well, and maybe it won’t.  But the ride is a fun one, and it’s different from almost everything I’ve read lately, which makes for a nice change.

Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard

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Asteroids, the prom and life

learningYuri is really, really good at physics.  He’s so good that when NASA figures out that an asteroid will hit Earth in less than a month, they convince the Russians to let Yuri come to the U.S. to help stop it.  Yuri’s life has always been about school, science, and eventually getting a Nobel Prize.  “Normal” things – girls, relationships, politics—are a bit beyond him.

His story becomes about more than a complicated math problem when he meets Dovie.  She and her family provide him an escape from the situation at the lab, and suddenly he’s doing things he’s never done before – going to prom, sneaking out of his room, talking back to authority figures, and learning to swear in English.   It’s not just about saving the world from an asteroid now.  Yuri realizes that the life he wants to live has fundamentally changed and yet not changed at all.

Yuri’s internal dialogue, his humor, the reality of the daily petty stuff he has to deal with, and his confidence and insecurity carry the story along.  (I know…but it works.  He knows he’s often the smartest guy in the room, but at the same time, he’s enough of a perfectionist to be terrified of ever being wrong about anything at all.)  There are a lot of balls in the air here – the asteroid, his cultural confusion, his feelings for Dovie, his past as a prodigy, the Russians—but they’re juggled effectively, and in the end, he gets the life he isn’t sure he wants but is happy with it.  And he maybe saves the world, too.

Learning to Swear in America by Katie Kennedy

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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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Journeys into different lives


“Apparently the length of a grown-up’s growing up story is determined by the difference between immigration and escape.” Enchanted Air, Margarita Engle.

The narrator of this memoir in verse travels through childhood, accompanied by her family and her dreams of the person she is or might be.  She is Cuban and American and Ukrainian, quiet and bold and scared and daring.  She lives her childhood intensely and colorfully on family trips to Cuba until the Cuban Missile Crisis brings FBI men and questions about loyalty and nasty comments from teachers.

Seeing the impact of global conflict on this one young person’s life brings a whole different level of clarity to current issues, too.  It’s not a big stretch to read this and think of how being a refugee in Sudan or Syria or any number of other places could affect a child.  Whether a refugee, an immigrant, or a child who sees herself as an outsider for other reasons, the world can be –in exactly the same moment — both an awful, humiliating, difficult place and one filled with beauty and song.

Margarita Engle’s story is captivating, because it so beautifully describes the excitement and freedoms of childhood, the joys of traveling to new places, and the challenges of living between different worlds.  It also provides a great way to talk with kids about the history of the Cold War, the impact of politics on individuals, and the path we all travel in growing up and making choices about who we will be.


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Different times, different choices

da vinci's tiger

Ginevra de’ Bencia lives in Florence during the time of the Medici family’s power and Leonardo da Vinci’s early days as an artist. She is young, beautiful, and from an important family. She’s been married off to a wool merchant to benefit her family, and her husband seems to have lost interest in everything about her except how she can advance him. The idea of Platonic love, an idealized love, has become popular, so when an ambassador from Venice arrives, she is excited to be the focus of his chaste attentions and even more excited to become the subject of a portrait painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

Women had limited choices then, mostly because men made the choices for them, often with little regard for the women’s opinions. Women’s lives were expected to revolve around family and duty unless they entered a convent. Neither option might seem the most attractive to young women today, so hearing the imagined thoughts of a 16-year-old from several hundred years ago is a step into another’s shoes.

Ginevra finds her own way despite these limitations. Her husband’s indifference means that she has freedom. Her education in a convent gives her knowledge others don’t have and provides a place of refuge. Her relationship with Leonardo da Vinci is one of small rebellions, and in the end, she holds on to the most important pieces of herself.

Ginevra de’ Bencia was a real person, as we learn in the notes following the story.  There’s humor and drama in her friendships and much for young people to relate to even if the setting is unfamiliar. There are moments of action and intrigue, but it’s a relatively quiet book – one well worth reading for the historical fiction fan.

Da Vinci’s Tiger by L.M. Elliott

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It’s going to be a bumpy ride: alternative history meets The Hunger Games

wolf by wolf
Yael is a death camp survivor in a world where Germany and Japan won World War II.   It’s not a nice place. Hitler and Emperor Hirohito are still in charge, women are expected to stay at home and raise racially pure babies, and millions of undesirables in Europe, Africa and Asia have been “removed.”

Before escaping the camp, a researcher had subjected Yael to a series of injections, so she is able to skinshift or change her appearance. After connecting with what’s left of the resistance and training for a few years, she will become Hitler’s assassin, replacing an unusual young woman who managed to win the Axis Tour – a cross-continent motorcycle race. Becoming Adele, Yael will have to fool Adele’s brother, a former boyfriend, and possibly even Hitler. She’ll have to cross deserts, escape kidnappers, and figure out who’s trying to poison her, too.

There’s a light touch on most of the moral issues here. Yael is focused on avenging those she lost in the past and doesn’t spend much time worrying about those she might be injuring in the present. It’s a fast and bumpy ride, splattered with a big “what if?” at every turn. In the right environment, it might provoke some really interesting conversations, but it’s a good read even if that doesn’t happen and one I can see appealing to a lot of teens.

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin


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Reality is not always a fun read


Joseph is an eighth grader with a past so troubled that his new foster brother counts his smiles, spaced as they are over weeks instead of hours. Joseph’s reason for living is his daughter, Jupiter, the only thing left of the one person he loved.

Jack, Joseph’s foster brother,  is a sixth grader who has never known the kind of anger and pain Joseph carries with him. He lives on an organic dairy farm with his parents, a place of quiet routine and peace. He shares Joseph’s story so simply and powerfully that at times, I felt the book as much as I read it.

This is not an easy book, but it’s a realistic one, and one that older middle grade readers and teens will connect with. It’s tragic, upsetting, sad and even brutal at times – none of those adjectives being things that usually qualify as a “fun read”. It’s not a fun read, but it’s not trying to be one, either. This story could have been written so that it was more focused on the action or friendship or other elements, but it would have been a lesser book that way. This one is perfect just as it is.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

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