A Little of This and That

Mar 30, 2015

Last Monday, Clark took his first step. There's a part of me that wants to push him back down (he is my baby, after all), but there's another part that just can't help but encourage it. There is something so thrilling about those first toddling steps. I just want to see them again and again.

If you had asked me three months ago if I thought he would be my earliest walker, I would have adamantly told you no. But turns out . . . he's the earliest. (I checked my kids' baby calendars, and they do not lie.)

That baby is full of surprises. And he does things on his own terms. For weeks, I was trying to teach him how to clap, and he just acted bored. Then early one morning, I woke up and who was lying in the middle of the bed clapping over and over again like it was no big deal? Clark. What a stinker.

In other news, we spent Friday and Saturday at Mike's family's cabin with some of our dearest friends. Mike sent the kids across the stream on a zip line, we squished roasted marshmallows between soft gingersnaps (a definite upgrade from graham crackers), and we basked in the warm spring sunshine.

Then on Saturday evening, I attended the women's session of General Conference with my mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, and niece. It was so fantastic to be surrounded by other girls and women who are trying to pattern their lives after the Savior's--just like I am. I am looking forward to the rest of the sessions this coming Saturday and Sunday.

Spring break begins this week, and I'd like to think of something fun to do, but I'm also just so excited to have Aaron home with us during the day that I think we'll just do a lot of playing and relaxing and reading (we're almost done with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz--it's been a big hit).

Speaking of books, I'm still slogging my way through Middlemarch (unfortunately, it does feel like a slog about half the time, and so I seem to listen to it in spurts). I just started The Penderwicks in Spring, and as soon as I read the names of those four sisters (Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty) I had this comforting feeling of coming home. The other book I'm excited about is Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin. The Happiness Project and Happier at Home are two of my favorite books, and so when her latest book was released, I did something I rarely do: I bought it. I'm kind of a stickler for only purchasing books I've already read because I only want to fill our home with books we love. But I made an exception this time because I don't have to read it to know I will love it. (Also, my friend just alerted me to the brand-new Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast--just what I needed, another podcast to listen to (is it any wonder I can't get through Middlemarch?!))

I'm also looking for ways to make this Easter season more meaningful for my kids. We do so much to lead up to Christmas, and I would love it if Easter had a similar feeling of anticipation attached to it. Of course we dye Easter eggs and do Easter baskets (and they're from us, not the Easter bunny), but I want to do daily things that will help them feel the wonder and magnificence of the Resurrection. If you have any great ideas, I'd love to hear them!

And finally, today's your lucky day: hot off the presses is Sunlit Pages' companion instagram account. Here I'll be sharing our favorite picture books, library finds, and what I'm currently reading (or finishing--stay tuned for the momentous completion of Middlemarch). Plus, whatever else I feel like sharing. I hope you'll follow along.

KidPages: Three Picture Books for Spring

Mar 27, 2015

The grass is greening up, the daffodils are opening, the air is warm and fragrant . . . and our book basket is overflowing with spring picture books (a sure sign that spring is finally here!). Here are three of our favorites:

1. Hatch, Little Egg by Édouard Manceau

For me, this little book conveys the essence of spring: the wonder and anticipation, but also the surprise and unexpectedness of it all.

Told completely in dialogue, the animals are racing over to see the chick hatch out of the egg. They come on motorcycles and cars with their cameras slung around their necks. They can hardly wait. They're afraid they might miss it, but luckily they arrive just before the first crack appears. They gather around in giddy anticipation . . . but what comes out of that egg is not at all what they were expecting.

I love a picture book that looks like it's going along a predictable path and then veers off to something completely surprising, and this book does that very, very well. I also love that it addresses a fear that I know many children have--that of doing something new in front of an audience. Kids like to be able to test the water, explore new territory, and try new things without everyone watching and cheering them on. (Of course, some kids love an audience and the accompanying applause, but this book is for the kids who don't.)

I will admit that it took me a couple of times through the book to know how to read it. Like I said above, it's told solely in dialogue, but it's mainly just exclamatory phrases: "Ooooh! Here we go!" "Look! There is it!" "The egg is hatching! The egg is hatching!" etc. You don't really know who's saying what, and they're not very descriptive to the overall plot. But then I discovered that if I simply point to one of the animals as I'm saying the exclamation, it merges the text and pictures together, and I think having the story told through joyful cries really contributes to the overall feeling of excitement.

2. Jack's Garden by Henry Cole

Adaptations of The House That Jack Built are almost as common (and frequently as poorly done) as those of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (why anyone thinks it will be funny if that old lady swallows a bell or a rose instead, I'll never know).

So I was, as you might guess, just a bit dubious of Jack's Garden, but I'm glad I gave it a chance (and I beg you to do the same).

It begins on an empty garden plot with Jack standing in the middle, shovel in hand. Behind him, there's a tree with clusters of white blossoms--our first indication that it's spring--and of course the words that tell us right away the kind of book we're getting into: "This is the garden that Jack planted."

But this is why I love this book: While the text follows the expanding pattern we're all familiar with, the illustrations take on a different role entirely--that of teacher. There's a large picture in the middle of the page, but around the edges, the reader is introduced to the various cast members that play a role in making a successful and authentic garden.

For example, when the text reads, "These are the seeds . . ." the borders are filled with little piles of seeds--lupines and phlox and hollyhock, all perfectly detailed so that you would be able to recognize them if you held a few of them in your hand. My favorite page (that goes with "This is the rain . . ." ) showcases the various kinds of clouds that might bring that much needed rain to your little seedlings.

There is just so much to look at and talk about. It feels almost like a reference manual--like something you could take out with you to your own garden and use to identify that mysterious wild flower that just popped up in the corner or that armored beetle creeping along a stem. But still, through it all, you've got the running anthem of "the garden that Jack planted," and it just ties up the whole thing into a great little package that's very interesting and engaging for kids.

3. Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson

If you like Hervé Tullet's Press Here, you definitely need to check out Tap the Magic Tree. Told in a similar style, it invites the reader to perform various actions, but instead of colored dots, the creative medium is a tree. Touch each bud on the tree and soon it is covered in blossoms; shake the tree and the apples fall down; blow on the tree and the leaves fly away.

This book is as much about the four seasons as it is about spring. But it begins and ends in spring, so I figure if you can only choose one season for it to be about, spring's the best choice.

The first changes happen slowly, gradually. The opening page is just a bare brown tree. It looks dead, but there is life there, just waiting to come out. Tap here, and tap there, and green leaves begin to appear. Before you know it, the tree is full and beautiful once more.

I love it that the tree is referred to as magic because spring really does feel magical to me. Look one day, and the tree is empty; look the next, and it is somehow, miraculously, magically, covered in white blossoms. The changes happen slowly but then all in a rush. Buds stay tightly closed for days and then magically open up over night. It's such a thrilling season, and this book captures that feeling.

Also, can I just say how much I love interactive picture books that do not rely on flaps? Nothing to worry about tearing out of this book. Just enjoy.

What picture books have delighted you this spring?

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo

Mar 25, 2015

Chances are you've seen this book around. It seems like everyone is reading it. And everyone is raving about it.

Since my life feels like it's in an ever-fluctuating state of chaos, I didn't need all the glowing testimonials to be convinced I wanted to read it. I waited for months through the long library hold list until it was finally my turn.

It's a small and slim volume, which was a pleasant surprise since these types of books so often look like they belong in the textbook section.

But after reading the first chapter, the thing I found even more surprising than that was that this little book has such a wide following. I honestly can't believe it's on the international bestseller list--and not because it's a bad book.

But it is, for lack of a better word, trite. Several years ago, I read Sink Reflections by Marla Cilley (better known as FlyLady). I found her book extremely helpful and motivating, but although she certainly has a following of devoted fans, her book is just not bestseller material. It's quaint, it makes bold promises, it feels a little contrived.

Just like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

I felt like both were helpful books. I'm glad I've read both books. But I didn't see anything especially revolutionary about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (unless naming a method after yourself makes something revolutionary and not egotistical). Nothing to warrant its place on everyone's to-read list. Nothing to garner the multitude of praises it's been getting. It's a book about de-cluttering and organizing your life. But suddenly that topic is one of profound interest to everyone. I'm just a little baffled is all.

But let me tell you about it. And then maybe you can tell me what I'm missing.

Marie Kondo is a personal organizer in Japan. Her method (coined the KonMari Method) is based on the idea that "tidying," when done correctly, is a one-time event. You begin by going through all your possessions (clothes, books, papers, komono (miscellany), and sentimental items (in that order)) and only keep the things that bring you joy. That is the key. You physically touch each item, and if it gives you a little thrill, you keep it; if it doesn't, then away to the Goodwill it goes.

Once you have reduced your possessions to only the things that bring you joy, then, and only then, you put them away in your house. You store things by category and make sure that every item has a place where it belongs.

And that's it! Your home will be peaceful, clean, and clutter-free for the rest of your life (because the KonMari method boasts no relapses). Now go fulfill your life's calling.

Okay, so I'm being a little sarcastic, and I apologize for that. I actually agreed with a lot about this book and am going to go through all my possessions while asking myself the simple, but profound, question, Does this bring me joy? My possessions should not be a burden, and I don't want to be a slave to things I don't really care about. Reading this book gave me the freedom to bid a fond farewell to those items I've held onto out of guilt.

But every review I've heard or read of this book has talked about the joy question (as well as how to fold clothes, which I'll get to in a minute), so I'm going to focus on some of the issues I had with this book in the hopes that some of you who loved it (I'm looking at you, Suzanne!) can tell me how to overcome these pitfalls.

First and foremost, I don't think Marie Kondo has children, nor does she spend much time living in her home. I'm not holding this against her, but there is a world of difference between being gone for most of the day and returning to a home exactly as you left it and being at home all day every day with four little boys. I get it that if I reduce our possessions, it will make it easier to keep things tidy, but it will still take a tremendous amount of effort.

Even if we get to the point where my boys get out a game and immediately pick it up after playing it (something we're still working on), there is still a hefty amount of living that goes on in our house. There are snacks and mealtimes (which total at least five a day), play time, accidents, crafts, cooking, running inside and outside, and a baby who lives to make a mess.

Oh, and the laundry! The laundry, people! It is the bane of my existence. I don't think Marie Kondo has any idea the amount of laundry that six people generate on a daily basis. She would be appalled. Even if all four of my kids only wore one outfit a day (a noteworthy event for sure), it would still be an incredible amount of laundry.

Which brings me to the KonMari art of folding clothes, which is this: fold each item into a neat little package that you arrange vertically in your drawer so that when you pull it open, you can see exactly which clothes it contains at a glance. This is an almost heavenly image to me, and, just like heaven, it feels about as attainable. For those of you who have implemented this strategy, I am so curious how you've done it. Do you fold the laundry by your dresser and put each item away as you fold it? Do you fold your kids' clothes in the same way? How do you keep them from rifling through their drawers (because even though they could see everything at once, I guarantee you my kids would still shuffle everything around)? How have you taught your kids to fold this way? Have you been able to sustain this type of folding for a long period of time? These are the pitfalls I see. I still want to try it, but I'm just afraid it won't last.

Now let me talk about the de-cluttering order. First come clothes. I can do that. Then books. I can do that (although Marie Kondo says, "Books are essentially paper--sheets of paper printed with letters and bound together. Their true purpose is to be read, to convey the information to their readers. It's the information they contain that has meaning. There is no meaning in their just being on your shelves." She obviously does not have a love affair with books, that's all I'm saying). Then papers. I can do that. And then komono.

Komono is this broad miscellaneous category that includes everything that isn't clothes, books, paper, or sentimental (which comes later). In my opinion, this is where most Americans will falter. Maybe the Japanese are more natural minimalists, and so the komono category isn't overly daunting. But I can see myself going through my clothes, books, and papers and then getting overwhelmed with how to tackle the illusive komono which will include everything from toys, kitchen gadgets, and craft supplies to DVDs, music, and sports equipment. Thankfully, within the komono section, she does break it down into smaller categories, but it still seemed overwhelmingly broad to me.

With all of the praises for this book, I've heard very little said about the fact that Marie Kondo addresses possessions as if they have souls. And that surprises me because those were the places where, in my mind, it went from being practical advice to bordering on the ridiculous. I am a firm believer in taking care of your possessions, but the idea that you shouldn't fold your socks a certain way or that you should empty your bag every day because those items worked hard for you with nary a word of criticism or complaint is just absurd. These were the parts of the book that I read aloud to Mike because they were almost comical to me, and these were the moments where I found it so hard to believe that this book is as popular as it is. Maybe I was reading too much into it. Maybe the translation from Japanese to English tampered with the original tone. Maybe she was trying to convey the importance of gratitude and respect in regard to our possessions, but it doesn't necessarily read that way.

Let me show you what I mean. Here's a brief excerpt:
"When we take our clothes in our hands and fold them neatly, we are, I believe, transmitting energy, which has a positive effect on our clothes. Folding properly pulls the cloth taut and erases wrinkles, and makes the material stronger and more vibrant. Clothes that have been neatly folded have a resilience and sheen that can be discerned immediately, clearly distinguishing them from those that have been haphazardly stuffed in a drawer. The act of folding is far more than making clothes compact for storage. It is an act of caring, an expression of love and appreciation for the way these clothes support your lifestyle. Therefore, when we fold, we should put our heart into it, thanking our clothes for protecting our bodies."
And finally, even if I loved everything about the book, I still don't think I could implement it entirely because I believe a home is meant to be lived in, and it should look like someone lives in it. I think things should be neat and tidy, but I'm going to keep my soap by the kitchen sink and my clean dishes in the drainer, and my rolling pin on the counter, and I'm going to be okay with it. I'm okay with people knowing that I cook and clean and eat in my kitchen. I'm referring specifically to her suggestion to keep your soap under the sink and your clean dishes drying on the veranda so that your counters can be completely free of clutter. But this seemed a bit extreme to me.

There were other things I didn't like (taking every photo out of the photo albums to determine if it brings you joy; not keeping a supply of any essential items) and other things I did like (remembering that storage should "reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort needed to get them out"; asking yourself, "Am I having trouble getting rid of this because of an attachment to the past or becuase of a fear for the future?"), but I've touched on my main impressions of the book.

I know all of this probably seems overly critical, but it's just that all the reviews I've read have been heavy on the praise and light on the problems, so I decided to do the reverse. I hope those of you who loved it will comment because I'll bet we actually agree on a lot of things. And I hope those of you who weren't as thrilled with it will also comment so I know I'm not alone (although maybe that's a false hope, and I really am alone--the one person in the entire world who didn't think The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was all that life-changing.)

My Favorite Time of Year

Mar 24, 2015

Green is new
in spring. Shy.
Green peeks from buds,
trembles in the breeze.
Green floats through rain-dark trees,
and glows, mossy-soft, at my feet.
Green drips from tips of leaves
            onto Pup's nose.
In spring,
even the rain tastes Green.

--from Red Sings from Treetops by Joyce Sidman

Friday was the official first day of spring, and for once in Utah, it actually felt like it. My mom was here visiting, and I remarked to her, "This is what spring is supposed to be like."

The crocuses and daffodils and hyacinths are the welcoming committee. Many of the trees have already opened up their buds and are clouds of frothy white or pink. The air tingles with the scent of magnolia trees. The sky is blue. The temperature sits at a comfortable 70 degrees. My kids are playing tag in bare feet.

Mike bought a truckload of mulch on Friday and spent the weekend delivering it to all of the beds in our backyard and spreading it out over our empty garden plot. We haven't planted anything yet, but soon.

On Sunday I accompanied a couple as they sang a song entitled "How Can I Keep from Singing?" And honestly, as I walked over to the church to practice it with them ahead of time, I felt those words so powerfully. My heart was so full of gratitude for such an absolutely gorgeous day that I didn't know if I could keep it contained or if it would burst forth in careless abandon.

I'm telling you, sunshine on my face is good for my soul.

This week started out rainy, but I don't mind it one bit. How can you begrudge the very thing that is waking up the ground and giving sustenance to the new life that's opening up? I'm just so grateful it isn't snow. Rain feels as much a part of spring as the daffodils and sunshine. Like the poem above says, In spring / even the rain tastes Green.

I think spring is the time of year when I most wish I was a better photographer. I just want a way to capture and document the joy I feel inside. But my pictures never adequately express it, and neither do my words.

But even if I can't play it back for myself in perfect clarity, it doesn't really matter. Every year, it comes back, and I get to experience the wonder and magic all over again.

P.S. Do you love spring, too? Read my gushings from last year: Treasure Trove and The Princess in Our Front Yard. And tell me what you love best about this time of year!

Poetry Memorization With Kids

Mar 20, 2015

Last year, I started memorizing poems with my kids. We started with "Spaghetti, Spaghetti" by Shel Silverstein and went on from there.

Sounds so simple, right? 

But would you believe me if I told you that reading and memorizing poetry with your kids actually is simple . . . and fun, too? I don't know if I would have believed that a year ago since at that time I was strategically avoiding any and all poetry collections. But several things prompted me to change my mind, and now my kids and I love to sit down with a hefty volume and read poem after poem after poem.

Today I have a new post over at What Do We Do All Day. I'm pretending to be an authority on the subject and am sharing 7 tips for how to memorize poems with your kids (but trust me, these tips work).

You can read the full article here.

What is your favorite kid-friendly poem?

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Mar 18, 2015

I don't know what I was expecting from Danny the Champion of the World but definitely not what I got, I'll tell you that. I guess I just never imagined you could earn the title "Champion of the World" by coming up with an ingenious way to poach pheasants.

Leave it to Roald Dahl to come up with something completely wacky . . . and yet, surprisingly engaging.

Danny and his father live in an old caravan next to the filling station. It is nothing fancy, but the two of them are happy and content, especially if they are working on cars or telling stories (the BFG even makes an appearance at one point in one of Danny's father's stories, which is especially delightful, especially since, at the time, The BFG was still several years away from being published).

Things might have continued on just as they always had if Danny hadn't woken up one night and realized his father wasn't in the caravan with him. Although nine years old, Danny starts to panic just a little. His father finally returns, and when he does, he realizes he has no choice but to let Danny in on his "deep dark secret," which is this: some evenings he likes to creep into the woods and knock off a pheasant or two (although, in his defense, this was his first time doing it since Danny was born. Apparently old habits die hard.) The problem is, the pheasants don't belong to him. They belong to a man named Mr. Hazell, and they reside in Mr. Hazell's wood. In fact, Mr. Hazell has the wood specially stocked with pheasants so that several months later, when they're nice and plump, he can invite the local dignitaries over to hunt the pheasants for sport.

Danny's father has long had a serious dislike for Mr. Hazell (and shares this dislike with almost everyone else in town, including the police). He is not alone in poaching pheasants off Mr. Hazell's land (and his delight from the sport come as much from trying to out-sneak Mr. Hazell as it does his love of roasted pheasant). It turns out, Danny's grandfather is something of a legend for coming up with some of the most successful methods of pheasant poaching.

Until Danny comes along, that is.

After Danny hears about his father's midnight activities, he comes up with a fantastic idea for how to take out all the pheasants in one go. It involves raisins and sleeping pills, and Danny and his father plan to carry it out on the night before Mr. Hazell's big hunting party. They can't wait to see the look on his face when he walks into the wood, all set to impress his esteemed guests, and finds it empty.

Sorry for the rather long summary. I wanted to give those of you who, like me, have not read the book a sense of what it is all about. However, chances are if you're not already familiar with it, that little summary didn't really help and you're still scratching your head, thinking, Say what? This book is about the illegal poaching habits of a nine-year-old boy and his father?

Yes, I know. I've read the entire thing, but I'm still kind of waiting for the punch line. 

The thing is, I had a hard time getting behind the illegal activity because (dare I admit it?) I didn't despise Mr. Hazell enough for it. Sure, he had an insufferable ego and was a bully, but stealing is stealing whether the person deserves it or not. My impassivity could have been because I hadn't had enough interaction with Mr. Hazell. Until the end, the reader's only exposure to him is through second-hand accounts. Those opinions come from Danny's father and Sergeant Enoch Samways and Doc Spencer and Reverend Lionel Clipstone (all highly respectable characters), but nothing they said got my blood boiling or my heart wishing for revenge against Mr. Hazell.

However, and this is a big however, somehow Aaron and Maxwell found my lost passion. They felt what Danny and his father were feeling. They yearned for the success of the mission. They despised Mr. Hazell. All told, I was a little envious of them. I think maybe they were hearing the book the way Roald Dahl intended, and there was a part of me that wished I could conjure up that much excitement over pheasants. Honestly, I felt much more dislike for Danny's teacher, Captain Lancaster, and there was no retribution for him, so obviously my judgement of who deserved what was not lining up with Roald Dahl's.

My favorite part of the story was Danny's relationship with his father. I may not have approved of (or even understood) the allure of poaching, but I couldn't deny Danny and his father's love for each other, which was fierce and loyal. I loved seeing this strong friendship between a father and a son. (Although, I have to say since finishing this book, I find myself looking back and reading a bit too much between the lines--Did Danny care too much about pleasing his father? Did he feel like he had to earn his father's love? etc. etc.)

I can't tell if I'm over thinking it or under thinking it or if I just didn't click with the story. Probably the latter. Maybe I'm just playing too much the part of the responsible parent these days, and so Danny's father just seemed a little on the immature side. But maybe that's why my boys loved it--they could think of nothing more exciting than to have a father who would risk a little danger and trouble for the sake of fun.

How to Celebrate Pi Day

Mar 17, 2015

Earlier this month, we celebrated our one-year anniversary in our home. I would find it hard to believe that it's already been a year except for the fact that we feel so well established in our neighborhood. Seriously, I don't know when else in my life I've put down roots so quickly. It must mean that this is finally home.

One of the things we've loved about our neighborhood is that many of the families have long-standing traditions that happen year after year after year. For example, one family makes groundhog pizza on Groundhog's Day. Another hosts movie nights several times during the summer, complete with an endless supply of cotton candy. In the fall, that same family make enough doughnuts to feed a small army. Around Christmastime, a group of families closes off their street and invites the neighborhood for hot chocolate and scones.

Mike and I love all pf these traditions. But we wanted one of our own. One that new families in the neighborhood would hear about when they first moved in: "Oh, and then Mike and Amy, they do this amazing thing every year. You will definitely want to check it out . . . "

And then we thought of it. Something that happens every year in mid-March that celebrates two things Mike loves: numbers and pie. March 14th. 3.14. Pi Day. What better way to commemorate our home-buying anniversary every year than by inviting our neighbors over for a slice (or two) (or three point one four) of homemade pie?

Even though we thought of this months ago and knew it was the perfect tradition for us, we almost didn't do it. Life got busy. We were caught up in other activities, and it actually sounded a little daunting. It's all well and good to say you're going to invite the entire neighborhood over for pie. It's another to actually do it.

But when we realized that (a) March 14th was on a Saturday, (b) March 13th was an off-Friday for Mike, (c) the weather was supposed to be gorgeous, and (d), it was Pi Day of the century (3.14.15), we knew if we were ever going to do it, this had to be the first year for it. It was just too perfect of a kickoff.

And so we (but mostly Mike) pulled it off. This is how we did it.

Step 1: Plan out your menu. For us, this was chocolate, key lime, cherry, pumpkin, apple, grasshopper, and pecan. (Mike put the official ban on banana cream.)

Step 2: Invite the neighborhood. We tried to let everyone know through a combination of announcements, word-of-mouth, fliers, and a large sign.

Step 3: Don't schedule anything (not even work) on the day before. Reserve it for a pie-making frenzy. Luckily, as I already mentioned, Mike didn't have to go to work on Friday, and to quote him midway through the day (after he'd already churned out fourteen pies): "Can you think of any better way to spend an off-Friday that making pies while listening to Dennis Prager?" Actually, I could think of a lot of things I'd rather be doing. It all looked rather chaotic and stressful to me.

Step 4: Make a banner proclaiming the event. Set up tables and chairs. Spread out the pies.

Step 5: Wait for the people to come.

Step 6: Enjoy the company of good friends and neighbors.

Since we'd never hosted such an event before, it was a little hard to plan for. I thought it was entirely feasible we might get as few people as twelve or as many as two hundred. And Mike absolutely could not bear the thought of running out. So he shot for the upper limit and made twenty-eight* pies. Yes, twenty-eight. I so wish I had taken a picture of all of them because it was rather spectacular.

I tried to keep track of how many people came, and I think we were close to one hundred. I counted this as a success, but it still meant that we had a lot of pie left over.

Which could be seen as a bad thing.

But not if you're Mike and like eating pie for breakfast.

Until next year . . .

*Final count:
  • pecan: 2
  • cherry: 2
  • apple: 3
  • grasshopper: 2
  • strawberry: 2
  • pumpkin: 3
  • chocolate: 7
  • key lime: 7

KidPages: Frogs by Nic Bishop (or, Why It Pays to Go to Storytime)

Mar 13, 2015

Most Tuesday mornings will find us at the library for storytime.

In the realm of storytimes, I think the ones at our library are pretty standard: we listen to a few books, we sing and dance to a few songs, we color a picture at the end. On lucky days, the parachute comes out.

My boys (especially Bradley) love it. And I love it too because I almost always come away with a new book or two I want to take a closer look at.

This last Tuesday was all about frogs and the color green. Annie (the librarian), asked, "What color are frogs?" Many of the kids (including Bradley) called out, "Green!" Then she asked, "Can frogs only be green?" The kids were quiet as they thought about the answer.

Annie pulled out the book Frogs and said, "I want to show you a few pictures in this book." And then, almost as an aside for just the parents, she said, "I love the books by Nic Bishop. They're always full of these great closeup shots of animals." She proceeded to page through and show a few of the frogs in the book (which were, I'll admit, impressive). She then closed the book and launched into a rousing rendition of The Wide-Mouthed Frog.

But I was still stuck back on Nic Bishop's books. I am always on the lookout for interesting nonfiction for my kids, and this was an author I'd never heard of.

After storytime, I looked up the call numbers and found a couple of his books on the shelves. (That alone shows how desperately I wanted them because usually I just reserve what I want so I can pick it all up in one place and not have to go in search of a book when I'm trying to keep an eye on my crazy kids. But I knew these were just the kind of books my kids would love, and I didn't want to forget about them after I got home.)

We checked out both Frogs and Lizards. Even though we'd seen a few of the photographs from Frogs during storytime, we hadn't heard any of the text, and it was fascinating . . . detailed and interesting without being overly wordy or laborious. Did you know that a spadefoot toad can dig itself several feet underground?  Or that "the skin of some dart frogs contains enough poison to kill ten people"? I didn't . . . until I read this book.

At the back of the book, Nic Bishop shares a little bit more about how he captured some of the photos. For example, there's this one incredible shot in the book of a frog leaping out of the water to snag a caterpillar. Nic tells about how he literally had to train the frog to basically jump on command in order to get that photograph. I really love a little behind-the-scenes info.

But really, the photographs are the crowning point of these books. Tiny poison dart frogs, vibrant red-eyed tree frogs, and big, billowy bull frogs. Each one as clear and breathtaking as if you were kneeling right beside it. My very favorite picture is of the glass tree frog. In real life, it is the size of a pea, and its skin is translucent, which means you can see each of its tiny organs. It's amazing to take the photo in the book and shrink it down in your mind to its real-life size, which is something so fragile and tiny and intricate it makes you gasp in awe.

Alas, there are only six books in this series (and I'm a bit fearful to check out the one on spiders--the larger-than-life photos might be a little too vivid for my liking). I wish there were dozens more. But a few of them have been converted into easy readers, which I'm anxious to check out for Maxwell. And besides his own books, Nic Bishop's photographs have also graced the pages of several other nonfiction works, including the Scientist in the Field series. (Aaron actually checked out one of them, The Snake Scientist, several months ago, and it was quite a bit more text-heavy than I like to read aloud in one sitting.)

Discovering Nic Bishop's books totally made my week. To think that they've been sitting on the library shelves all this time just waiting for us to come along and take them home! With all the time we spend at the library, it always kind of surprises me how many books we still haven't seen or heard of. There really is a never-ending supply of good books. And it gives me a little thrill every time I find a new one. What other amazing books are hidden in the stacks?

Do you have a favorite nonfiction picture book author? Please share!

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

Mar 11, 2015

Aside from one semester of extreme homesickness, college and I had a pretty good run together. I enjoyed my classes, my grades were good overall (except for cursed dictation), and I liked my professors. If you looked at my college career, you would call it a success.

And if I had to blame (or thank) one thing for that success, it would definitely be my ability to work hard. I couldn't ace a test without studying for it, but I sure knew how to set my alarm for 5:15 am and hit the ground running.

Given my experience, I can't say I was surprised to hear Paul Tough's findings in How Children Succeed. His basic premise is that we focus too much in schools on grades and test scores and not enough on character strengths such as zest, curiosity, and optimism. There's a growing amount of research that says character matters . . . and in a really big way.

I listened to this book and didn't take as many notes as I should have (read: none). That was great while I was listening to it; I was just absorbing all this information thinking, Wow, that's fascinating. Yep, totally agree with that. Huh, who would've thought?, but now my brain is having a really difficult time recalling names and details: Where was that school that used the KIPP program? What are the seven character strengths? Who was that researcher?

However, I can tell you this: much of the book focuses on a list of seven character strengths (sometimes referred to as "non-cognitive skills") that are being implemented and taught within the curriculum of over a hundred schools in the U.S. Known as KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), Paul Tough specifically contrasts its effectiveness in two very schools: one inner-city, low-income school and another wealthy, upper-class school.

The question that I found so fascinating was: How do you teach these non-cognitive skills (grit or gratitude or curiosity) in such a way that they are not only memorized but also applied? I think we're all familiar with the motivational posters in school hallways that remind students that "West High students are __________ (fill in the blank with character strength of choice)." But how do you take it from that (a poster on the wall) to high school/college graduation, successful career, and contributing member of society?

One school that Tough reported on used a "character report card," which seemed a little presumptuous to me. Others tried the aforementioned posters, hoping students would pick it up through osmosis. Some made sure that teachers referred often to the character traits in lectures and one-on-one interactions.

For my part, I couldn't help thinking that while I think it's great if teachers are talking about and demonstrating self-control and gratitude in the classroom, it's even better if the parents are teaching it in the home. The more I learn and read about education, the more I personally realize that there is absolutely no substitute for a good home life. It just about breaks my heart to think about all of the thousands of kids who go to school every day with so much trauma in their lives that doing well in school falls very low on their list of priorities. But fixing America's homes? That's a discussion for another day.

Anyway, the part of the book I found most fascinating was about, of all things, chess. Paul Tough told about an inner-city middle school in Brooklyn that apparently has one of the best chess teams in the country. He used this school to show how kids of all intelligence levels can benefit from the discipline required by the game and learn valuable life skills from the cycle of winning and losing. However, I was mainly interested in hearing about chess itself--about people who practice for 14 hours a day; about tournaments that last for hours; about ratings and strategies and mistakes. It was just a completely unknown world to me. Maybe I found it so interesting because Aaron's been participating in his little chess club at school this year (and, I don't want to criticize him or anything, but I think he spends more time looking at the ceiling than at the board; maybe he's planning out his next seven moves, but I highly doubt it.). 

Unlike some books that belabor all the things that are wrong with our educational system but don't really offer any ideas for what we can do about it, I thought How Children Succeed was very positive and hopeful overall. There are a number of programs already in place that are giving kids the tools they need to succeed, and I heard Paul Tough say in an interview that he thinks within the next five years we'll really refine the ideas that work the very best. I don't know if I'm that optimistic (maybe that's a character strength I need to work on!), but I do think putting the focus on non-cognitive abilities is a step in the right direction.

Paul Tough says these character strengths are not inborn necessarily but can be learned and developed. What do you think? How would you teach grit? Or zest? Or curiosity?

Word Flashbacks II

Mar 9, 2015

Quite awhile ago, I shared a few words that spark vivid memories for me whenever I hear them. Today I wanted to add to the list. These aren't necessarily words that have special meaning or that I absolutely love (although both may be the case). My only criterion is that the word has to conjure up a specific memory.

pathetic - arousing pity, especially through vulnerability or sadness
I can't hear this word without thinking about my childhood friend, Kathy Hall. My mom taught piano lessons to her, and most weeks, she stayed and played with me after her lesson. Those were the days when I was obsessed with Playmobil, and Kathy and I had ongoing sagas . . . always to be continued the following week. I'll never forget the afternoon when everything in our game was "pathetic." Kathy must have learned that word right before her piano lesson that day because she used it over and over again. The thing is, I think she thought "pathetic" was synonymous with "annoying," and pretty soon her use of it was pathetic . . . I mean, annoying.

providential - involving divine foresight or intervention
One of my favorite books (and movies) is Anne of Green Gables, and "providential" will always be a word that I closely associate with it. In fact, I have a difficult time using it myself with any degree of seriousness because I always sound like Mrs. Spencer: "I call it positively providential!" I love it though because it always reminds me of how much I love Anne and her stories.
odious - extremely unpleasant; repulsive
Speaking of words in books, this one was used a ton in Edenbrooke. Anytime Marianne was annoyed with Philip, he was "odious." I loved that book, but I don't know if I've ever been so sick of a word in all my life. The word "odious" became odious, if you will.

malfeasance - wrongdoing or misconduct especially by a public official
I didn't know this word at all before reading Flora & Ulysses last year. (What does it say about my vocabulary if I'm learning new words from children's books?). However, aside from having trouble pronouncing it (I was reading it aloud), I didn't give it much thought. But then, a few months later, I was reading All Joy and No Fun, and all of a sudden, there was the word "malfeasance," and I had an instant flashback to Flora & Ulysses. That's how you know that a word has made an impression on you--when, unbidden, it transports you back to a specific place.

pitiful - deserving or causing feelings of pity or sympathy
This is actually not my flashback, but Aaron's. Last year while reading Ramona the Pest, we came across the word "pitiful." Aaron said, "Hey, that's just like in Runaway Ralph!" And it was true; "Pitiful" had been used then to make a similar description. We had maybe even talked about what it meant, which is probably why he remembered it when we came across it again. Either way, I loved seeing him make that connection between books.

latter - being the second mentioned of two
This one is totally random. I've always loved to write, and when I was probably nine or ten, I was on a quest to use new words in my writing. One day I stumbled on "latter," and for days afterwards I looked for opportunities to use it in a story or journal entry. It must have been a hard one to naturally incorporate because it has stuck with me for twenty years. I just think it's funny because I don't find "latter" an especially pretty word, nor does it mean something really unique or interesting, but for some reason I liked it.

What words give you a flashback?

MotherStyles by Janet P. Penley (or Why I Don't Throw Birthday Parties For My Kids)

Mar 6, 2015

Max's birthday was on Sunday. He got presents. He got a cake. He even got a cat (eep!). But one thing he did not get was a themed birthday party with a half dozen friends.

He's not alone. To date, none of my kids have had a friend birthday party. We celebrate with family, presents, and cake but not with friends, games, and party favors. For years, I've felt a small twinge of guilt every time one of my kids gets an invitation to a friend's [Lego, bounce house, outer space] party. I should give my kids a themed birthday party with friends. That's what you're supposed to do if you're a mom.

But after reading MotherStyles, I finally understand why I've never had the desire to throw a birthday party, and I think I'm finally okay with it.

I picked up MotherStyles: Using Personality Type to Discover Your Parenting Strengths, hoping it would help me identify my kids' personalities. While there were several chapters that talked about children’s types and family dynamics, the majority of the book focused on, as the titles suggests, mothers. And, as it turned out, that was okay. I think I really needed to understand myself first before trying to figure out my kids.

There are dozens of different ways to identify and measure your personality, but this book focuses on the Myers-Briggs method. Most of you are probably familiar with Myers-Briggs since it seems to be the most common test for companies to give to their employees. It takes four areas of personality (introversion or extraversion, sensing or intuition, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving) and combines them into a four-letter personality type.

The book takes a very methodical approach to the Myers-Briggs method. It gives each area its own chapter (introversion vs. extraversion, for example), and the reader has the opportunity to take several tests where they rate their strengths and weaknesses for each preference (it’s not the official Myers-Briggs test, but it is still very thorough). After explaining each letter by itself, it talks about them in combination with each other and goes through each of the sixteen personality types. Which is to say, the whole book gets just a little tedious: "Here's what you're like if you're an ENFP: . . . If you're an INFP, you'll be more like this: . . . "

If you'd asked me about the book when I was in the middle of it, I might have said it was too detailed or laborious . . . except that it took me that long, with that many explanations and examples before I felt like I really had a handle on all the preferences. For example, when I first read through the Sensing and Intuition chapter, I understood the difference, and I was almost positive I was an S, but it wasn't until I read about what the S was like when combined with the three other letters that I finally grasped what it was all about and started identifying it in people I knew.

So what I'm saying is, yes, it's tedious, but it basically has to be to give you a solid overview of personality type. Plus, she uses a lot of examples and quotes from all of the personality types that really clear up and confirm the information. It's taken me quite a bit of trial and error to feel fairly confident about my own personality type.

Last week I told you that I'm an ISTJ. I still think that's the case, but I seem to be fairly evenly split between Thinking and Feeling. However, I'm not sure how many of my emotions and sensitivities are due to my gender and not necessarily my personality type. I chose to go with Thinking because I think overall, I lean towards objective, practical, logical decision-making. (Actually, is there a letter that describes being unable to ever make a decision? Because I'm pretty sure that's me.) But I'm sure it will be one of those things that I'll continue to analyze and tweak.

For the most part though, real life has only confirmed my diagnosis. For example, a couple of weeks ago, we went to a Valentine's party that my friend was throwing for her husband. As near as I can guess, my friend is an ENFJ (so almost the exact opposite of me). The party consisted of: eight couples (16 people), dinner, decorations, six games, dessert, and a personalized party favor. I thoroughly enjoyed dinner and the accompanying conversation. The first game was fun (plus, Mike and I won, so instant bonus). But after that, it was like my tank was empty. I was craving quiet and solitude, and I could hardly manage to participate in the final game of charades. Because I was in the middle of this book, it was easy to see the divide between the extraverts and introverts in the room (I wasn't the only introvert) and how it grew as the night wore on; the extraverts became more energized while the introverts slowly retreated to the corners.

In spite of its tedious points, I ended up really loving this book because of how it made me feel. My personality type has strengths and weaknesses, but all of the types have strengths and weaknesses, so I can be a good mom while still staying true to myself. I don't have to feel bad about requiring quiet time every afternoon. Instead, I can feel good about doing what I need to do to recharge my batteries so I can be pleasant and available for the rest of the day. 

Throughout the book, there were many "aha" moments, and one of my favorites was when I was reading about the strengths of the Intuitive mother, one of which is that she will explain "ideas, perspectives, and meanings behind everyday experiences." I've always been frustrated that I never think to do this when I'm at the zoo or on a walk with my kids, especially when I'm with my Intuitive friend, and she does it all the time. At first, I just thought she was trying to show me up (like, "look at this wonderful educational experience I'm having with my children"), but now I realize she probably wasn't thinking about that at all. She was just doing something that came naturally to her, and it was okay that it wasn't coming naturally to me.

This book also made me realize why I find some aspects of motherhood so frustrating. In a perfect world, I would wake up early in the morning and begin methodically checking things off my to-do list. I would have a daily cleaning schedule that included annual or semi-annual tasks. Dinner would be in the crockpot by 10am. As soon as the dryer finished, I would take out the clothes and fold them. All of my kids would be following their routines too, and we would be like a well-ordered ship.

But instead, motherhood requires flexibility and lots of attention, and that is why sometimes something so small as finding a sticky spot on the floor can send me over the edge . . . because I just want to have control over something, and sometimes, it feels like I have control over nothing (not even the kitchen floor!).  Somehow just knowing why I sometimes feel the way I do made me realize  my world is not falling apart as much as I think it is.

I could go on and on. I could tell you about my sister--a poor ENFP in a family of ISTJs (I have so much more sympathy for her now!). I could tell you about how much it explained about Mike's and my marriage when I realized he's a P and I'm a J. I could tell you about each of my children and how I can't tell what any of their personalities are yet, and I'm okay with that because, although it might help me be more patient with them, I might also place perimeters around them that actually don't fit. I could tell you about how I've been asking everyone I know if they know their personality type (and almost no one does).

It was just a really great book for me to read at this stage of motherhood. It was very validating and empowering, and I would recommend it to any mom out there. No matter what your personality type, she casts it in a positive light. She shows how you can be an amazing mom without forcing yourself into someone you're not.

Have you taken the Myers-Briggs personality test? What type are you? What do you struggle with in motherhood? What are you really good at?

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Mar 4, 2015

Except for a brief stint when I was 16 and had a crush on half of my small town's high school basketball team, I've never really been that into the sport.

So when The Crossover won the 2015 Newbery, I was, hmmm, not that excited. Quite frankly, the only reason I picked it up was because a) it won the Newbery, b) it was a verse novel, so I knew I'd only be giving up a couple hours of my life to suffer through it, and c) I wanted to be able to form a true opinion of it.

Oh, and I guess I also was a tiny bit interested in seeing how basketball and poetry would go together. Because I was pretty sure they would clash big-time.

I was absolutely, totally, completely wrong. Never have I been so quick to try to snatch back my words.

This novel is passionate. And honest. It's powerful. And real.

There aren't many books that I finish and immediately hand over to Mike. But with this one, I did exactly that.

I guess I could stop gushing and actually tell you about the book.

It's about a boy named Josh Bell (or Filthy McNasty, although, as it turns out, he's not crazy about the nickname). He's the star of his junior high basketball team. Or I should say, co-star. He shares the spot with his twin brother, Jordan (i.e., JB). Together they rule the court.

But early in the season, some things happen in Josh's life that he's not happy about. First off, JB gets a girlfriend, and Josh is jealous about the way it changes their relationship. Also, things are not good with their dad. He is Josh and JB's biggest fan and in his younger days was something of a basketball star himself, but his health has always been shaky (hereditary hypertension), and Josh is worried about what it could mean for their family.

I wish more people would read verse novels (maybe they will get a little more attention now with both The Crossover and Brown Girl Dreaming receiving Newbery bling this year). I think people are scared of them. When I praise them, people sometimes ask me this, "Yes, but does it tell a story?"

And to answer that question, let me give you three examples:

First, I mentioned earlier that Mike is now reading The Crossover. A couple of nights ago, I asked him, "Where are you now?" just like I might ask about any other story. I couldn't have asked that if it didn't follow a definite story line.

Second, the characters are unforgettable. The details are presented in a stark, minimalistic way, but they are there and perhaps even more vivid and meaningful because there aren't a lot of descriptions muddling them up. Ask me about JB, and I'll tell you he shaves his head, is a bit insensitive, and loves to make bets (it made me laugh when the boys and their dad challenge three college students to a game of three-on-three, and as they're shooting the opening basket, JB screams, "Loser pays twenty bucks!" He's not one to miss an opportunity). Ask me about their dad, and I'll tell you he's upbeat, stubborn, and has an appetite for Krispy Kreme donuts. He would do anything for his boys . . . except maybe go to the doctor's.

Third, it follows a narrative arc just like any other story: it sets things up, there's some rising action (which may or may not involve an almost broken nose and a suspension), a climax, and a resolution. There were moments when I didn't want to put it down because I was so anxious to find out what was going to happen next.

But it does all of these things while still twisting your heart in a way that only poetry can do. The words are sparse; the emotions are not. One of my favorite images comes after Josh and JB's falling out:
JB looks at me.
I wait for him to say something, anything,
in defense of his only brother.
But his eyes, empty as fired cannons,
shoot way past me.
Five short lines, and yet I'm sure even those of you who haven't read the rest of the book can feel the hurt and regret and tension in those words.

The story opens with a description of dribbling. The description is a visual experience (I really think you have to read this book, not listen to it). Some of the words are enlarged or stretched out or italicized. At first, I was unimpressed, but this type of verse returned periodically throughout the story, and each time it returned, I liked it more and more. I think I've had a rather limited view of what a verse novel could be about (see prejudiced comment above), and this book shattered that view. Verse novels can be about basketball, and it can be just as thrilling as actually sitting on the bleachers (or, perhaps, if you're like me and don't really love the sport, maybe even more so).

The whole book was extremely creative. One thing I really loved was when a big, unfamiliar word was nestled among the rest of the poem ("Did your father and I raise you to be churlish?," for example), and then the following poem was a definition of that word with three examples of how that word might be used ("As in: I wanted a pair / of Stephon Marbury's sneakers / (Starburys), / but Dad called him / a selfish millionaire / with a bad attitude, / and why would I want / to be associated / with such a churlish / choke artist."). Those were some of my very, very favorite poems.

One of the most real conversations in the book happens between Josh and his mom just after Josh completely loses his temper and intentionally hurts JB. She starts out kind and gentle, almost like she knows she can't fly off the handle if she wants him to open up to her ("Can I make you a sandwich? You want a tall glass of orange soda?"), but then she does fly off the handle ("You've been just what? DERANGED? When did you become a thug?"). I cringed a little when she lost her temper, both because I could almost feel Josh closing up with every attack, but also because I've been that mother--the one saying things while at the same time thinking, Don't say that! It's not going to help matters any. It's just so hard to keep your cool when your children are doing completely irrational, stupid things, and I thought Kwame Alexander* captured this conversation very well.

You might remember that one of my main complaints with El Deafo (which won a Newbery Honor this year) was that the climax was poorly executed and resolved (it celebrated deception and irresponsibility, and I couldn't get behind that). The Crossover presented its own host of poor choices and actions, but they weren't the climax. They happened in the middle of the book, with plenty of time for the main characters to learn and grow from them. As it should be.

Okay, remember how I raved and raved (and raved) about Brown Girl Dreaming? Well, when it won a Newbery Honor and The Crossover won the Newbery Medal, I was a little indignant: No way was it better than Brown Girl Dreaming. No way! But . . . here I go retracting my statements again. I still love Brown Girl Dreaming. This book didn't make me love it any less. But, I may have been more impressed with the execution of this book. It was just so original. I just never ever ever expected the game of basketball to be enhanced by poetry. And it totally was. Also, I really love it that this book will have major appeal to both boys and girls. I think boys need to be exposed to the power of poetry, and this book is the perfect introduction for that. This will be joining our collection for sure.

If you haven't read it yet, I hope this review is the push you need to get your hands on a copy.

*Curious about how to pronounce Kwame Alexander's name? Check out this audio clip.

Raising Readers: Protect Your Readaloud Time

Mar 2, 2015

A few nights ago, Aaron and Max were having one of those nights. They were whining about everything, teasing each other mercilessly, and moving like tortoises. In a moment of frustration, Mike said, "That's enough. Just go to bed. Right now."

I was torn. Yes, they were being so ornery. Yes, they should have a consequence. But I really hate punishing by taking away our readaloud time. I told Mike, "Aaron has been at school all day. Then I was gone for most of the evening at a church activity. I don't want to make him go to bed right now. I have only had a total of two hours with him today. If I make him go to bed right now, I will miss that important time to connect with him at the end of the day."

And so I still read to them (we're currently reading Danny the Champion of the World), and they were given a different consequence.

We vary where we read: Sometimes it's on the couch in the living room. Sometimes I climb up the ladder into their bunk bed. Sometimes we burrow deep under the covers in my bedroom. But we rarely vary when we read. (Although, I'm realizing as I'm writing this that we actually missed it last night. It was Max's birthday, and they got up so early, and by the time the party was over and they were ready for bed, it was already past the time when we normally read, and I knew in this instance that sleep was more important).

I understand that nights might not work for everyone as a perfect readaloud time. But I hope if you don't read together at night that there's another time during the day when you do read aloud. And I hope you vigilantly protect that time for these reasons:
  • It opens the door to conversations. (You never know what you'll find out as you're reading. A situation or character in the book can be a springboard to a real-life conversation.)
  • It provides a time to be physically close to one another. (This is really important to me. I don't spend enough time during the day giving hugs or being affectionate, but reading together gives me a natural time and place to have them close beside me.)
  • It creates a unique language and point of reference for your family. (For example, when one of the boys says, "I'd like some Mercy Watson toast please," we know exactly what he means.)
  • It helps everyone calm down. (I have four crazy boys, but I crave quiet. Reading together is one of the only times during the day when I get to have some of that longed-for quiet with them.)
  • It is fun. (I can't count the number of evenings we spend laughing over something that happens in the book we're reading. We have read so many wonderfully entertaining books over the last six years.)
And before you think that Bradley and Clark are missing out on the nightly readaloud time, let me tell you that Mike takes the two of them and reads while I'm reading to the older ones. So that's another reason:
  • It gives them (semi)-alone time with one parent. (I have plans to let Mike read something like Redwall or Prince Caspian to the older two, but so far, I've been fairly selfish with that time because there are so many books I want to read to them! I should also mention that I have my own time with the younger boys every day after lunch.)
Do I dare admit that I'm counting down the days until summer so we can have even more built-in reading time?

Tell me what reading aloud looks like in your family. When do you do it? Where do you do it? What are you reading right now?
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