The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell – Review and link to teaching resources

The Shark Caller is a children’s book so wise, tender and comforting that I want to press it in to the hands of everyone I know. A beautiful and lyrical story of family, loss, friendship and forgiveness it completely captured me.

Sometimes a book becomes a bit of a word of mouth ‘must read’ via social media and tempting though it may be to become involved I try to resist as that can inevitably raise expectations unrealistically and the subsequent read can be a little disappointing. This time temptation grew too strong so having avoided reading reviews I picked the book up, “just to have a look.” First there was a map, by Saara Katariina Soderland, and I love maps in books. This map depicted Blue Wing’s Village and instantly my curiosity was aroused and I wondered about Blue Wing, the name conjured up images in my head. Within two pages Blue Wing, the story’s narrator had captured me completely, and steadily through the lyrical and descriptive writing I became immersed in her world. This is a gorgeous story and one I enjoyed reading immensely.

Cover by Saara Katariina Soderland

Blue Wing lives with Siringen, an elderly man who has cared for her since the death of her parents. Siringen is a shark caller, a tradition passed down to him from his ancestors and Blue Wing is desperate to follow in his footsteps. However she is not allowed to because she is a girl and instead she is told that she must befriend Maple, the daughter of a newcomer who has recently arrived on their island. Maple infuriates Blue Wing and the two girls are unable to disguise their mutual antipathy and anger. However they share a loss that once brought out into the open bonds them in a friendship that deepens. Together the two girls uncover secrets and despite events that test their new friendship they unite in an unforgettable adventure.

Zillah Bethel was born and raised in Papua New Guinea which gives an authenticity to the descriptions of the landscape and life of Blue Wing’s island. The sights and sounds are vividly brought to life and the heat, the mountains, ocean, palms, orchids, the distinctive birds, and the creatures feel real and visible to the reader. The story is peppered with words in Tok Pisin, sometimes known as Pidgin English, adding to the sensation of visiting another culture. The relationship between the characters, and Blue Wing and Maple in particular, highlights the lack of understanding there can be between people of different cultures and we witness a growing dawning of appreciation of each other’s traditions and lifestyles.

This is a story of many layers and gradually Zillah Bethel peels away each layer until we reach the heart of the story, the overwhelming sense of grief felt by both girls. It is shared loss that bonds them in some ways but we also witness the power of forgiveness. The initial hostility between the girls is overcome by apology and forgiveness but both girls are unable to forgive themselves for what they view as past failings. Any reader brings their own experience to a book and finds an aspect that they recognise or can empathise with. For me the manner in which the author writes about grief is overwhelming in its accuracy. She captures beautifully that ache for one more conversation, one more chance to explain or ask a question or simply to talk. Both Blue Wing and Maple feel they need the opportunity to apologise to their mothers and they are also finding it difficult to forgive others but perhaps hardest of all to forgive themselves. As a study of grief and learning to live with it this book is both comforting and wise. There were many occasions when I was tempted to copy down sentences and sometimes whole passages. The idea of time and how our lives and the way in which we live them are linked to the passage of time and how we perceive it is sensitively explored.

This is not a sad book however as its message is a powerful and hopeful one. A wonderful and enthralling adventure that can be enjoyed for its own sake this is also a sensitive life lesson in learning to forgive and to live each day fully. The author has woven these themes into an adventure story that ensures the reader is completely transported to her world and fully engaged with the characters she has created. Occasionally a wonderful story can be slightly let down by an abrupt or slightly disappointing ending. Not this one. As I read the final chapters time stood still, the world around me disappeared and I was carried along to the most moving and perfect ending.

I would like to thank Fritha Lindqvist and Usborne Books for providing my review copy. The Shark Caller is available now to purchase online or via your nearest independent bookshop which can be found on this map

This stunning book could easily be a starting point for discussion and learning. Siringen is a lovely character, kind and wise and his life would make another wonderful story. I was so intrigued by this character that I decided to find out more about the lives of these traditional people, the shark callers, and discovered that Usborne had already done the work for me. They have put together their popular Quick Links on their website and also a comprehensive set of teaching resources created by Shapes for Schools. One aspect of the book that is striking is the attitude to sharks themselves and a important and central theme of the story. Whereas many people view them with fear and even hatred this story highlights a different aspect and information about these creatures is also included within these links. If the glossary of Pidgin English provided in the book and its use in the story has encouraged readers to find out more about this then that is also included. The links collated are a great source of background information and add to the enjoyment and understanding of this lovely book which I would recommend to both upper KS2 and KS3.

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Blog Tour – First Names: Nelson Mandela by Nansubuga N. Isdahl illustrated by Nicole Miles

David Fickling Books’ First Names series are presented with their trademark cartoon style illustrations and comic strips familiar from The Phoenix comic and coupled with detailed information and fascinating facts about a number of well known and inspirational people. To the varied names featured in the series they have now added Nelson Mandela. The engaging and accessible style ensures that young readers are quickly drawn in and many of the facts are displayed in graphic format making learning lively and fun. Yet “Nelson” provides a full and impressively comprehensive overview of this remarkable man’s life and this highly readable book would be a valuable addition to bookshelves at home or in school.

The story begins then with the family history and early childhood of small boy Rolihlahla, later named Nelson at school, following him through childhood education to university studies, marriage, early political involvement and later hardships, battles against apartheid, trial, imprisonment and subsequent achievements as President of South Africa. The various complex and difficult subjects are presented in a manner that children can follow and understand and the presentation makes the assimilation of the facts easier for young readers to grasp. There is also a useful pronunciation guide, glossary, timeline and index completing this informative and fascinating read.

I was struck by the style of the presentation and the way in which author and illustrator have created a book that is clearly a joint endeavour and one that treats the man and the subject with sensitivity and respect so am delighted to welcome both Nansubuga Isdahl and Nicole Miles to discuss their collaboration. I found their comments enlightening and think it explains why First Names: Nelson Mandela works so well and I hope you enjoy reading this too.

Collaboration and Creating The Book – First Names: Nelson Mandela


Thanks for having me! 

Despite the fact that writing is largely a solitary process, or perhaps because of this, one of the things I enjoy most about bringing stories to life through books is the collaboration process.

For Nelson, this largely revolved around working together with the book’s wonderful editor, Helen Greathead, and very talented illustrator, Nicole Miles. I felt very fortunate that my perspectives and feedback were sought and integrated into the look and feel of the book, especially because I had spent nearly a decade living in South Africa and the country holds a significant place in my heart. I was particularly eager to see Nicole’s illustrations because the book was largely set in South Africa during an incredibly challenging period (that’s actually an understatement) in the country’s history. The illustrations also had to capture the realities of the country from the time of Nelson’s birth (1918) through to the present day. 

I thought that from the start, Nicole’s illustrations were brilliant. I do remember feeling quite nervous to see some of the illustrations set early on in the book, because these depicted village life and I thought it quite important that they were both accurate and respectful representations, but still playful. I think Nicole did an incredible job of this, and I can’t imagine that it was easy. But I think some of the most striking and powerful illustrations were those that rendered Nelson’s life during apartheid.  There is a way in which Nicole was able to capture what was essentially a harrowing experience – the brutality of discrimination and the way in which black people and other groups were treated as inferior – with both sensitivity and humour. The illustrations, I felt, were such a necessary element in this book, in particular, providing a much-needed balance. There’s something about capturing what apartheid looked like visually that lifts the words off the page and plants them in your mind. At the same time, the illustrations lightened the text. This was needed given the heavy subject matter. 

Overall, I was deeply impressed by Nicole’s ability to elevate the text through her drawings and I also just really enjoyed many of the finer details of her work. She has a skilled hand and it was a pleasure collaborating with her on a project that I feel shares very important messages for children. I have no doubt that her illustrations will provoke some interesting and nuanced discussions in classes and homes! 

NICOLE MILES, illustrator: 

This project was a really intimidating one. There are something like 150 illustrations in the book and, being about Nelson Mandela, I wanted to make sure it did justice to the his legacy. Initially though, things were just a liiiiittle rocky. I’d sent over some illustrations of Nelson and my sample spread which was to give the team an idea of how I would be approaching the book. The feedback came in and it was…a little unsure where I was taking things. It was probably a little sparse and definitely a little stiff. I think I had the impression it needed to be very serious. I sent another sample in and this one was less sparse but still wasn’t hitting where it needed to. Looking back on it, these early samples didn’t have enough personality and, to be honest, didn’t feel like me. I had a call with the Art Director and, through her just talking more about the feeling they were after, the audience and the aims for the book, everything was a lot clearer. I was actually really relieved that they wanted to go in a direction that is much more aligned to me and that focusses on an energy that feels engaging and that helps amplify the words. It was a refreshing restart and things were a lot smoother from there.

Speaking of the words, I really wanted to do right by the author, Nansubuga N Isdahl. I learned a lot from her text and she had clearly put so much into it. I wanted to help bring it to life as best I could. And my Art Director, Katie Keywood-Taylor was a great guide through the project. She was essentially the liaison between Nansu (and the editorial team), and me. It was thanks to her interpretation of the text and her feedback on the illustrations that we were able to strike the right tone between fun and informative.

When I took on this project it was big and daunting and there was so much to do. It’s kind of surreal to see all that work come together at the end into something I’m proud of and excited to share.

Thank you Nansubuga and Nicole for taking the time to explain the creative process behind this excellent guide to Nelson Mandela’s remarkable life. I would like to thank David Fickling Books for inviting me to take part in this blog tour and don’t forget to follow the rest of the tour over the coming days.

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Reading Matters – children’s book news

Hello and welcome to this week’s look at what has been happening in the world of children’s books. The highlight has probably been the announcement of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards long lists. This always prompts debate in the children’s book community which highlights its importance. Full details of the lists are included below.

What I’m reading…

Picture books can be wonderful for conveying themes and emotions in a manner that touches readers of all ages. This week I read and reviewed A Song for Everyone by Lucy Morris for Just Imagine a book that combines the soothing nature of music, the importance of cooperation and community in a story of well-being. It’s a book with several possible interpretations I think and I love the illustrations.

The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethel is receiving a great deal of positive attention within the children’s book community so when I started reading it this week I was slightly concerned it would not match my expectations. I shouldn’t have worried. I think it is a beautiful story about friendship, grief and forgiveness and I feel as though I have gained from reading it. Sometimes books really do make a difference. My review will be up on the blog next week.

First Names is a series of biographies published by David Fickling Books and this month sees the publication of the latest in the series featuring Nelson Mandela. Prior to taking part in the forthcoming blog tour I settled down to read it and was impressed by the amount of detail and information contained in this accessible and interesting book. You can find out more on Monday when I welcome author Nansubuga N Isdahl and illustrator Nicole Miles to my blog to talk about their collaboration and the creative process.

On Friday my day started with a smile thanks to The Space Detectives. A fast paced and funny plot featuring an appealing duo by Mark Powers and great illustrations by Dapo Adeola in his distinctive style. I enjoyed this first in a new series, published by Bloomsbury this month, and can see it being popular.

News, articles and resources…

The British Library: All our stories: celebrating ethnic diversity in primary reading March 11th – Discover inspiring ways to develop and enjoy an inclusive collection of books with children at your school. This event is an exciting collaboration between the British Library, Seven Stories, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education and Newcastle University. You can book your place via the link.

The Open University: Reading for Pleasure – this comprehensive website has just been updated and is a treasure trove worth exploring. The new structure is excellent; navigation is easier now, there’s a section for parents and it’s possible to save your favourite resources, examples of good practice etc. A wonderful and valuable website for everyone with an interest in children’s reading.

48 Best Middle-Grade Novels in Verse – I was converted to verse novels by The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan which is included in this wonderful list on the Reading Middle Grade website. It includes old favourites and newer titles and would be a great place to start looking for books for schools, libraries or home.

Meet the Monsters (with Mini Grey) – this fascinating article by Mini Grey on the Picture Book Den blog made me think about all the different monsters I’ve encountered in children’s fiction, from my own childhood, that of my sons and in my role as a school librarian. They are an important part of children’s literature and this is a thought provoking read.

Lit in Colour Pioneers Programme – Schools now have the opportunity to join the Lit In Colour Pioneers programme for free access to set texts, CPD webinars & more to support the integration of BAME writers into the GCSE & A-Level English Lit curriculum. You can find out more in this article containing links to further information on the School Library Association website.

The Klaus Flugge Prize Slideshow – following last week’s announcement of the long list for this award Mat Tobin has generously created this excellent resource which is freely available to share. It contains links to information about the listed books, their creators and the publishers. A delight that I’m still exploring and would highly recommend.

The Smile Shop author Satoshi Kitamura: ‘Kindness is probably the most important thing that we can give each other’ – well this lovely article shared by Book Trust to mark Kindness Week certainly made me smile, I hope it makes you smile too!

Q&A with Carnegie and Kate Greenaway 2021 Judge Akbar Ali – As a designer & illustrator, Judge Akbar Ali reflects on how illustration enhances reading and storytelling, the importance of representation in picture books and much more in this insightful interview with Peters Books.

FREE Event with Kwame Alexander – Publishers Andersen Press are offering the chance for your pupils to meet award-winning poet and novelist Kwame Alexander in an exclusive online event for UK schools on Thursday March 11th. Full details and booking available via the link.

The Kids Are All Right: LGBTQ+ Books for Children and Young People – Sheffield and Lambeth Libraries have compiled a list (link to PDF download in article) of books from picture books up to YA titles which depict the diverse range of identities in the LGBTQ+ community.

Long Lists Announced for 2021 CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Awards – The Medals celebrate outstanding achievement in children’s writing and illustration respectively and are unique in being judged by children’s librarians, with the Shadowers’ Choice Award voted for by children and young people. 40 titles have been longlisted for the 2021 Medals (20 on each longlist). I was pleased to see After the War by Tom Palmer and The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson on the Carnegie list as I think these are two outstanding books for a middle grade audience. There are several picturebooks on the wonderful Greenaway list that I hope make the short list on 18th March.

Become a RECORD SMASHER! with children’s author Jenny Pearson – Ever wanted to SMASH a World Record? In celebration of the upcoming publication of The Incredible Record Smashers by Jenny Pearson, Usborne and Guinness World Records are encouraging as many  children as possible to have a go at SMASHING a book-themed record this #WorldBookDay 2021! Book dominos, book pyramids, balancing books on your head… Everyone who has a go gets an official certificate to prove they are INCREDIBLE. Details of how to get involved are available via the link.

World Book Day: Mark’s Dilemma Lesson Plan – this is excellent and I would like to thank Ben Harris for sharing this resource. What if you’re a black/minority ethnic teacher who has to dress up as a white character to be recognised? This issue sparked the idea for this brilliant teaching guide from the Philosophy Man and Darren Chetty.

Authorfy Book Extracts – yet another fabulous resource from Authorfy. Download hundreds of FREE extracts from children’s books. Download as many as you like; no account / sign-up needed, use in school or at home, new extracts added every week. There is a wide range of titles available.

Finally, some book reviews that caught my eye this week…

Can Bears Ski? – Raymond Antrobus, ill. Polly Dunbar – this is a lovely review by Rich Simpson and the Q&A with Polly Dunbar (with a little help from Isla!) is interesting too. This highlights, yet again, the importance of children being able to see themselves in books.

I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C James – another picture book which reflects our diverse society. I love the illustrations shared in this review by Rachael from Picture Book Perfect and think this sounds a wonderful and uplifting book.

The Last Bear – Hannah Gold, Levi Pinfold – another lovely review by Rich Simpson and I enjoyed the glimpse of the illustrations by Levi Pinfold whose work I admire. The story sounds wonderful and one that will resonate with children who are interested in protecting our environment and Rich has included links to Hannah Gold’s website and her favourite children’s books about climate change.

The History of the African and Caribbean Communities in Britain – This book reveals the little-known history of the African and Caribbean communities in Britain. It looks at why people came to Britain, the problems they faced, and the contribution they have made to British society. In her review for Just Imagine Laura Ovenden says “This important history book needs to be in every primary and secondary school library. It gives that important overview but is also peppered with inspiring individuals who were agents of change.” 

Three Keys by Kelly Yang – on Thursday I took part in a inspiring discussion organised by Ben Harris on Twitter about reading for empathy. The next day I read this wonderful review by Nicki Cleveland who says of this book, “All of the characters leap off the page and it is easy to empathise with all of them – the adage that every one is fighting their own battle has never been so plainly put.” Three Keys is definitely going on my reading list.

That’s all for this week, I hope it’s helpful. There is dry weather promised this weekend here so I’m putting books aside briefly to do battle with the garden. Happy reading and ‘see’ you next Saturday.

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Reading Matters – children’s book news

Hello and welcome to this week’s round up of all the latest news from the world of children’s books and as we enter the half term break I hope that all those working in education enjoy a well earned rest and with luck some time to read and relax.

What I’m reading…

When The World Was Ours by Liz Kessler is an outstanding and powerful book. Days after I finished reading this I am still thinking about it; a compelling, heartbreaking story, it is also one that highlights the importance of friendship, hope and love and those seemingly tiny moments that can in reality make a huge difference. Here’s my review for Just Imagine, it is a book I would highly recommend for teens and adults alike.

I am a long standing fan of Barrington Stoke, they are publishers who really do make a difference to children. Swan Song by Gill Lewis is an excellent example of their books. A thoughtful and sensitively written story which highlights the power of nature to restore and heal troubled minds, something we have all be made more acutely aware of over the last year.

News, articles and resources…

10 children’s books that will take kids on a journey – children may be stuck at home, but they can escape to the Amazon, Himalayas or New York via these magical tales chosen by children’s author Piers Torday. As a confirmed map lover I am particularly tempted by Prisoners of Geography: Our World Explained in 12 Simple Maps.

What can we do with books? by Michael Rosen – I love this. Our former Children’s Laureate shares ideas for book chat with children, searching for links and ‘secret strings’ and how to become a ‘story detective’.

Picturebook Biographies… The Power of a Story – Simon Smith, Head Teacher and picturebook enthusiast always recommends books that are that little bit different and special. This selection would be valuable additions to school classrooms and libraries as part of the curriculum.

Librarians flourish in lockdown with roll out of digital community activities – an interesting article in The Bookseller about the role of school and public librarians during the pandemic; “The government, local authorities and heads of schools have recognised the value of librarians since the first lockdown, according to representatives of library associations. Some warn, however, about school librarians being reassigned to new tasks.”

Picture books for children – reviews – a lovely selection by Imogen Carter for the Guardian; “From bonding over bees and a deft exploration of race to a lipstick-loving toddler, the latest illustrated stories are a joy

Guide to World Book Day Primary School Pack – the organisers of World Book Day have produced this pack of ideas, tips, facts, a timeline to help you prepare and information about their digital events. It’s definitely worth downloading this guide via the link above. A couple of days later this was followed by the Secondary School Pack containing plenty more ideas to inspire.

A Night with Knights Of – this event last month hosted by the Reading Agency was great and they have now made a recording of it available. Publisher of diverse and inclusive books for children, Knights Of, chats with some of their award-winning, boundary-breaking children’s authors and illustrators about their work and the landscape of children’s publishing. The panel includes authors Sharna Jackson, Elle McNicoll and Gabrielle Kent, and illustrator Kay Wilson. Recommended!

Love My Books February Newsletter – in case you have missed this here is the latest newsletter featuring new books and activity pages, Top 10 illustrated novels, how to make an animal ears book, Lovemybooks & lockdown, keeping in touch through stories & more. This is useful for families and teachers and is full of lots of great ideas.

Books for Topics: First Chapter Books – This collection of books – with colour illustrations, shorter length and clear formatting – has been handpicked with those readers in mind who need something to bridge the gap between reading scheme books and lengthier chapter books.

Teaching resources linked to books by Lisa Thompson – these are free to download and would be useful for teachers, librarians or for home educators. Titles include The Goldfish Boy, Owen and the Soldier and The House of Clouds.

Longlist announced for the 2021 Klaus Flugge Prize – Ghosts, gardens, nudity and love: twenty debut picture books in the running for the illustration prize that highlights outstanding newcomers. Established in 2016, the Klaus Flugge Prize is awarded to the most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s picture book illustration. I’m looking forward to exploring the list further.

Open University Reading for Pleasure: News and Awards – during a Twitter conversation this week I was reminded of this helpful resource so am sharing it again. If you scroll down below the news section there is a comprehensive collection of links to many different children’s book awards and this is well worth bookmarking for future reference.

Online resources for school librarians during lockdown & beyond – a fabulous and extremely comprehensive list of resources on the CILIP Scotland website compiled by Markie DeLeavey from Glasgow School Libraries. No doubt these would be useful to others in education too.  

The Old Truck by Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey: A Walk Through with Mat Tobin – during the week Mat Tobin, lecturer in Primary Education and Children’s Literature at Oxford Brookes University, guided us through this lovely picture book on Twitter. Mat has recreated the conversation in this excellent and insightful blogpost which captures how this book works and conveys some of its detail. I need a copy of the book now!

Anne Frank Trust: Interview with Author Tom Palmer – On Thursday 4th March, to celebrate World Book Day 2021 The Anne Frank Trust are holding an interactive online event for Primary School students aged 9 and up with award winning children’s author, Tom Palmer. The event is free but you need to register via the link.

Finally, some book reviews that caught my eye this week..

Into the Wild written by Robert Vescio, illustrated by Mel Armstrong – a picture book that “celebrates the wonder of nature and the comfort of finding someone special to share your precious moments with.” says Veronica Price. This sounds beautiful and Veronica has also included a link to some helpful teaching notes to use with the book.

The Ladybird Big Book of Slimy Things by Imogen Russell Williams illustrated by Binny Talib – more nature but this time slimy creatures, slimy things, living slime and slime made by plants or creatures, including humans. Presented in an appealing comic strip style this was Book Trust Book of the Day on Tuesday and this review explains why.

When We Got Lost In Dreamland by Ross Welford – reading this review by Louise Nettleton it was the emphasis on the character of Malky that struck me, “It is wonderful to see boys – and especially the kind of boys who are too often stereotyped as trouble – portrayed with sensitivity and thought.” I agree and want to read this.

The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethel illustrated by Saara Soderland – I have been trying to avoid reading reviews of this book as it’s next up on my own reading pile but this is a lovely one by Stephen Connor for Just Imagine, and no big spoilers either.

That’s everything for this week. I hope it’s useful, enjoyable or a bit of a distraction. Happy half term to everyone. Don’t forget to look out for the announcement of the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway long lists on 18th February!

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Longlist Announced for the 2021 Klaus Flugge Prize

The longlist for the 2021 Klaus Flugge Prize was announced today, Thursday 11 February 2021. Established in 2016, the Klaus Flugge Prize is awarded to the most promising and exciting newcomer to children’s picture book illustration. It honours Klaus Flugge, founder of publisher Andersen Press and a supremely influential figure in picture books.

Previous Klaus Flugge Prize winners include Jessica Love in 2019 for the ground-breaking Julian is a Mermaid, Francesca Sanna in 2017 for The Journey and Kate Milner for My Name is Not Refugee in 2018.

Over fifty books were submitted, striking proof of publishers’ commitment to commissioning and developing new illustrators. 20 have made it onto the longlist.

Julia Eccleshare, chair of the judging panel says: “We are excited to announce the longlist for this year’s Klaus Flugge Prize and to celebrate the wealth of talent in the world of picture book illustration. As ever, the books on the longlist represent an extraordinarily wide range of subjects and themes: friendship, love, family and our natural world are perennial subjects for books for young children but here too are night-time adventures, tales of daring, and a treatise on why it’s not rude to be nude. Though they are telling different stories and using a range of artistic techniques, the longlisted illustrators are all gifted storytellers. We are grateful as ever to Klaus Flugge for supporting the award and shining this spotlight on illustrators and illustration for children.”

The Klaus Flugge Prize Long List 2021

The 2021 Klaus Flugge Prize longlist in full:

Child of Galaxies, Charlotte Ager, art director Lilly Gottwald, (Flying Eye Books).

Dear Earth, Clara Anganuzzi, written by Isabel Otter, art director Thomas Truong, designer Emma Jennings (Caterpillar Books)

The Last Garden, Anneli Bray, written by Rachel Ip, editor Frances Elks, art director Paula Burgess (Hodder Children’s Books)

While You’re Sleeping, John Broadley, written by Mick Jackson, editor Neil Dunnicliffe, designer Sarah Crookes (Pavilion)

The Grizzly Itch, Victoria Cassanell, editor Grace Greave, designer Lydia Coventry (Macmillan Children’s Books)

Gustavo the Shy Ghost, Flavia Z. Drago, editors Tanya Rosie and Maria Tunney, art director Anne-Louise Jones (Walker Books)

It Isn’t Rude to be Nude, Rosie Haine, editor Fay Evans, designer Jade Wheaton (Tate)

RSPB Birds, Angela Harding, written by Miranda Krestovnikoff, editor Isobel Doster, art director Strawberrie Donnelly (Bloomsbury

The Twin Dogs, Chihiro Inoue, editor Fay Evans, designer Jade Wheaton (Tate)

Like the Moon Loves the Sky, Saffa Khan, written by Hena Khan, editor Ariel Richardson, art director Amelia Mack, designer Abbie Goveia (Chronicle Books)

A Hat for Mr Mountain, Soojin Kwak, editor Helen Weir, art director Chris Inns, designer Jo Spooner (Two Hoots)

Lost, Alexandra Mîrzac, editor Fay Evans, designer Jade Wheaton (Tate).

Fly Tiger Fly, Rikin Parekh, editor Ellie Brough, designer Grahame Lyus (Hodder Children’s Books)

Where the Sea Meets the Sky, Riko Sekiguchi, written by Peter Bently, editor Nicola Carthy, designer Grahame Lyus (Hodder Children’s Books)

I’m Sticking with You, Steve Small, written by Smriti Halls, editor Helen Mackenzie Smith, designer Jane Buckley (Simon and Schuster)

My Red Hat, Rachel Stubbs, editor Denise Johnstone-Burt, designer Charlie Moyler (Walker Books)

A Fox Called Herbert, Margaret Sturton, editor Sue Buswell, designer Rebecca Garrill (Andersen Press)

Bartholomew and the Morning Monsters, Ruan van Vliet, written by Sophie Berger, editor and art director Ziggy Hanaor (Cicada Books)

Rabbit Bright, Viola Wang, editor Nicola Carthy, designer Jennifer Stephenson (Hodder Children’s Books)

The After Christmas Tree, Bethan Welby, art director Janice Thomson, designer Goldy Broad (Scallywag Press)

Eva Eland, 2020 winner with When Sadness Comes to Call, returns this year as a judge alongside celebrated illustrator Posy Simmonds; Darryl Clifton, Illustration Programme Director at Camberwell College of Arts; Fleur Sinclair of the Sevenoaks Bookshop; and Mathew Tobin Senior Lecturer in English and Children’s Literature, Oxford Brookes University. The panel will be chaired by Julia Eccleshare, director of the children’s programme of the Hay Festival. They have a hard task ahead reducing this list to the shortlist which will be announced on 19 May 2021 and the winner will be revealed in September.

More information about the history of the award and details of previous winners can be found on the official website.

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Swan Song by Gill Lewis

Swan Song by award winning author Gill Lewis is a thoughtful and sensitively written story about teenage mental health which highlights the power of nature to restore and heal troubled minds. A lovely book with a valuable and comforting message.

The reader meets Dylan on the day he is excluded from school after hitting another pupil. Dylan, a formerly happy boy, has found the transition to his grammar school extremely difficult and his unhappiness and anxiety has manifested itself in increasingly disruptive behaviour culminating in this act with its dramatic repercussions. Dylan’s mother makes the difficult decision to leave her job to homeschool her son and return to her childhood home in Wales to live with Dylan’s Grandad.

Although initially unhappy with the move gradually through his Grandfather’s non-judgemental attitude and kindness things begin to change for Dylan. However it is the link to nature that most profoundly affects him. Grandad takes Dylan out in his boat and it is the wide open seas and skies, the freedom and lack of pressure that calms him and enables him to learn how to relax and be himself. Grandad’s love of and interest in the whooper swans who return to the bay each winter is infectious and soon Dylan finds that he is concerned for their welfare and habitat in a similar way to his grandfather.

The two important threads of this story, the love and support of Dylan’s grandad and the beauty and importance of wildlife and its protection weave together in a manner that links them to Dylan’s depression and anxiety skilfully and sensitively. This is a lovely story told with great care and Gill Lewis manages to convey difficult themes including grief and loss in a gently accessible manner.

One of the aspects of the last year that has been discussed often is the importance of the access to nature to help people cope with difficult and stressful situations. Those lucky enough to have gardens and open spaces nearby have greatly appreciated them and it has brought home to many how much this accessibility matters. This kind and sensitive story portrays how that healing quality works and is also a reminder of the need to value and protect our natural environment.

As with all books published by Barrington Stoke Swan Song is produced in a dyslexia-friendly font specially created to make reading easier and an accessible layout and heavier paper with a gentle tint helps reduce visual stress. Careful editing ensures that this story can be enjoyed by children with a reading age of 8+ The age of the likeable protagonist and the subject ensures that this is a book that would be enjoyed by both upper primary and lower secondary age groups.

Thank you very much to Kirstin Lamb and Barrington Stoke for sending me my proof copy. Swan Song was published on 4th February and can be purchased online via your nearest independent bookshop which can be found on this map

If the young readers in your life enjoy this book I can also recommend two more Barrington Stoke titles by Gill Lewis, Run Wild and Eagle Warrior.

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Reading Matters – children’s book news

Hello and welcome to this week’s look at what has been happening in the world of children’s books.

What I’m reading…

This week I caught up with a couple of reviews of books that I mentioned in the last Reading Matters. The Elephant by Peter Carnavas is a gem of book for many reasons, it is comforting, it is accessible, it is kind and it is wise. I do hope that my review has done this special book justice. The Hatmakers is a debut from Tamzin Merchant and is definitely one to watch as I can see this being popular. An enjoyable story with important themes conveyed within the magic and excitement. You can read my review for Just Imagine here.

My assistant reviewer, aged 3, built her first snowman a couple of weeks ago so I thought it was a good time to share the picture book The Snowman and the Sun by Susan Taghdis and Ali Mafakheri. This would be a great book to use in Early Years and KS1 to introduce the water cycle and would prompt lots of questions.

The audience with Sita Brahmachari on Thursday evening was a total joy and I am grateful to Nikki Gamble for these wonderful events which have been and continue to be a highlight while we are restricted in attending book events in person. When Secrets Set Sail is a beautiful story and one I enjoyed reading very much earlier this week. The weaving together of history, secrets and family relationships was skilfully done and the ending is one that made my skin tingle. I also loved that Sita included a helpful librarian just as she did in Corey’s Rock. Her wisdom and kindness, evident in the event I attended, runs through her books.

News, articles and resources…

Empathy not Sympathy by Nikki Gamble for Just Imagine – if you only have time to read one link this week please make it this one. A personal and beautiful piece of writing on the power of empathy; a reflection on the need for books to portray the lives of everyone and to encourage social justice.

Kids’ Poems and Stories with Michael Rosen – a reminder that on Michael Rosen’s fabulous YouTube channel you will find more than 400 poems, stories, teaching ideas, ideas for writing stories or poems from Michael and other authors. A wonderful online resource for school or home.

Resources to encourage creativity at home – inspired by books! – Victoria Dilly aka The Book Activist has collected together suggestions linked to popular books that will give young readers the opportunity to get creative and encourage their reading for pleasure.

The Reader Teacher January 2021 Must Reads – Scott Evans looks back at his favourite books published last month with reviews and a downloadable poster. I’m delighted to see The Valley of the Lost Secrets included on Scott’s list.

Best New Children’s Books February 2021 Selected By TOPPSTA – a selection of titles to suit differing tastes including themes of adventure, family, space and dragons.

It’s OK Not To Be OK: Top tips for managing your child’s anxiety – this week has marked Children’s Mental Health Week and in this article for Book Trust Dr Tina Rae, child psychologist and author of It’s OK Not To Be OK, shares some great tips for managing children’s mental health, and our own, in uncertain times. The article also includes links to lists of books for talking about mental health.

LGBT HISTORY MONTH – a guest blog by Charlie Morris on the TOPPSTA website in which she shares some suggestions of books to look out for in 2021 that encourage empathy, and give LGBTQ+ characters a story of their own.

The Isle of Wight Story Festival – taking place during the half term break, 17th – 20th February, this free online event features a wonderful line-up if authors including Cerrie Burnell, Nicholas Allen, Jennifer Killick. Eve McDonnell and Neal Layton. There are details and a timetable of the programme available on the website. Thank you to Rich Simpson for spreading the word about this.

Children’s Football Writing Festival – A year on from the first Children’s Football Writing Festival, the National Football Museum is hosting some of its favourite children’s authors online this February half term. Includes Tom Palmer and Eve Ainsworth.

CILIP Free Webinar on Shadowing the 2021 Kate Greenaway Medal – Hosted by
Jake Hope and Amy McKay, this inspiring session will provide top tips on engaging less confident and keen readers of all ages in picture books.

Step by Step Guide to Creating a Book Review Padlet– school librarian Lucas Maxwell has used Padlet with great success with his pupils and this helpful step by step guide is for anyone who was thinking of using Padlet but maybe felt intimidated by it.

Michael Rosen’s Keynote Speech “The Power of Literature” – The talk Michael Rosen gave to Goldsmiths PGCE students on “The Power of Literature” He has generously made this interesting and thought provoking talk free to use it for INSETs etc.

OU Reading for Pleasure Book Blether’s History Recommendations – On 2nd February, Jon Biddle and Gemma Gascoine hosted the first in a series of 4 ‘Book Blethers’ – discussion threads on Twitter by the @OURfP(Open University Reading for Pleasure) group, where teachers recommend books to each other. The topic of the first session was History. You can access the full list on the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre’s page on via the link above and purchase any that take your fancy.

CLPE Home Learning Help: Reading Books Aloud Videos the CLPE team have worked with a range of authors to create a number of video resources. These resources can be used to keep children reading and engaged purposefully in books while they may not have access to the books themselves.

Finally, some book reviews that caught my eye this week…

Marshmallow Pie by Clara Vulliamy – the illustrated fiction created by Clara Vulliamy has in my experience been hugely popular in the primary school library. They are always enticing packages that encourage newly independent readers and this one sounds like another winner. Kate Hitchings, in her lovely review for Just Imagine says, “This book is one for teachers to read and share. It is a book that given at the right moment could create a reader.”

Opie Jones Talks to Animals,’ by Nat Luurtsema, illustrated by Fay Austin – another story featuring animals but this time for a slightly older audience. The first in a new series, this sounds great fun and as Jo Cummins says, “the messages about working hard to hone your skills, pushing past your fears and learning how to navigate friendships… are ones that all children need to practise”.

Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll – A Kind of Spark, Elle McNicoll’s debut published last year attracted widespread praise, and this review by Kate Heap of the author’s forthcoming novel has definitely whetted my appetite to read this follow up. “This book deals with big ideas. It’s a challenging, empathy-building Middle Grade novel that will stretch well into the Young Adult age range.”

I Am The Minotaur by Anthony McGowan – this is a title in the new Rollercoasters series, a collaboration between Oxford University Press and Barrington Stoke and sounds perfect for secondary school libraries. Ben Harris describes it as having “a pacy plot” but suggests that teachers, “slow it down by sharing it as a read-aloud in the secondary school, alongside discussion and empathetic consideration.”

The Awesome Power of Sleep: How Sleep Super-Charges Your Teenage Brain by Nicola Morgan – award-winning teenage well-being expert Nicola Morgan, author of bestselling Blame My BrainThe Teenage Guide to Stress and The Teenage Guide to Friends now turns her focus to the issue of sleep and the problems created by lack of sleep. This excellent review by Sue Magee of The Bookbag has tempted me, “It’s a fascinating book and a very satisfying read both for teenagers and adults: I learned a great deal.”

Another busy week and I hope that this selection has provided a useful link or tempted you to try a new book. Happy reading!

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The Snowman and the Sun by Susan Taghdis and Ali Mafakheri

The Snowman and the Sun is the story of a snowman and the water cycle but it is also a sensitive reflection on the question of change and our place within those changes.

I was reminded of this picture book last week. There was a heavy fall of snow in our village and excited children built an army of snowmen, some in front gardens and many in our local park. They stood, suitably socially distanced, across what is normally the football pitch. I returned three days later to see that they had been reduced to sad lumps of varying sizes, no longer the characters that the children had enjoyed playing with. The weather forecast is promising the return of snow any day now so I imagine the snowmen will return. This picture book could be about them. This is, on the face of it, the story of the water cycle. Told from the snowman’s point of view the reader watches as he melts under the warm sun and then is transformed in stages until he eventually returns as a snowman once more, the water cycle complete. However there is a little more to it than that.

This is a book that prompts a lot of questions. The text makes it apparent that the snowman does not really disappear as the sun shines, he is ‘transformed’. The snowman continues to tell the story of how it feels as he changes; when the ground tickles him as a puddle and when he feels chilly as a cloud. It is a lovely touch to have him falling as a snowflake back outside the home of the little boy who first built him. A curious child will not only grasp the concept of the water cycle but also wonder about some of the detail in the illustrations. The snowman melts but the little boy is still clutching his ice cream. The hat first worn by the snowman appears later worn by the little boy and then perched on a chimney pot and also on top of an umbrella. There is a bee behaving in an un-bee like manner to spot as we read. So many questions!

This is most definitely a picture book that deserves to be lingered over. It is suitable for the very young as a straight forward tale about our friendly snowman but would also work well in the classroom as part of the science curriculum or for thoughtful philosophical discussion.

There are links to downloadable resources and a poster on the Tiny Owl website where you can also purchase a copy of the book. I should like to thank Tiny Owl Books for sending me my review copy.

Here is a lovely trailer created by Tiny Owl Books to give you a taste…

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The Elephant by Peter Carnavas

The Elephant is a skilfully and sensitively told story which approaches grief and mental health in a manner that is both touching and comforting. Peter Carnavas has made it possible for children to observe the healing power of kindness and love in a poignant yet genuinely endearing book. A brave little girl trying to put back together the broken pieces of her family. A small book brimming with love and hope.

Olive is worried about her father. More specifically she is worried about the big grey elephant that follows him everywhere. It stands over her father at the kitchen breakfast table, leaves with him for work and trudges behind him when he comes home. The elephant weighs her father down with sadness and the weight of that sadness spreads over Olive too. She wishes that the elephant would go away. When she confides in her best friend Arthur he knows the answer to the problem immediately. They must get rid of the elephant. But Olive does not know where to start.

I read this beautiful book in one sitting and as I read the lump in my throat grew bigger. This is a profoundly affecting story and yet not a depressing one. It takes skill to take a subject such as grief and depression and make it both understandable and relatable to young children and this treasure of a story does that beautifully. Each short chapter reveals a little more about the reason for Olive’s father’s sadness and the effect the death of Olive’s mother has had on this little family. Each of them is dealing with the loss in different ways. Her wise and funny Grandad has joined Olive and her father and takes over the care of his granddaughter with dedication. From the lovingly prepared packed lunches to the interesting exploratory walks when he collects Olive from school it is Grandad who provides the stability and the colour in her life.

There is a gentleness and warmth in the writing that is profoundly touching. Despite the sadness the relationships between the different generations of the family are loving and positive as is the friendship between Olive and Arthur. The little touches giving a glimpse of life at school and the detail of the walks Olive and Grandad take ‘side by side’ encourage a growing feeling of understanding and the development of a friendship with these characters. The reader, or this one at least, truly cares about them.

The short chapters, the charming illustrations so perfectly complementing the story, and the narrative voice all combine to make this an accessible and appealing book for children. Although mental health, grief and depression are difficult subjects to discuss this is a perfect book for addressing these issues for young readers. It would be applicable to depression or sadness brought about by other situations too and Olive is an inspiring little person for children to identify with. The plot is carefully constructed to give moments of joy and the ending is simply perfect. I loved this book very much, it is wise and kind and is the sort of book that could make a difference to its readers.

I should like to thank Poppy Stimpson and Pushkin Press for providing my review copy. The Elephant was published in the UK on 28th January and is available to purchase online at Waterstones or via your nearest independent bookshop which can be found on this map

This week marks Children’s Mental Health Week and publication of The Elephant is perfectly timed to coincide with this. There is more information for parents and schools available on the official website.

There were some aspects of this story that reminded me a little of Felix After the Rain a beautiful picture book that also deals with mental health in a kind and thoughtful manner.

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Reading Matters – children’s book news

Hello and welcome to this week’s look at what has been happening in the world of children’s books. Sometimes it is difficult to avoid the feeling that many aspects of life are on hold but there have been some positive events this week that are well worth highlighting. Both the Read for Empathy collections and the Branford Boase Longlist were announced this week. We need empathy more than ever and this initiative from Empathy Lab is both important and inspiring. It has been a particularly challenging year for debut authors and the Branford Boase Award is a welcome opportunity to celebrate with the authors and editors involved. There are details of both included below. On a personal note my 89 year old Dad received his first Covid vaccination this week and I had to resist the temptation to skip out of the Epsom racecourse grandstand! I hope you have had something to smile about this week too.

What I’m reading…

On Sunday I read The Elephant by Peter Carnavas in one sitting. It tells the story of a brave little girl trying to put back together the broken pieces of her family. A small book brimming with love and hope. I think it is utterly beautiful and will post a review soon.

The Hatmakers by Tamzin Merchant was a joy to read this week. I escaped to a magical alternative Georgian London and experienced feuds and dastardly villains but hope and friendship too. Thank you to Nikki Gamble and Just Imagine for my copy and my review for them will be completed this weekend.

The Read for Empathy collections were announced on Tuesday and I wrote about them here. I am impressed yet again by the quality of the list and grateful to all those involved in this initiative which is growing each year both in impact and importance.

The 2021 Branford Boase Longlist was also announced this week and this is a welcome opportunity to celebrate new authors, their editors and their stories in what has been a most difficult time to launch their debut. This wide ranging list includes titles suitable for both primary and secondary school children.

News, articles and resources...

The 2021 #ReadforEmpathy Book Collection is here! – this link to the official Empathy Lab website takes you to full information, including guides to the primary and secondary collections, an interview with the founder, Miranda McKearney and details of the previous collections too.

Reading for Pleasure Padlet – teacher Andrew Rough, originator of the #SundayMorningBookBlether chat on Twitter, has kindly compiled a selection of useful websites, blogs, Padlets, Facebook groups and discussions that provide inspiration for reading for pleasure.

ReadingZone Picture Book Competition 2021 – Reading Zone are challenging children and young people aged 4-18 years to create a picture book on or around World Book Day, with the launch of the ReadingZone Picture Book Competition 2021. Author and illustrator Mini Grey (The Last Wolf, Traction Man) will judge this year’s competition. The competition will run from January to Friday 23rd April. The winners will be announced in early June 2021. The link takes you to full details including tips from Mini herself and guidelines for entry.

The Windermere Children – I missed this programme when it was first shown so was grateful for the opportunity to watch the showing this week timed to coincide with. Holocaust Memorial Day. It tells the true story of the children who inspired Tom Palmer’s book, After The War.

Children’s Author Tom Percival on Sky News – this is a great interview in which Tom says that books are essential for children, encourages the support of independent bookshops and stresses the importance of reading for pleasure. Helped a little by his dog!

A brilliant UK and Ireland children and young adults’ booklist – as we remain in national lockdown this wonderful list of fifty books on the Tripfiction website allows children and young people to read their way around beautiful Britain and Ireland.

New presenters for children’s book radio show and podcast Down the Rabbit Hole – “Down the Rabbit Hole” is starting 2021 with a new presenting and production team, including author Sam Sedgman, Scholastic’s Hannah Love, Little Tiger’s Charlie Morris and The Bookseller‘s Caroline Carpenter. The new format for the show will involve picking a monthly theme, inviting guests and examining books that link to the month’s discussion topic.

Newbery and Caldecott 2021 Winners – a write up on the Pragmatic Mom blog of this year’s winners and honours lists for each of these prestigious US book awards. Michaela Goade became the first Native American to win the Caldecott Medal for her illustrations in the children’s book “We Are Water Protectors”.

Seven Stories Digital Author Event with Michael Morpurgo – Thursday 11th February 2021, 1.30pm Recommended age: Y3, Y4, Y5 & Y6. This event will be live streamed through a private YouTube link and last approximately 45 minutes, including a talk from Michael and a Q&A at the end. Michael will be talking about some of his best-loved books including War Horse, The Butterfly Lion, Shadow and Private Peaceful, as well as reading from his latest book, Boy Giant.

Reading Zone Book Club – this newsletter includes their featured authors for January, Children’s Author of the Month Cat Weldon introduces the Vikings and Norse Gods in How to be a Hero and YA Author of the Month is KL Kettle with The Boy I Am, a powerful dystopian novel exploring gender and power. There are also chapter extracts to download and information about their forthcoming book club events. This is a very useful website.

BookTrust Represents, Knights Of and CLPE unveil new Black British anthology Happy Here – BookTrust has teamed up with the inclusive publisher Knights Of and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) to produce a brilliant new anthology of stories from Black British authors and illustrators including Patrice Lawrence, Joseph Coelho, Onyinye Iwu and Selom Sunu. Happy Here, which is introduced by High Rise Mystery author Sharna Jackson, pairs ten Black writers and ten Black illustrators for stories and poems covering themes of joy, home and family.

Share A Story with World Book Day – the organisers of World Book Day launched the schedule of FREE events for the new Share A Story Live this week. Whether you’re at home or at school, join the £1 authors & illustrators in World Book Day week for 3 days of online fun from 3rd-5th March.

Children’s books roundup – the best new picture books and novels – another simply fabulous selection from Imogen Russell Williams. I always know I’m going to enjoy a book that Imogen recommends and I was happy to see two of my recent favourites included; The Valley of Lost Secrets by Lesley Parr and The House at the Edge of Magic by Amy Sparkes. I’m also reminded that I must buy Talk Like a River.

Lesson Plan: Discuss 22-year-old Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” – this article on PBS News provides a lesson in which students examine the poetry of Amanda Gorman, who was chosen to read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021. Gorman’s poem complemented Biden’s inaugural address and was written to reflect on “the history that we stand on, and the future that we stand for.” Thank you to the School Library Association for sharing this.

Children’s Bookshow Digital Festival 2021 – the organisers have programmed six brilliant LIVE digital author events over three days to celebrate World Book Day, and to encourage children to love reading and books. Line up includes Michael Rosen, Kwame Alexander, Catherine Johnson, Neal Layton and more. Thank you to Jon Biddle for sharing this.

Finally, some book reviews that caught my eye this week…

A Shelter for Sadness,’ by Anne Booth, illustrated by David Litchfield – a couple of weeks ago I shared a lovely interview with the creators of this new picture book which was published last week. This review by Jo Cummins and personal reflection on sadness by Anne Booth is a thoughtful read. A book I am very much looking forward to reading.

Too Small Tola & The Three Fine Girls by Atinuke and illustrated by Onyinye Iwu – a lovely review by Nicki Cleveland of this second book in the series about Tola. “There is so much love and laughter packed within the pages, and I loved seeing such a connected, diverse community supporting each other.”

Amari and the Night Brothers’, by B.B. Alston – this book is receiving a lot of attention at the moment, it is also included in the Guardian Best Children’s Books article above, and was already pencilled in on my wish list. This great review by Nick Campbell has made me even more enthusiastic. How can we resist a book described as, “a big-screen, 3D, popcorn-munching romp of a novel” and it’s the first of a series too!

Front Desk by Kelly Yang – this is a fabulous and insightful review by Sam Creighton for Just Imagine in which he discusses the various themes covered in this book published by Knight Of. In addition to being both important and relevant Sam also found it thoroughly enjoyable,  “I completely and whole-heartedly loved reading this book and I can’t think of a stronger recommendation than that.”

What We’re Scared Of by Keren David – this is another book that I have already mentioned in Reading Matters, with the interview with Keren David on the Awfully Big Blog Adventure. This excellent review by Clare Zinkin explains why this new book matters so much. Definitely a book for all secondary school library shelves.

That’s it for this week. A reminder that the coming week is National Storytelling Week and you can find out more on the official website. Happy reading!

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