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Posts Tagged ‘leadership & social change’

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story From Iraq

by Jeanette Winter

Harcourt, 2005

32 pages

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq

by Mark Alan Stamaty

Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

32 pages

When the United States, Britain, and George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq in 2003, the human toll of the operation was the only thing more upsetting to me than the destruction and looting of museums, ancient landmarks, and cultural resources.

I knew that the loss of Iraq’s landmarks and artifacts was not just about the Iraqi people. It was about all of us, because we all trace our history back to the early civilizations represented by those irreplaceable treasures.

Since then, I’ve wondered what happened – what is happening – to Iraq’s cultural repository. How much was lost to the war, and did anyone ever manage to protect what was so important?

Not long ago, I discovered just a small part of the answer to that question when my local library held a book club event for children. The featured book was Jeanette Winter’s The Librarian of Basra.

Inspired by a New York Times article, this picture book tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baqr (sometimes spelled Baker), who was the Basra city librarian at the time of the war. After reading Winter’s book and researching Baqr further, I discovered a second book about her: Mark Alan Stamaty’s graphic novella Alia’s Mission.

Alia’s story is this. She was head of the busy public library in downtown Basra, where people came to read and discuss ideas. Following the 2003 invasion, rumors reached Basra that the British were coming to take the city. Afraid that fighting would destroy the library, Alia asked Basra’s mayor for permission to move the books. He not only said no, he turned the library into a military command post, making it an even likelier target.

That was the last straw for Alia. She secretly recruited her friend Anis, who owned a restaurant next door, and other concerned citizens to help her. They began smuggling books over the wall to Anis’s restaurant and down the street to Alia’s home. The British did take Basra, and the library did burn – but not before Alia and her friends had saved about 30,000 volumes.

Winter lays out this story in just a few sentences, accompanied by simple but richly colored illustrations. Her book is suitable for children of any age.

Stamaty goes into a bit more detail, in a version that is suitable for elementary ages. He fleshes out Alia’s motivation for saving the books, the contributions of the Ottoman Empire, the participation of Alia’s husband and Basra’s citizens. He also tells the end of the story: following a stroke caused by stress, Alia recovered and oversaw the construction of a new library.

There are so many inspirational elements to Alia’s story: her courage, her civil disobedience, her tenacity, her ability to galvanize others. But what I really loved – and what most inspired my daughter – was the fact that this is a story about books.

There’s a reason so many authoritarian regimes deny girls an education, censor or even burn certain books, or deny freedom of the press. Because books make people think. A non-reading, unthinking populace is easy to control. But readers, like the men and women who visited the Basra library, absorb ideas and talk about them. And thinking, idea-sharing people are dangerous people.

Books can also be important tools for becoming better versions of ourselves. Books and other written materials have longed help to spread ideas – whether religious, scientific, political, or artistic – that have saved lives, encouraged compassion, promoted peace, and shared beauty.

As Stamaty points out, that’s why Alia considered “her” books worth the risk of rescue. She had the vision to understand that Basra and its people are better off with their library intact. Especially for a girl living in a free, developed nation, where reading is a mundane activity, Alia’s story is an inspiring reminder of the importance of books and the lengths a courageous woman will go to preserve them.

 

 

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Call the Midwife

by Jennifer Worth

Penguin, 2012

3 volumes

I love BBC TV. Even the old shows, with their fuzzy camera work and costumes that look as if they came out of a long-neglected dress-up bin. I don’t have cable, however, and can’t get PBS over my TV antenna, so I have to make do with whatever Netflix has in its stockpile.

Thankfully, that stockpile is rather considerable, but it’s not very current. So when my English mother-in-law started raving about a new show titled Call the Midwife, I had no way of watching it right off the bat. Right about the time it finally showed up on Netflix, I learned that the show is based on true events–more specifically, a memoir of the same name.

Being me, I thought, “Why watch the TV show when I can read the books?!” and headed off to the library. I still intend to watch the show (in fact, this is the first time that a book has left me feeling more eager to see its TV/movie adaptation), but I’m glad I read the books first. Experiencing the stories as nonfiction, firsthand accounts, knowing that author Jennifer Worth and her friends lived every gritty detail, was incredibly inspiring.

Call the Midwife tells the story, in three fairly short volumes, of the time Worth spent training as a nurse-midwife in the East End of 1950s London. For those not familiar with London’s social history, the East End was the city’s poorest neighborhood, the site of centuries-old slums. It was also the site of the Docklands, Hitler’s prime target during the Blitz; bombed-out buildings (many of them inhabited by drug addicts, pimps, and gang members) dotted the neighborhood.

Worth comes to the East End looking for an adventurous escape from her mundane middle-class background. Thinking she will be training in a hospital, she is surprised to discover that she will actually be living and working out of a convent–her mentors are an order of nuns who have been providing nursing and midwifery services to the East End since Victorian times. Medical care and births take place in the East Enders’ homes, which are often at a level of squalor Worth has never before imagined, let alone encountered.

Over time, she forms fast friendships with her fellow trainees and with the nuns (who are not nearly as stuffy and rigid as she thought they would be) and comes to admire the dignity, tenacity, and sheer survivability of her patients.

Her memoir is full of incredible characters and situations, many of them seeming to come straight out of a Dickens novel. And as in Dickens, many of them are dark and unhappy. Worth tells of a mother and father who smother their newborn because they simply cannot fathom having another mouth to feed; of a pregnant teenage who is rescued from prostitution, only to suffer a nervous breakdown when her newborn is taken away for adoption; of families who turn to incest for relief from the emotional and mental trauma of extreme poverty.

But just when the darkness seems unbearable, Worth finds rays of light. Conchita Warren nurses her dangerously premature 25th (yes, 25th) baby to health, in defiance of doctors’ dire predictions. Julie fights through devastating personal loss to become the successful first mistress of her family’s 100-year-old pub. Families gather with awe and love around babies delivered in clean but ragged hovels, in the midst of raucous Christmas celebrations, in a haze of soot fallen from a dilapidated fireplace.

There’s inspiration in the convent, too. Ninety-year-old Sister Monica Joan, furious at Victorian society’s treatment of poor women, defied her aristocratic family’s wishes to work in the East End. Big, brassy Sister Evangelina clawed her way out of poverty, working dangerous jobs in munitions factories, to become the order’s most expert general nurse. And trainee Chummy, vilified by her upper-class family for her complete lack of social graces and her desire to be a missionary, finds fulfillment as an intuitive and gifted midwife.

Worth tells how these women, and the ones who came before them, brought some relief from suffering to the East End. They worked through cholera and typhoid epidemics, the Blitz, and the AIDS crisis. On their watch, the area’s maternal and infant mortality rates plummeted. Terminally ill residents died with dignity at home, instead of neglected in workhouse infirmaries. Traumatized and outcast people found love, acceptance, and purpose in the convent.

Though these women could not eliminate the dire circumstances that oppressed their patients, they could make a very real difference in individual lives. And the East Enders loved them for it–Worth points out that, while police officers had to travel the streets in pairs for safety, the nuns and nurses could roam alone without fear. Her memoir is an inspiring reminder of the very real impact of perseverance, of continuing to do good works in even apparently hopeless conditions. So long as one life is touched, she shows, no cause is truly lost.

Content note: Call the Midwife contains graphic accounts of childbirth, squalid living conditions, violence, sexual exploitation and assault, and other situations that might offend or upset some readers.

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Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya

by Donna Jo Napoli; ill. by Kadir Nelson

Simon & Schuster, 2010

40 pages

I’ve written before about my desire to raise my daughter with a nuanced view of Africa, one that’s more multi-dimensional than the depressing and patronizing portrayal in popular media.

Part of what I want her to understand is that we (meaning white Westerners) do not need to “save” Africa. It is not a monolith peopled and governed entirely by helpless, ignorant victims and violent, power-mad warlords. Rather, it is a place of varied cultures, histories, and people, many of whom are acting with courage, intelligence, and great effectiveness to improve their nations.

In other words, I want her to know that we do not need to step in, like arrogant colonialists, to “fix” the region. Rather, we need to be humble and helpful, partnering with suffering people in a way that supports dignity, their unique communities, and the good works of native leaders.

So when I found Mama Miti at our local library, it had to come home with us. I love Kadir Nelson’s work anyway, and I could see at a glance that this picture book carries an inspiring message about the power of one woman to help others, both on a personal and national level.

Mama Miti is the nickname of Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Born in rural Kenya in 1940, Maathai became the first woman in central or east Africa to earn a Ph.D., and the first woman to head a Kenyan university department (the department of veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi).

Through her work as a veterinarian, she became a pioneer in the fields of sustainable development and ecological preservation. She was arrested numerous times over the years for her activism, but her work so inspired the Kenyan people that she was elected to Kenya’s Parliament in 2002.

Mama Miti is the story of how Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots effort to reforest Kenya and other African nations.

In elegant, straightforward text, repeating the phrase “Thaya nyumba–Peace, my people,” Donna Jo Napoli tells how women from all over Kenya came to Maathai’s home in Nairobi to seek her advice. One had no food for her family, so Maathai told her to plant the fruit-bearing mubiru muiru tree. Another lamented that her spring had become polluted, so Maathai told her to plan the mukuyu tree, which naturally filters water.

Others had starving, sick, or predator-ravished livestock; dilapidated homes; low-yielding crops; or not enough firewood. For each problem, Maathai suggested a tree that would help. Her solutions were so effective that they developed into the Green Belt Movement, which spread like wildfire. Since 1976, when the movement began, Maathai and her protegees have planted more than 30 million trees.

Nelson’s paintings, made using oil paints and fabrics on gessoed board, pay homage to East Africa’s rich heritage of textile art. Their vibrant colors and energy show the true beauty of Kenya and its people. With many of the images dominated by just one or two female figures, he captures the strength and tenacity of the Kenyan women and the personal nature of Maathai’s leadership.

This is indeed a living, breathing Africa–not the one-dimensional cutout seen in the news. Napoli and Nelson don’t downplay the women’s problems; in fact, art and text together dramatically portray the anguish and anxiety that brings the women to Nairobi. But this is ultimately a story of hope, of how encouragement from an empathetic leader can empower downtrodden women to help themselves, their families, their villages, and (ultimately) their nation.

It’s also an example of why I love picture books so much. In just 40 short pages, Napoli and Nelson present a subtle, impactful, true story that engages the reader as much as any epic novel. It has pathos, courage, and rawness. The final image, of Maathai herself, is close to monumental.

It’s a wonderful kind of inspiration: a testament to the power of kindness, peace, and determined women.

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Abigail Adams

by Alexandra Wallner

Holiday House, 2001

32 pages

Grade-school lessons about the women’s movement are pretty limited in scope. They tend to focus on the women’s suffrage campaigns of the late 1800s and early 1900s, then skip ahead to the ’60s and ’70s and the battle over the ERA.

As a result, young girls can come away with the impression that the women’s movement (or any progressive movement, really) consists of isolated, dramatic showdowns, with nothing significant happening in between.

The reality, of course, is completely different.

While those dramatic showdowns are great for wide-reaching legislative or judicial gains, they’re only the culmination of days, months, years, even decades of day-to-day choices on the part of equality-minded men and women everywhere.

A dad tells his daughter he’s proud of her good grades, and she realizes that being a girl isn’t just about being pretty. A scientist mentors a woman protegee, and a male-dominated field gains one more female. A teacher corrects a child who says something offensive, and classmates learn to think outside stereotypes.

Or, of course, a caregiver reads an inspiring book, and a child learns to think of women as strong, capable, and smart. Alexandra Wallner’s picture book biography of Abigail Adams is one of those inspiring books you can read to very young girls (or boys, for that matter).

When I was a kid, Abigail Adams didn’t get much attention: she was notable primarily as the only woman to be both the wife and mother of a president. In recent years, however, blockbuster biographies, major miniseries, and the popularity of the revived musical 1776 have brought Abigail into the public eye.

She was quite the woman, it turns out, and Wallner’s biography really highlights her intelligence, her importance, and her revolutionary ideas.

Abigail’s egalitarian consciousness developed early, we learn, when her wealthy parents allowed only her brother to go to school. Undaunted, she educated herself by reading avidly in the family’s library and eavesdropping on the grown-ups’ conversations.

She fell in love with her husband because he was intelligent and respected her intelligence. Knowing that, in Colonial society, “her future depended on her husband,” Abigail chose John because she thought he would treat her as an equal.

As their marriage progressed, Abigail proved her mettle. She managed their large estate when John traveled, led Colonial women in boycotts of British goods, and wrote John with ideas and advice that he shared with George Washington.

John supported her through it all–except when she wrote passionately that the new nation’s constitution should include equal rights for women and freedom for slaves.

Despite his rebuff, however, she held to her principles and implemented them in her daily life. She saw her daughters fully educated, taught black servants to read and write, and continued to speak out for equal rights.

Wallner’s straightforward text and simple, folk-art-style illustrations evoke Abigail’s strong and direct nature. At the same time, they capture the salient emotions of Abigail’s life–her contentment in learning, her determination in her work, her pain at John’s rebuff, and her happiness in their well-earned retirement years.

The book shows girls that progress doesn’t always come dramatically, and not all heroines grab headlines. You don’t have to be interested in the limelight to make a very real and lasting impact. Wallner also shows that, even when progress is not all we hoped it would be, we can still find some way to make a difference here and now.

More than anything, I love the way Wallner goes behind the canonized narrative to demonstrate Abigail’s importance. It’s the kind of book that leaves girls asking, “If she was so important, and I haven’t heard much about her, who else haven’t I heard about?”

Inspiration to look behind the curtain, learn more, dig deeper–is there anything better?

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The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009

451 pages

Starting with today’s post, I’ve added a new age category: young women. Books under this heading are appropriate for the age group I like to think of as “grown-up girls.” They’re mature teens and college students, the oldest of the next generation of women. They’re not yet independent adults, but they’re capable of reading, understanding, and processing adult literature.

Growing up, I understood very little of the long-term impact of slavery on our nation’s racial landscape. Raised initially in an integrated community with friends and classmates of many races, I was familiar with the term Jim Crow but thought segregation (both legalized and de facto) and racism were a thing of the past.

Then, in my middle school years, my family moved to an all-white, rural Southern town–and I came face-to-face with de facto segregation and modern-day white paternalism and supremacy. Both offended and curious at the same time, I tried to dig deeper but met with little success. Our school curriculum didn’t address slavery or its legacy in any meaningful way, and neither did the adults in the community. When I asked questions of white adults who had lived through Jim Crow, they usually just stared (sometimes angrily) or gave vague non-responses.

It was a different matter when I got to college, where I loaded up on classes and books about race and the South. When I got out of college, I kept reading on the subject (in fact, it was Freedom’s Daughters, one of those post-college books, that inspired me to start this blog).

And that brings me to Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I heard about the book soon after it came out; when I had finished it, I was so inspired that I immediately read Susan Tucker’s Telling Memories Among Southern Women, the nonfiction book that had galvanized Stockett.

Set in 1960s Mississippi, this novel is the story of three women. Aibilene is a black maid in her 60s who specializes in caring for young children. Her best friend Minny, also a black maid and the county’s best cook, is roughly a generation younger. And Skeeter is an upper-class white woman, recently returned home after graduating from college.

All three women are in transition. Aibilene, recently hired by Skeeter’s friend Elizabeth, is grieving the recent death of her 24-year-old son. Minny, unable to find normal work because of her reputation for “mouthing off” and a smear campaign conducted by Skeeter’s friend Hilly, is secretly teaching the lower-class Celia how to keep house for a wealthy husband. For her part, Skeeter is struggling to reconcile her own awkwardness and career ambitions with intense social pressure to become a typical Mississippi belle.

The three become more than just passing acquaintances when Skeeter, growing increasingly piqued by racial injustice and social constraints, invites Aibilene to help her compile a no-holds-barred collection of black maids’ stories about their white employers. Aibilene, embittered by white indifference to the accident that killed her son, agrees and pulls in Minny and several other friends.

As they work in secret to create the book, the three women find themselves learning much about themselves, each other, and the true stories–and natures–of their friends, family members, and employers.

What I love most about this book is how real it feels. The first-person narration has something to do with it, but Stockett has also managed to craft a story that transitions smoothly between deep heartbreak, the mundanities of daily life, and laugh-out-loud humor without ever seeming maudlin or melodramatic. I think it also helps that much of the book resonates with my own experiences. I’ve felt or witnessed firsthand the tight corset of Southern social mores, the dismissive stereotypes tossed out by Skeeter’s mother, and Hilly’s special brand of insidious, racist cruelty.

But what makes the book inspiring is how the three women rise above it all. Aibilene’s quiet, steely resolve is amazing, the more so for the heartbreak behind it. Minny’s courage is equally so; despite her initial (and very understandable) reluctance, she ends up not only participating in Skeeter and Aibilene’s project but also leaving her abusive husband. Skeeter, meanwhile, meets the man of her dreams–and he actually proposes. But when maintaining the relationship means hiding her role in the book, Skeeter chooses integrity, single womanhood, and a literary career in New York.

Even the novel’s most problematic aspect inspires me. As Stockett herself admits in an afterword, the book is “too little, too late,” a long-overdue atonement for her wealthy white family’s part in taking advantage of and perpetuating Mississippi’s Jim Crow sytem.

In a sense, Stockett’s right: it’s too late to help her family’s black servants, or any of the other men and women who suffered under Jim Crow. But it’s not too late to educate people like me, to help us see another brick or two in the massive wall the black community has had to surmount in this nation, and to help us understand why we must keep tearing down the wall and make sure never to rebuild it.

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Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile

by Gloria Houston; ill. by Susan Condie Lamb

HarperCollins, 2011

32 pages

I love books about books. Or, perhaps more accurately, I love books about people who love books.

Partly, I’m just a book geek. Books have been my prime object of fascination since I was a preschooler. It’s not just about the reading–it’s about the experience of holding a book and turning the pages, the craft of book design and bookmaking, the process writers and illustrators go through to create their books.

I’m also always on the lookout for fellow bibliophiles. I like to discuss plot lines and themes and story conflicts the way sports fans discuss spectacular Super Bowl or World Series plays. My upper-division college lit classes were my personal idea of utopia. But bibliophiles, always a rare species, seem to be getting even rarer, so I appreciate the fictional ones almost as much as I do the real thing.

I also love books about readers because they help to validate reading as a worthwhile pursuit. When I was a kid, often picked on for being a “bookworm,” books about readers helped me feel less alone. They reinforced my reading instinct, showed me that I wasn’t crazy to find reading fun or rewarding.

Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile, based on the real-life story of librarian Dorothy Thomas, is the perfect book for a lonely bookworm–or any other girl who loves books and reading.

The title character, Dorothy Thomas, is a book lover of the highest order. From childhood, she dreams of being a librarian. She earns the requisite degrees, but then finds herself living in a rural North Carolina town with no library. What’s a smart, ambitious bibliogirl to do?

Enter Miss Dorothy’s book-loving neighbors. Over her objections–she insists that a library must be a brick-and-mortar building–they raise money for a bookmobile and appoint her to run it. For years, she drives the bookmobile around the Blue Ridge Mountains where she lives.

Then, finally, an appreciative reader donates a small house to serve as a permanent library. The townspeople renovate it and donate books to fill it, and Miss Dorothy settles in. She wins awards; reporters come to interview her; and readers who have grown up and moved away send back letters expressing their love for her and the books she shared with them.

I love this book for many reasons. There’s Miss Dorothy’s trailblazing spirit–the vast majority of women of her generation didn’t even attend college, let alone earn graduate degrees–and her toughness (she drives her bookmobile through blizzards and floods). There are Gloria Houston’s spare, lyrical text and Susan Condie Lamb’s gentle but lively watercolors. Houston beautifully captures the everyday drama and humor of Miss Dorothy’s life; Lamb offers a window on Miss Dorothy’s ebullient personality and the townspeople’s helpful and exuberant spirits.

But the greatest inspiration in this picture book is in yet another place. I’ve written before about the importance of teaching girls how to triumph through failure. Miss Dorothy’s story teaches a related lesson: how to bloom where you’re planted.

The reality is that our girls’ lives won’t necessarily turn out the way they expect. Marriage, children, illness, tragedy, an inspiring encounter, recognition of a need–these are just some of the reasons our girls may end up in unexpected places or among unexpected people.

And what does a strong, creative girl or woman do in those circumstances? She does a Miss Dorothy. She’s honest with herself about any sadness or loss, but then she seizes the opportunity to fulfill her dream in a new way–or even finds an entirely new dream.

In other words, she lives life as it really is: ever-changing, sometimes full of twists of turns, but always with the potential for fulfillment if you know where to look. And, as Miss Dorothy’s story shows, in doing so she’s likely to inspire the next generation to do the same.

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Today is International Women’s Day, an opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of women and to speak out for gender equality. Given the focus of this blog, I thought it would be appropriate to celebrate the day by suggesting a few ways you can help women and girls at home and around the world.

Support Literacy and Education

Throughout much of the East and Africa, the literacy gap between men and women is significant–and almost always to the detriment of women. In Afghanistan, one of the most extreme examples, literacy is at 43% for men and 12% for women. Yes, you read that correctly: 12%. Other countries with significant disparities include Sudan (72% for men, 51% for women), Pakistan (69% for men, 30% for women), and Laos (83% for men, 63% for women). (Source: CIA World Factbook)

Why does it matter? Because education and literacy go hand in hand–and literate, educated girls are better equipped to live independently, to earn a good living, and to stand up for themselves and against oppression. Moreover, studies show that women are far more likely than men to use the rewards of education (money, status, etc.) to help their families and communities. In other words, helping girls and women helps everyone. (LearnVest, a women’s finance group, has a great article on this.)

So what can you do? Donate to organizations that improve women’s and girl’s literacy. Volunteer with a local program that helps refugee women and girls learn English, learn to read, or succeed in school. If you want to get extreme, head overseas as a volunteer or staff member for an organization that improves girls’ educational opportunities.

Vote

Those who govern us make a huge impact on girls and women both in the United States and overseas. At the state and local level, our leaders and officials make a myriad of decisions that affect the daily lives of women and girls. They can set incentives for women-owned businesses, get serious about domestic violence and sex crimes, make our communities welcoming (or not) for refugee families, and uphold educational equality.

At the federal level, our President and Congress make decisions about issues like equal pay for equal work, women’s healthcare, and family leave time. They also decide whether to allocate foreign aid to gender-focused initiatives, and they appoint our nation’s representatives abroad, the diplomats who can put U.S. clout behind efforts to aid women and girls overseas.

There are so many issues that dramatically affect women and girls–you don’t have to be aware of them all. My suggestion is that you choose the one or few that most resonate with you and find the the candidates who feel the same. Vote for them, and then hold them accountable if they win.

Mentor a Girl

If you’re a woman who’s at least of college age, this is a great way to have a significant, positive impact on the next generation of women. It’s a particularly helpful option if you want to make a meaningful connection with girls but don’t have children of your own or don’t work in a child-centered field. And our nation is so large and diverse that there are mentoring opportunities to suit pretty much any personality type and schedule.

If you want to go through an organization, try volunteering with Girl Scouts or Big Sisters. Or think of interests or skills you have and how you can translate those into mentoring opportunities; if you love the arts, for instance, you may be able to find a mentee through a local children’s theatre group or children’s symphony. Are you a woman working in a male-dominated field? Contact local schools and offer to host a question-and-answer session or even sponsor a club for girls who are interested in the same profession. And don’t forget your existing connections; if you attend church or synagogue, for instance, the congregation’s youth group may need volunteers.

However you choose to do it, the idea is to do something. Find your own personal way to encourage and uplift women and girls, especially those in difficult circumstances. In short, get out there and do some inspiring!

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