Archive for the ‘Children’s Fiction Review’ Category

Review of Knights vs. Monsters, by Matt Phelan

Monday, November 23rd, 2020

Knights vs. Monsters

by Matt Phelan

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), 168 pages.
Review written June 1, 2019, from a library book.

Knights vs. Monsters is a sequel to Knights vs. Dinosaurs, where a band of knights from King Arthur’s Round Table brag a little too much about fighting dragons, and Merlin sends them back in time to try their skills against terrible lizards – dinosaurs.

In this book, the same knights are feeling a little bored in Camelot and aren’t having much luck searching for the Grail – so when a magic boat appears on a river, they board it and end up on an adventure in the Orkney Isles.

There they find a sorceress, Queen Morgause. She’s heard of their exploits, and now conjures up monsters for them to fight every night. All as part of a grand plot that threatens Camelot itself. Can the knights survive against fearsome monsters?

You’ll enjoy this a bit more if you’ve read the first book and met our characters. This will help you appreciate the title of a song a minstrel wrote, “Melancholy the Erstwhile Squire Who Is Now an Accomplished Archer.”

This book is a light-hearted diversion taking off from the legends of Arthur. With lots of battling monsters.

mattphelan.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of A Home for Goddesses and Dogs, by Leslie Connor

Saturday, October 31st, 2020

A Home for Goddesses and Dogs

by Leslie Connor

Katherine Tegen Books, 2020. 385 pages.
Review written August 17, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

A Home for Goddesses and Dogs is another heart-warming story by the author of The Truth According to Mason Buttle, a book I read during my Newbery year and loved in so many ways.

As the book begins, Lydia Bratches-Kemp, an eighth grader who’s been home-schooled, is setting out for a new home after her mother’s death. She gets to stay with her Aunt Brat and her wife Eileen on a farm in Connecticut owned by Elloroy, who had gotten too old to keep up with things. To add to her new family, shortly after Lydia arrives, Brat and Eileen decide to adopt a dog. Lydia’s not a dog person, so it takes her some time to get accustomed to the unruly and exuberant yellow dog they choose.

The book is about making friends, making a home, and making a new family. Lydia also has things to deal with in her memories of her mom, and about her dad who left them when her mom got sick. Lydia’s mom was an artist, and used to make goddesses when something came up they had to deal with, such as the Goddess of the Third Heart, made when her mom got passed up for the third time on the heart transplant list.

Lydia’s new school is small. She’s skeptical, but some girls offer to show her around the neighborhood, and she makes some connections that surprise her.

This is a feel-good story about finding home.

leslieconnor.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Fighting Words, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Thursday, October 8th, 2020

Fighting Words

by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2020. 259 pages.
Review written September 19, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Wow. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is better than any writer I know at instilling in my heart a fierce, compassionate love for girls who have come through abuse. That may sound like it’s a sordid, gritty story – but she manages to write about such things in a way that’s full of light and beauty.

I’m thinking of her Newbery Honor-winning book The War That Saved My Life along with this one. The books are totally different, but they both have beautiful young girls trying to make the best of things who don’t even realize that what they’ve been through is not normal and is not what they deserve.

Wait a second. I’m afraid that telling you that might put you off. So before I get into what this book is about, I need to tell you that you need to read this novel! And that your children older than 4th grade or so should read this novel! And that you and they will love it and you will love the characters and you will come away with a better understanding of how to stand together with anyone who’s being treated badly. This book has gotten SEVEN starred reviews – that’s every major book review publication. It’s that good.

Yes, Fighting Words deals with sexual abuse – but it happened in the past. When it comes out what happened, the description is not graphic or detailed at all. The fact is, it’s unfortunately true that one in ten children will be sexually abused before they are eighteen. So even if your child is not, they may have a friend who is. And although you might want to protect your child from even thinking about this, instead you can let them read about it in a beautiful context of love and grace through the safe pages of a book that shows a kid coping with it as best she can and with the help of supportive grown-ups.

Della (short for Delicious) is telling her story in this book. The author nicely gets around the problem of being realistic while not including lots of swear words by having Della say this at the beginning:

Suki says whenever I want to use a bad word, I can say snow. Or snowflake. Or snowy.

There’s a lot of snow in this story.

As the story begins, 10-year-old Della and her older sister Suki are in a new foster home in Tennessee, and Della’s starting at a new school. Their mother is incarcerated in Kansas, after having a psychotic break from overuse of meth. They can’t visit her and she wouldn’t recognize them if they did. But Suki has always taken good care of Della, especially in the five years since her mother was arrested.

During those years, Della and Suki were staying with Clifton, who was their mother’s current partner before she was incarcerated. But for some reason, they fled Clifton’s place. Now they’re in foster care and Della’s starting a new school and they’ve been sent to therapists, and Della’s writing out her story.

Della’s teacher isn’t very happy with Della and her frequent use of snowy language. Suki gets a job at the local grocery store and Della ends up having to go to an after-school program most days, and hangs out at the grocery store deli on Friday nights. But Della does make friends with some other girls in her class.

I’m going to talk about a truly wonderful scene toward the end of this book. I don’t think it’s really a spoiler, because this is only a subplot, but if you don’t want to hear about anything except the beginning of a book, stop right here.

There’s a boy in their class who copied an older friend by snapping girls’ bra straps. But fourth grade girls mostly don’t wear bras, so instead he gives the girls a hard pinch in the middle of their backs and calls them babies. This makes Della angry. When she responded by swearing at him, she got in trouble. When she responded by punching him, she got in trouble. But in a lovely scene later in the book, after she’s had some sessions with a therapist, here’s what happens:

I jumped to my feet. I spun around and stepped forward so my entire body was about an inch away from Trevor’s. I pulled my fist back to punch him.

And then I didn’t.

I didn’t punch him.

Instead I looked him straight in the eye. I said, loud and clear into the silence that had fallen on the class, “You just pinched me, and you need to stop. Never touch me again. Never touch me or any girl in this class without permission ever again.

At first, the teacher just wants Della to sit down. But one by one, six other girls stand up and back Della up. The teacher finally has to take it seriously. And she does affirm what Della said, that no one is allowed to touch anyone else without permission.

The whole series of incidents seems so much more realistic than if Trevor just reformed. We do get some insight into what he’s dealing with, but also that what will keep him in line is that he won’t get away with it. I loved the way Della found her pack and when she spoke up, her friends had her back. The book also acknowledged that everybody any of the girls had mentioned it to before this had not taken it seriously. But that this, too, is an issue of consent.

So yes, this book models good behavior learned from therapists – but it doesn’t feel canned and doesn’t feel trite. You see a girl with a fighting spirit trying to deal with awful things that have happened to herself and her sister. The overall message is that they will come through.

There’s an Author’s Note at the back, and it begins like this:

The first thing I want you to know is, it happened to me.

The second thing is, I was able to heal. It took time, and work, and I did it. People can always heal.

kimberlybrubakerbradley.com
penguin.com/middle-grade

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Superman Smashes the Klan, by Gene Luen Yang, art by Gurihiru

Wednesday, September 9th, 2020

Superman Smashes the Klan

by Gene Luen Yang
art by Gurihiru
lettering by Janice Chiang

DC Comics, 2020, 240 pages.
Review written September 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This fabulous graphic novel is based on a story told on the radio in the 1940s, and it’s wonderfully timely today. A Chinese family has moved to Metropolis. The older brother plays baseball and is welcomed on the neighborhood team at the “Unity Center,” sponsored by a priest, a pastor, and a rabbi. The younger sister, Roberta, misses their home in Chinatown.

But there’s a group that doesn’t want a Chinese family to move into their neighborhood – the Klan of the Fiery Kross – and they burn on cross on the Lees front lawn that night.

And you know what happens, because it’s in the title – Superman smashes the Klan! But along the way there’s plenty of danger and mixed loyalties and evil plots, and the kids get to ride with Superman as he – leaps. That’s right – Superman didn’t yet realize he could fly. In this book, Superman comes to terms with who he is, and that he, too, is an alien, even though his skin is white. And he learns to use more of his powers.

One of my favorite parts was a flashback to a time when teenager Clark Kent went to the circus with Lana Lang. Clark notices that the Strongman is the same guy who took their tickets. Their conversation goes like this:

What? No! That guy was bald! This guy’s got longer hair than mine!

Lana, he’s clearly wearing a wig!

Well. . . It’s not just that. Look at the way he carries himself! And that costume!

You like his costume?! He’s wearing his underwear on the outside!

Yeah, but he makes it work somehow.

Later the Strongman advises Clark, “The more colorful the costume, the better.”

It’s nice seeing Superman defeat bad guys who are still with us today.

The Grand Hornet of the Klan tells Superman that nothing binds us to people who don’t share our blood or our history. Superman responds by saying that we are bound together by the future. “We all share the same tomorrow.”

That’s right, Superman! Speak up for what’s right!

geneyang.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Monster and Boy, by Hannah Barnaby, illustrated by Anoosha Syed

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020

Monster and Boy

by Hannah Barnaby
illustrated by Anoosha Syed

Godwin Books (Henry Holt), 2020. 138 pages.
Review written August 22, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Monster and Boy is a charming beginning chapter book that tells about what happens after a mother tells her son during a bedtime story that there is no such thing as monsters.

The monster who lives under the bed and loves the boy hears the mother say this. He can’t resist. After the mother leaves, he decides to prove that she was wrong and shows himself to the boy. But things quickly get out of control.

“Hello,” the monster said.

The boy was silent. The monster thought maybe the boy couldn’t see him, so he made himself light up.

“Ta-da!” the monster said.

The boy took a deep breath and opened his mouth, and the monster knew he was going to scream.

The monster panicked. He did the only thing he could think of.

He swallowed the boy.

There’s a chapter discussing this with the reader. Then I like the part about what happens next:

The monster was instantly sorry that he’d swallowed the boy. The boy felt strange in his stomach, heavy and nervous. The monster did not like how it felt, and also he missed the boy terribly.

Then he heard a small voice from inside himself.

It was not his conscience. It was not his soul.

It was the boy.

“I’d like to come out, please,” said the boy.

“I’d like that, too,” the monster replied.

So their first problem is getting the boy out of the monster. But when they manage that, it turns out that the boy is now very small. So they must figure out how to get him back to his normal side.

This turns out to involve adventures downstairs (Monsters are terrified of going downstairs.) and an encounter with another monster – the boy’s little sister. Oh, and a swim in the toilet bowl.

It’s all wonderfully entertaining. The sentences are simple, and there are pictures on every page, but this story will make you laugh even if you mastered reading long ago.

The back cover says this book is introducing a new illustrated chapter book series, which is fantastic news for kids gaining confidence in their reading.

mackids.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Magic for Marigold, by L. M. Montgomery

Friday, August 7th, 2020

Magic for Marigold

by L. M. Montgomery

McClelland-Bantam, Toronto, 1988. Originally published in 1929. 274 pages.
Review written August 3, 2020, from my own copy, purchased for me by a friend at Green Gables in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island.

I’m still rereading all my L. M. Montgomery books, in honor of the trip I got to take to Prince Edward Island last Fall. I’ve slowed down my reading since the trip, but am still plugging away. After this one, I only have six of her novels left, and then the posthumous short story collections.

This particular copy of Magic for Marigold was brought to me from Prince Edward Island by a friend who had visited in 1988 – when the book had gone out of print in the United States but was coming out in paperback in Canada. The funny thing is that she brought me back two books – this one and also The Blue Castle — and they turned out to be my favorite (The Blue Castle) and least favorite (Magic for Marigold). Also interesting is that these two books were written the same year of L. M. Montgomery’s life.

Rereading Magic for Marigold many years later, I enjoyed it a lot more than I did the first time, because I knew what to expect. There’s no romance, and it amounts to essentially a series of short stories about a little girl as she grows from birth to age 12. L. M. Montgomery is a brilliant writer of short stories, and taken that way, this book is as delightful as her others.

Many themes that show up in the author’s other books are present here. Marigold’s father died before she was born, and she lives with her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother in the ancestral home, part of an enormous family of relations. The foibles of family are at the heart of many of the situations Marigold faces.

They live in a small farming community on Prince Edward Island. I always love the names L. M. Montgomery invents for farming communities on Prince Edward Island. This one is Harmony.

Marigold is an imaginative child with an imaginary friend she can meet with if she follows a certain ritual. Her trouble making flesh-and-blood friends is one of the ongoing themes of the book, though her imagination is seen as a strength, not a weakness.

One thing, though, I’m afraid I hate this time through – the ending. Marigold has finally made a good local friend, a boy. But then another new boy comes into town and the first boy stops playing with Marigold or doing things with her. Well, after a tiff between them, he comes back to Marigold – but then makes up with the other friend. Marigold learns that sometimes you need to share your friends, and that’s fine. She figures out she shouldn’t pretend to like things she doesn’t like – such as hunting snakes and digging for worms. That’s fine, too.

What I don’t like is what her aunt tells her. There’s some good stuff about how we have to share our friends with others. But I didn’t like when she inserted gender into it with these words: “We – women – must always share.” And with that background, Marigold’s last line bothered me: “’And I’ll always be here for him to come back to,’ she thought.”

As a friend, okay. I’m still a friend to my friends who go through a spell of not having time for me. I do like the principle that you can have more than one friend at a time. That even best friends can have more than one friend at a time. But that feeling of waiting in one place? No, Marigold, go off and have adventures, too! When that boy comes back, it’s okay if you’re busy having fun with other friends yourself.

But that’s a small thing. As with every single L. M. Montgomery book, reading this gave me a feeling of joy and a reminder to notice the beauty around me. And now I can think back to my time on Prince Edward Island and imagine the characters in that stunning setting.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The One and Only Bob, by Katherine Applegate

Saturday, July 25th, 2020

The One and Only Bob

by Katherine Applegate
read by Danny DeVito

HarperCollins, 2020. 4 hours.
Review written July 25, 2020, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

The One and Only Bob is a sequel to Newbery-winning The One and Only Ivan. It doesn’t pack as much of a punch as the first book, but I’m glad it doesn’t. Because the first book had the characters fighting a bad situation, and I don’t want these beloved characters up against injustice again.

This time, though, they’re up against a hurricane. The little dog Bob, wonderfully voiced with attitude by Danny DeVito, was with his humans visiting Ivan at the zoo when a hurricane and then a tornado struck. Bob didn’t stay with the humans – in fact, he flew through the air. In the story that follows, Bob is involved both in rescuing other animals and in being rescued. He also does some coming to terms with his past.

I thought the summary of what went on in the first book went on a little long. Surely it’s safe to assume that anyone reading this book has read the earlier book. However, once it got past that, Bob’s a fun dog to hang out with. There’s a glossary of doggy terms at the front which have a very believably doggy attitude. The fact that Bob and Ivan used to watch the Weather Channel on Ivan’s little TV at the mall means that Bob believably knows quite a bit about hurricanes.

There were some coincidences, yes. But it all makes for a fun story, and it’s great to spend time again with Bob, Ivan, Ruby, and their humans. We root for resourceful, though small Bob as he takes on a hurricane.

katherineapplegate.com

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Harbor Me, by Jacqueline Woodson

Sunday, July 5th, 2020

Harbor Me

by Jacqueline Woodson

Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin), 2018. 176 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 30, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#9 Contemporary Children’s Fiction

It’s unfortunate when you read as many children’s books as you can, all put out in the same year, when some of the books lose some of their impact because you’ve read a similar story already. Harbor Me reminds me of Between the Lines by Nikki Grimes. In both cases, you’ve got a group of kids from tough backgrounds coming to care about each other as they open up and share their stories. In Just Like Jackie, something similar happens. I’m a little tired of hearing about teachers pulling this off, because I’m starting to be skeptical – but at the same time, personal stories do have a powerful effect.

In the case of Harbor Me, it’s a group of six 5th and 6th graders in the same class. Every week, they get to meet for one hour in a room without a teacher and say whatever they want. They learn each other’s stories.

It begins with Esteban, whose father was taken away and put in a detention center. Esteban was born in America, but now his mother is afraid she’ll be taken, too.

And Haley, our narrator, who’s thinking back over the year, has a dad who was in prison. She’s lived with her uncle as long as she can remember.

This book isn’t poetry, but Jacqueline Woodson has a poet’s facility with language. This may also explain why my favorite parts of the book were Esteban’s father’s poems, which he wrote in the detention center and sent to his son, who translated them into English.

The book feels a little short – I’d like to know more about more of the kids’ stories – but it’s also refreshing to read a book for 5th graders that’s less than 200 pages long. This book is about kids on the margins, and it is short enough that kids on the margins themselves might not be intimidated by it.

The day I read this, I also reviewed Jacqueline Woodson’s new picture book, The Day It Begins — which is also about making friends by sharing your stories. We are all different, but we all have things in common. When we hear stories, we can find those things in common. The picture book tells about that, and the novel fleshes it out.

Yes. Let’s share stories. And then we’ll have people to harbor us when times are hard.

jacquelinewoodson.com
penguin.com/middle-grade

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Source: This review is based on a book sent by the publisher

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Doughnut Fix, by Jessie Janowitz

Wednesday, June 17th, 2020

The Doughnut Fix

by Jessie Janowitz

Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2018. 298 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 20, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#8 Contemporary Children’s Fiction

This book is a whole lot of fun to read. Doughnuts! What could be better?

Tristan and his two sisters get taken on a road trip one Saturday – and then told that they’re moving out of New York City to Petersville. Their parents have bought a ramshackle old house a bike ride away from the tiny center of town. His mother is going to open a restaurant.

When Tristan bikes into town the morning after they move, he spots a sign that makes him hungry – “Yes, we do have chocolate cream doughnuts!” Except the trouble is, the sign is a lie. Winnie, the lady in the general store says she quit making the doughnuts because they were so popular, it was too much bother to make them. They were so good, they were in the newspaper.

“Too much work. After that story, people came in here from all over, all hours of the day and night. Nearly drove me crazy. I really had no choice.”

Just in case you think you don’t get it, let me tell you, you do: the General Store’s chocolate cream doughnuts were so good, and people liked them so much, they decided not to make them anymore.

Tristan can’t stop thinking about those doughnuts. So when they’re told that they don’t need to start school until after Winter Break, and his parents tell them to work on a project – Tristan chooses to bring back the doughnuts to Petersville.

It’s not all that simple. He needs to get the recipe from Winnie, and then she wants him to make a business plan. He needs to negotiate a good price on the ingredients, and they have to get a business license, not to mention making the doughnuts and filling them with chocolate cream – despite his four-year-old sister’s “help.”

Maybe that all sounds boring, but the quirky characters in the town combined with Tristan’s unusual family and Tristan’s determination to get these doughnuts made – all add up to a funny and absorbing tale.

Of course, Tristan also needs to make a new friend – and he gains some insight about his former best friend. Meanwhile his gifted and talented sister Jeanine is having more trouble adjusting than he is, which comes as a surprise for him.

There are recipes in the back of the book plus tips on starting a business. The flap says that this is the first book in a series – that makes me happy, because these characters are a whole lot of fun.

Beware, though – This book will make you hungry.

jessiejanowitz.com
jabberwockykids.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a book sent by the publisher.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Out of Left Field, by Ellen Klages

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020

Out of Left Field

by Ellen Klages

Viking, 2018. 314 pages.
Starred Review
Review written September 3, 2018, from a book sent by the publisher
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#7 Historical Children’s Fiction

This book is historical fiction set in 1957 when San Francisco is about to get a major league baseball team, the Giants. Katy Gordon is the best pitcher in the neighborhood, and she’s thrilled when she tries out for Little League and makes the team. But when they find out she’s a girl, she’s not allowed to play, and she gets an official letter from Little League saying baseball has always been a man’s sport.

Katy suspects that’s not true. She starts at the library and discovers a woman who struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig – consecutively.

One thing leads to another. Katy interviews women, writes letters, and does more research – and uncovers hundreds of women who played professional baseball, some in their own leagues, some in the Negro leagues, and some as barnstormers playing exhibition games along with men.

It’s interesting how much fun it is to read about a kid doing research. Back in 1957, most of these women were still alive, and Katy was able to meet them and talk with them. And Katy’s research is interwoven with her baseball games and perfecting her pitching. I like the part when she gets to pitch to Willie Mays!

With all the kids’ books I’ve been reading, it was refreshing that even though Katy’s best friend Jules got assigned to a different teacher this year, and even though she doesn’t like playing baseball and has other interests instead – the girls stay friends and stay supportive of each other. What’s more, there are no dead parents in this book! Okay, Katy’s parents are divorced, but this doesn’t seem to be traumatic in her life and her father sends supportive messages.

I learned a whole lot about women’s baseball by reading this book – but all the information never got in the way of the story of Katy, the best pitcher in the neighborhood.

penguin.com/YoungReaders

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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