Review of Art Matters, by Neil Gaiman

Art Matters

Because Your Imagination Can Change the World

by Neil Gaiman
illustrated by Chris Riddell

Review written March 25, 2019, from a library book
William Morrow (HarperCollins), 2018.
Starred Review

This little book consists of four essays by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations on every page by Chris Riddell. I’m pretty sure I’d read my two favorites before, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming” and “Make Good Art.” They are wonderful, and I was eager to read them again, in illustrated form. In fact, I so much wanted to hear these ideas again, I checked out and listened to the short audiobook, narrated by Neil Gaiman. I love his accent and can listen to him forever, so it was all the more wonderful to hear his inspiring thoughts read with his own voice.

Then after listening, I checked out the print book so I could catch some quotes for Sonderquotes.

This book contains inspirational thoughts about the power of ideas, about reading and libraries, about procrastinating, and about becoming an artist who makes good art. It doesn’t take long to read, but it will leave you inspired.


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Conference Corner: 2019 ALSC Preconference

Last weekend I spent at ALA Annual Conference. It was in Washington, DC, this year, so I drove in early each morning and drove home each night. I had an awesome time, and now I’m going to post my notes and pictures from all the inspiring sessions.

The first event happened on Friday, a preconference sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children that honored the Honor book winners for various awards — Newbery, Caldecott, Geisel, Sibert, Pura Belpre, and Batchelder Awards. Since the winners get to give speeches but not the Honor books, this is an opportunity to hear from the other honored authors and illustrators and publishers, and I didn’t want to miss it.

I found two of my fellow Newbery committee members to sit with and we all three chose to go to the sessions where “our” honor authors were featured.

First was an intro session where the 22 honored individuals told three things about themselves. These were fun and light-hearted. I got not-very-good pictures of our Honor authors Veera Hiranandani, author of The Night Diary:

and Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of The Book of Boy:

Then came lunch, and Caldecott-Honor-winning illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal sat at our table, so we had the fun of getting to know her a little bit.

The first panel after lunch was called “Who Am I? Where Do I Fit In?” The panelists were Leo Espinosa, Belpre illustrator of Islandborn, Claudia Bedrick, Batchelder publisher of Jerome by Heart, Juana Martinez-Neal, Caldecott illustrator of Alma and How She Got Her Name, David Bowles, Belpre author of They Call Me Guero, and Catherine Gilbert Murdock, Newbery author of The Book of Boy.

I’ll write out my notes from the panel.

Question: How do your books resonate with kids who feel they don’t fit in?

Leo: He gets to choose the stories he wants to illustrate. His job is to amplify those messages. He offers reflection and empathy. Some kids see themselves in the books. Some kids feel empathy and want to know these kids who aren’t like themselves. As an illustrator, he has the luxury of adding mini-stories within the big story (such as showing a family with two fathers).

David: Identity and belonging is the core of the story. Kids who are different from a group while simultaneously in that group and feeling solidarity with that group. With light skin, he’s treated differently inside the community. There’s a cognitive dissonance — privileged and oppressed at the same time. Any child can identify with this.

Juana: To fit in is to know who they are, and that’s why she wrote Alma. She couldn’t see herself in picture books. Latinx fit into so many different groups, and that’s why she made Alma. She hopes more kids will see themselves.

Claudia: Jerome By Heart was intentionally about two boys, because if it had been two girls being so tender with each other, it wouldn’t have been so special. In France, two boys holding hands and declaring love is taboo.

We’re shaped in who we are by the responses we receive. This child’s buoyant expression of his personality is not readily embraced by his parents. It shows agency and embracing one’s identity.

Catherine: Her character is an orphan in a goat shed. None of her readers can relate to that, but kids deep dive into it. Kids make it part of them.

Question: Do you write more for reflection or for empathy?

David: He’s primarily thinking of a particular group of students when writing. Kids that need him to write stories about themselves. But other kids need to hear the story as well. The universal comes through the specific.

Claudia: The author of Jerome at Heart was focused on telling the best, truest story about these kids as he could. Every good story promotes empathy. You’ll come away slightly changed.

Leo: He realized the book would be important for Latinx kids. But it’s also important for other kids. He’s read it to Latinx kids, but also to white Mormon kids, and the response is similar.

Juana: She prefers “underrepresented” to “marginalized.” Alma is just about that specific little girl. She hopes this book won’t only be enjoyed by Hispanic communities. We all have names, and we all have families.

Catherine: She had to consider her audience in choosing the words for her book because they need to be understandable for a variety of reading levels.

David: He chimed in that kids are sophisticated thinkers but don’t necessarily have the vocabulary required.

Question: How do you feel about groups you’ve found in publishing circles?

David: The Latinx caucus of children’s publishing tend to gravitate toward each other and there’s a larger community of authors of color. It’s nice to have people helping guide you through it.

Juana: She’ll often spot another author of color across the room.

As far as publishing, editors help her find a balance between what she wants to do and what can be put in a book and what people will understand.

Leo: He doesn’t write his own stories. English not being his first language makes writing scary. He uses illustrations as an international language.

Claudia: Her experience as a small independent publisher is very different from a big publisher. It’s a very different community. There’s a big power difference between indie publishers and the Big Five. She doesn’t hear about “trends.”

Question: Talk about balancing the tension of what we want the world to be and how the world could be.

Catherine: Her big goal is to take readers of all ages back so they’ll say about medieval times: “It was really weird!” If you can appreciate the different values of that time, you can appreciate different values today. We’re part of a big puzzle, and the puzzle is more complicated than we realize.

David: Guero wants the life he lives to be allowed to exist. Guero isn’t looking for perfection — he’s looking for respect for the autonomy of his community. Kids on the border have to grapple with what’s happening to kids their own age.

Claudia: Depicting characters as actors with agency is all about “What If?” So much we live within can be changed.

Leo: He struggled with depicting “the monster” — how to put a really cruel dictatorship into a children’s book? The beautiful part is that the characters are able to defeat the monster.

Juana: She hints at a dark part of history when she depicts Camilla taking a stand.

The second panel was called “Rough Grace.”

Participants in this panel were Veera Hiranandani, Newbery author of The Night Diary, Don Brown, Sibert author of The Unwanted, Gail Jarrow, Sibert author of Spooked!, Brian Lies, Caldecott illustrator of The Rough Patch, and Nathan Rostron, Batchelder publisher of Run for Your Life.

Question: How do you define grace? Rough grace?

Veera: Grace is not an intentional thing. Nisha carries herself with grace in rough times. It’s part of who she is, and it’s not intentional.

Nathan: There are many definitions of grace and graciousness. In the book, set in Sicily, it’s the idea of salvation from on high. What do you do when you can’t rely on outside forces to help? Need to find salvation in yourself and find people to help.

Brian: Rough grace is peace or acceptance through or in spite of adversity. His character’s grace comes because he can’t help being who he is. Souls and stones both get their luster through adversity. It’s not necessarily acceptance, but simply being.

Don: He hasn’t come to a conclusion about grace. There’s no grace when you watch your family drown in the Mediterranean. Or dying in a gas attack. Hemingway romanticizing war was wrong. He’s left not knowing.

Gail: Grace is a gift bestowed on others. The gift of history given to us — we can learn from it. We can learn from the history of The War of the Worlds. There’s a gift bestowed on us from what happened in history. Rough grace is like tough love. Some lessons from history are tough.

Question: How do people go on? How do you wrestle with that as a writer of books for young people?

Veera: I don’t know. Part of it is the not knowing. Nisha’s an observer because she has no choice. In that listening space, an openness comes with that. Taking it in can give you a certain kind of strength. Courage comes in the ability to simply keep moving forward.

Don: It’s a mystery why humanity keeps going. Maybe it’s a basic biological thing to move towards life. It’s inconceivable. As Americans, we look from the outside. The blessing: “May you live in uninteresting times.”

Gail: She also writes about diseases. When you read about people in history who experienced terrible things — some are strengthened and some despair. We can learn from history and those who went through it.

Brian: Resilience. In books, we model resilience for our readers. If you’ve never imagined resilience, how can you learn it?

Nathan: For a kid, the world is always normal. Their author just described daily life. She keeps it very immediate. She has two narratives going — the main character at 6 years old and at 11 years old. Making it immediate can open it up for kids.

Question: Do you self-censor?

Nathan: Self-censors now more than before, from being socially conscious.

Brian: He doesn’t self-censor, but he does self-criticize. Figuring out how to show the dog had died was an example of that. If you don’t see it, you’re asking the reader to care, not making the reader care. It felt more honest to show it on stage. But he didn’t make the reader feel awful — but they see Evan feeling awful.

Veera: She thought about it all the time. More than a million people died in horrific ways during Partition in India and Pakistan. She wanted to show some of the violence. She wanted to include a train with violence — but limited it for a young reader.

Gail: If she has doubts about the accuracy of information, she doesn’t put it in the book. Orson Welles was a notorious liar. Medical mysteries have a lot of gory stuff, but she doesn’t censor.

Don: Do you self-censor because of yourself or other people? I don’t know if I’m being sensitive or I’m being cowardly? Sometimes he can draw around terrible things. The Syrian war began with teens drawing graffiti and they were tortured for it. How to portray that? It’s something he struggles with all the time. How to present nonfiction to kids ages 8 to 13? Older kids can handle literally anything. For them, anything less is phony.

Great difficulty in a book about 9/11 as to how to show someone who jumped.

Brian: Every book is imperfect.

Veera: Kids let in what they’re ready to understand. Don’t let go of the struggle. That’s how you learn.

Don: After writing books, he only sees the mistakes.

Brian: He seeks a 5-year book, a book he’ll be happy with for five years. He has to come to a place of forgiveness. And make sure the next book is better.

Don: Do you like your books?

Gail: I don’t look at my books again.

Veera: I don’t read it again. It’s the readers’ now, not mine.

Question: Talk about the common threads of Fear and Forgiveness.

Nathan: Fear is a big part of Run for Your Life. The boy understands the code of silence. The Mafia’s built it into that society. The structure of fear enables the Mafia. To get over fear, you must let go, and forgiveness is a kind of letting go. Letting go of the silence of the past.

Brian: He purposely avoided reading about the “stages of grief.” There’s an anger aspect to Evan’s grief that wasn’t intentional. Forgiveness comes with time.

Gail: Fear is a big part of Spooked. She told about a couple who fled — and learned that their fear was based on sand. Sometimes fear has no basis. Get info before you act on fear. This story gives you a way to deal with fear.

Don: Fear is in abundance for Syrian refugees. As an example of grace, on a rainy day when he and his wife were visiting a camp, a refugee leant his wife her raincoat. Probably one of her few possessions. That simple act of humanity was one of the most touching things he’s seen in his life.

Veera: Her book is all about fear and forgiveness. People who survived Partition are now in their 80s. It’s up to her generation to preserve the history and begin to heal. That’s why Nisha had a Muslim mother and Hindu father — to be a bridge. Her generation has the distance to do that.

How do you forgive attackers? But now there’s distance, so forgiveness can counteract fear.

Moderator: What does it mean to be human in an imperfect world? Literature reminds us of humanity in the world we live in.

So that was the ALSC preconference. The only frustrating part was that several other fascinating sessions were going on in other rooms while I was at those two! But those two were inspiring.

Review of Sign Off, by Stephen Savage

Sign Off

by Stephen Savage

Beach Lane Books, 2019. 52 pages.
Starred Review
Review written May 8, 2019, from a library book

Sign Off is simply fun. Kids notice signs, and this book imagines what the characters on the signs might be up to when we aren’t looking.

There are no words in this book. But one by one, we see classic signs. One night, the characters decide to come off their signs. Then they begin working together.

I appreciate the artist’s note at the beginning:

The signs in this book are the creation of a number of graphic artists, most notably Roger Cook of the design firm Cook and Shanosky Associates, who came up with the round-headed sign characters in the 1970s. Thank you to all of these artists, known and unknown, for making characters I’ve loved since childhood.

In this book, they truly are characters. My favorite page shows their expressions of joy after they’ve carried out their plan together.

This book will spark your child’s imagination. After reading it, don’t be surprised if they’re ready to tell you what the characters on the next sign you see like to do at night.

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Review of Darius the Great Is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great Is Not Okay

by Adib Khorram

Dial Books, 2018. 316 pages
Starred Review
Review written September 18, 2018, from a library book
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#3 General Teen Fiction
2019 Morris Award Winner
2019 Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature

Darius the Great Is Not Okay is the story of Darius Kellner, who is a Fractional Persian – half Persian in his case, from his mother. Darius works in a tea store in Portland, and when we meet him, the kids who bully him walk in and give him a new degrading nickname and vandalize his bike.

His father, a German Übermensch, thinks he should just stand up to the bullies. Darius is sure he can never please him. Though at least they still have one thing they share – nightly time together watching Star Trek, Next Generation.

There’s a Skype visit with Darius’s grandparents in Iran, and his little sister, Laleh, speaks fluently with them in Farsi, but Darius never knows what to say. When they learn that his grandfather has a brain tumor and is not doing well, the family makes plans for an extended trip to Iran.

Most of the book is about that trip to Iran. But it’s also a book about friendship. Yes, I said friendship, not romance. I was delighted to read a book about genuine friendship between high school boys. Darius meets and makes friends with Sohrab in Iran, and right away they can be honest and open with each other. There are some bumps in their friendship – which makes it all the more authentic.

This is also a book about depression. Both Darius and his father take medication for depression, and Darius cries easily. He calls it “stress hormone secretion.” Darius does a lot of obsessing over what people think of him, and I like the way that’s honestly portrayed.

It’s also a book about family. Darius is meeting his Iranian family in person for the first time, and learning about his heritage – generations of his family have lived in the town of Yazd for centuries. They celebrate holidays together with extended family during the visit, and Darius realizes he loves these people.

But none of it is simple. His friend Sohrab is bullied for being Baha’i, and Sohrab’s father is in prison. Darius’s grandfather is dying, and his personality is changing – or so Darius is told, but he mourns that he never really knew his grandfather before, except on the computer screen. Laleh fits in so much better in Iran, since she speaks Farsi. And his father even lets Laleh replace Darius watching Star Trek, Next Generation.

I love Darius’s expressions throughout the book. There are multiple references to Lord of the Rings and Star Trek. I enjoyed that I got pretty much all the references. Will teens get those? Maybe some will. He calls the bullies “Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy” and his own mood swings “Mood Slingshot Maneuvers.”

Overall, it’s a beautiful story of a young man fighting his demons, finding his place in the world, and making and being a true friend.

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Review of I Am Farmer, by Baptiste & Miranda Paul, illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon

I Am Farmer

Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon

by Baptiste & Miranda Paul
illustrations by Elizabeth Zunon

Millbrook Press, 2019. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Review written April 20, 2019, from a library book

This picture book biography tells about Farmer Tantoh of Cameroon, who ever since he was a small boy loved the soil and wanted to be a farmer. So much so that he took that as his name in high school and purposely flunked an exam that could have given him an office job.

Later he did go on to college, and to this day he works to bring clean water throughout his country and spreads good farming practices and cooperation.

The book follows Farmer Tantoh from childhood, through his college years when he caught typhoid from contaminated water, through his work today.

Here’s an example from one spread:

One project leads to another and another. Farmer Tantoh founds Save Your Future Association, a nonprofit organization to which people around the world can donate money and supplies. With local and international support, he finds a way to bring clean water to Njirong, a village suffering after a thirty-year conflict.

He begins a water delivery service for blind students. He hires engineers to design stairways, railings, or ramps for villagers with physical disabilities. In places with large populations, communities build reservoirs so that in times of drought, people can get the water they need.

The book is beautifully illustrated with Elizabeth Zunon’s wonderful collage artwork, and there are photographs on the endpapers which bring home that this is a real person. I like the Author’s Note, which tells us, “We traveled to northwest Cameroon in 2017, and we were overwhelmed by the number of villagers – from the very young to the elderly – who were beyond eager to tell or show us how Tantoh’s work had changed their lives.”

This is an inspiring story that I’m so glad to have read about.

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Review of The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin

The Stone Sky

The Broken Earth, Book 3

by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit Books, 2017. 416 pages.
Starred Review
2018 Hugo Award Winner
Review written May 18, 2019, from a library book

The Stone Sky finishes off The Broken Earth trilogy, the first trilogy ever to have all three books win Hugo Awards, and the first time an author has won three consecutive Hugo Awards. You should definitely read the books of this trilogy in order, because it would be very confusing without the background laid in the first two books.

The strength of this trilogy is in the world-building, though perhaps I should say in the world-breaking. The planet has literally been broken apart and humanity is dying and all life is struggling in this latest Fifth Season, with the sky full of ash and the earth unstable. There are two people who can do something about that – Essun and her daughter Nassun.

But Essun and Nassun are far apart from each other. Both have been growing more powerful as the trilogy progressed. Nassun has been taken under the wing of Schaffa, the Guardian Essun once thought she’d killed. Essun has been wanting to get to her daughter all this time, but other matters of survival got in the way. By now we wonder what will happen when they come together.

Besides orogeny – feeling and manipulating the forces of earth – the two are learning to manipulate the silvery magic in all living things – including the earth itself – and to harness the power of the obelisks, made by ancient people centuries in the past. But using that power comes with great risk.

The reader also learns more about the Stone Eaters. They were human once, long ago, about the same time that the obelisks were made. In this volume, we hear more of their stories.

I can’t say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading these books. Lots of death and destruction in the middle, and this final book was awfully cerebral – I felt like I sort of understood the mechanisms of magic and orogeny and the obelisks, but not completely.

All the same, this book is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time, and I am amazed at the author’s mastery of world-building and unusual narrative structure. It works, and all tells a fascinating story about family, love, and the fate of the world.

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Summer Reading 2019!

It’s that time of year — when the children’s library staff go out to the local schools and talk about the summer reading — and some books the kids might enjoy reading.

I need to make a list of the books I’m booktalking, with covers, so that when the kids come to the library and can’t remember the title, they can browse the list. A fun place to put that is my blog. I will provide links to my reviews — though since this was my Newbery year, not all the reviews are posted yet.

[Just a note: Last year I couldn’t publish a list because of being on the Newbery committee. Many of my favorites and 2018 Sonderbooks Stand-outs got booktalked last year.]

My list is more ambitious than I actually end up having time to talk about. But here are the books I booktalked this year, very loosely organized by grade:

Kindergarten to 1st grade:

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, by Ryan T. Higgins

Crash, Splash, or Moo!, by Bob Shea

Thank You, Omu!, by Oge Mora

Dreamers, by Yuyi Morales

We Are Brothers, by Yves Nadon

Kindergarten to 2nd grade:

Two nonfiction books about chickens:

The Hen Who Sailed Around the World, by Guirec Soudee

Hawk Mother, by Kara Hagedorn

Two nonfiction books about geography:

Water Land, by Christy Hale

Animal Antipodes, by Carly Allen-Fletcher

1st to 2nd grade:

Rabbit and Bear: Rabbit’s Bad Habits, by Jason Gough

(Reading about why rabbits eat their own poo is a sure-fire hit!)

A Is For Elizabeth, by Rachel Vail

2nd to 3rd grade:

Three picture books about inventions:

The Boo-Boos That Changed the World, by Barry Wittenstein

Magic Ramen, by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz

Pass Go and Collect $200, by Tanya Lee Stone, illustrated by Steven Salerno

Like dragons? Both of these begin new series:

Dragons in a Bag, by Zetta Elliott

Knights vs. Dinosaurs, by Matt Phelan

Two chapter books for animal lovers:

Saving Winslow, by Sharon Creech

My Father’s Words, by Sarah MacLachlan

4th to 6th grade:

For these grades this year, I start with “my” Newbery winners!

Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina

The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani

The Book of Boy, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

The winner for our own library’s Newbery Book Club:

The Flight of Swans, by Sarah McGuire

Two about Escalator Trades:

The Eleventh Trade, by Alyssa Hollingsworth

The Season of Styx Malone, by Kekla Magoon

Two partly told in pictures:

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, by M. T. Anderson

The Faithful Spy, by John Hendrix

Two about space for the 50th anniversary of the moon landing:

To the Moon, by Jeffrey Kluger

We’re Not From Here, by Geoff Rodkey

Two for Inventors:

Calling All Minds, by Temple Grandin

The Doughnut Fix, by Jessie Janowitz

Two great graphic novels:

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, by Rey Terciero

Be Prepared, by Vera Brosgol

Two more wonderful novels:

Sweep, by Jonathan Auxier

Nowhere Boy, by Katherine Marsh

As you can see, I had far too many favorites to get to talk about them all at each school. But it was fun to share those I could, and maybe they’ll check a few more from this list.

Review of New Kid, by Jerry Craft

New Kid

by Jerry Craft
with color by Jim Callahan

Harper, 2019. 250 pages.
Review written March 12, 2019, from a library book

Navigating middle school is the perfect subject for graphic novels and fictionalized memoirs. I’m thinking of Smile, Roller Girl, Real Friends, All’s Faire in Middle School, and Be Prepared — and then realize that none of those I mentioned have a boy protagonist. So, okay, it’s time.

New Kid is about Jordan Banks, an African American boy who’s being sent by his parents to start seventh grade at a fancy private school. Jordan wants to go to art school, but his mother thinks this is such a wonderful opportunity, he needs to go Riverdale Academy Day School.

This graphic novel is about navigating middle school as the new kid – and a new kid who’s one of the few African American students. We notice things like teachers consistently calling him by the wrong name, and other students looking at him when financial aid is mentioned, and assuming he’ll especially like the one teacher who’s African American.

And there are other quirks of middle school. Making friends. A girl who carries a puppet on her hand and talks in a puppet voice. A mean kid and his friends. A nice kid who’s really rich. What your parents want for you versus what you want (art school). Keeping up with friends who don’t attend the private school.

I hope this book is as popular as the ones I named above. It’s a lot of fun, and it throws in some insights along the way.

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Review of More Glimpses of Heaven, by Trudy Harris

More Glimpses of Heaven

Inspiring True Stories of Hope and Peace at the End of Life’s Journey

by Trudy Harris, RN

Revell, 2010. 204 pages.
Review written May 30, 2019, from a library book

I don’t remember what I read that prompted me to check out this book, but I’m glad I did. My mother is in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, and recently a dear friend from college died of colon cancer – and this book is deeply comforting.

I read this book in small doses, a couple of stories per day. It’s a collection of true stories from hospice nurses – including Trudy Harris herself – about people finding peace at the end of their lives. Many of the stories have an element of the miraculous – some surprising vision or amazingly perfect timing – but many of the stories don’t, and are simply stories of how someone found peace and love around them as they faced their own death.

I haven’t read Trudy Harris’s first book, Glimpses of Heaven, but intend to do so. This second book was written after other hospice professionals showered her with letters telling her about their own experiences similar to what she had shared.

Here’s what she says about the stories:

Each one is a real-life account of a patient who was dying, and in each instance, the caregiver sensed something greater than themselves at work. These stories lend credence to the belief that when our time arrives, we will not be alone. I remember well hearing these stories told by many of the nurses when we gathered for Hospice team meetings in the past. I am most grateful to them for recounting their experiences here for you.

In these stories you will find God’s loving presence reflected in both the lives of those He is calling home to Himself as well as those caring for them. Look for the compassion, forgiveness, generosity, and tenderness of Jesus’s own heart. Do you recognize Him in those who make life easier and more peaceful for others as they are both living and dying? Do you see His humanity and humor reflected through their kindness? He shows us His face in our everyday lives, and if we pay attention, we will see and hear Him. He is inviting us to become part of the kingdom of God here on earth – and what a wonderful invitation it is!

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