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Acclaimed author Jonah Winter discusses the difficulties—and necessities—of introducing picture-book readers to tough topics.
Jonah Winter’s career as a children’s author began with Diego, a 1991 picture-book biography of the famed Mexican painter. Since then, Winter’s penned more than 30 titles, including The Secret World of Hildegard (2007), Jazz Age Josephine (2012), and Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (2015).
There’s no doubt: with his signature style, sometimes spare, sometimes exuberant, Winter has a knack for converting challenging subjects into compulsively readable, eye-opening texts for young readers. We last spoke with Winter following the publication of Peaceful Heroes (2009), a tribute to peace activists around the world. Here Winter offers insight into his more recent works, particularly The Secret Project (2017), as well as the ever-changing landscape of kidlit.
The Manhattan Project—and the havoc it wreaked—is difficult enough for adults to grapple with. Yet, in
The Secret Project
(2017), you deftly translate the subject for children. Can you talk a bit about your writing process? How do you decide which parts of a story to keep and which to leave out?
WINTER: Your question gets to the heart of writing picture-book nonfiction. Due to the constraints of the genre, a nonfiction-picture-book author always has to pick and choose what elements to include and what to leave out. With the best subjects, there is an obvious story that is begging to be told.
I will admit that the story I chose to tell in The Secret Project is not what most authors would consider an obvious picture-book story. First of all, it doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, the ending is about as devastating as anything I can imagine. Second, it’s about what most people consider to be an incredibly complex topic—nuclear physics, and specifically, the invention of the atom bomb commissioned by the U.S. government during WWII.
I happen to believe that children can and do, constantly, handle a lot more than most adults give them credit for. They don’t need everything to be sugar-coated. They don’t need to be lied to. Sometimes they need to be challenged. Sometimes they need books that broach, head-on, their worst fears. They need adults to talk to them and treat them like the smart, brave, curious beings that they are. And so, I wrote a picture book about the atom bomb.
In terms of how I made decisions on what to keep and discard in this complex topic, the age level of my readers helped determine much of that. And the story I wanted to tell, after my visit to the Bradbury Science Museum, in Los Alamos, was essentially a very simple story. In fact, I immediately saw the picture-book format as the perfect format for the story I wanted to tell.
I’m not a nuclear scientist, and I’m not exactly what you would call a huge fan of the American government as reflected in American foreign policy. So: American government takes over boys’ school in an incredibly beautiful, peaceful part of the world—and then they hire some scientists to build, in total secret, the most evil, powerful weapon ever created. Then—kaboom—they blow it up.
“Brought a quick end to the war” is propaganda, and ever since I was a little kid, I never believed it. The “saved lives” argument has always struck me as even more ludicrous. My goal in writing this very simple story about a very complex topic was to remove the story from the usual context in which it is usually safely placed in American history books (one that promotes a positive image of America and presents the bomb as a necessary evil) and put it in the context that I believe is the real context: a beautiful world, full of life, art, peace, Katsina dolls.
Speaking of Katsina dolls, there is an image of a Hopi Katsina doll floating in the sky above the laboratory where the scientists are busy inventing something that could destroy the world. My mother, Jeanette Winter, created this image. It’s my favorite image in the book. There is nothing in the text that explicitly directs the illustrator to place a Katsina doll in the sky. This image came from her imagination. And it’s a perfect example of how an illustrator uses her imagination to create a powerful image capable of conveying more meaning than the text of a picture book possibly could.
The image from her imagination came from decades of research she had done on the culture of the Hopi (which means “peaceful people”) and Katsina dolls, including visits to the Hopi mesas to meet with carvers of the dolls. Katsina dolls are, to quote the Hopi Cultural Preservation website, “used to teach children about the different Hopi Katsinas.” Katsinas (upon which the dolls are based) “are Hopi spiritual messengers” who “have the power to bring rain, exercise control over the weather, help in many of the everyday activities of the villagers, punish offenders of ceremonial or social laws, and, in general, to function as messengers between the spiritual domain and mortals.” They “perform public ceremonies for all people, plants, animals, and spirit life.”
Though the dolls are sold to people outside Hopi culture, they are not created as art objects. They are not created as toys. Each of the 250 Katsinas represents something different. The doll my mother depicted is Angwusnasomtaka, the Crow Mother. The Crow Mother is often considered to be the mother of all Katsinas. Among other things, the Crow Mother sprinkles bean sprouts to nourish people and fertilize the earth. She also initiates children into the Katsina tradition.
The first time I saw my mother’s illustration of the Katsina doll in the sky, I literally felt chills go up my spine. Many reviewers have commented on the power of the final images my mother created—of the explosions. I agree: they are powerful—and they represent a new frontier in my mother’s illustrations and in the realm of what is possible in children’s book illustrations in general.
But the image of the Katsina doll in the sky above the atom-bomb laboratory—this image, this single image—encapsulates my motivation for writing this story. These scientists were not in a vacuum. What they did took place in the context of this beautiful world full of life and creativity that surrounded them. And whether they knew it or not, these “destroyers of worlds” (as Oppenheimer called himself after the Trinity Test, quoting The Bhagavad Gita) were surrounded by a human, animal, and plant spirit ultimately far more powerful than they, regardless of their capacity to destroy. And Oppenheimer was literally surrounded by Katsina dolls—they hung on the wall of his apartment at Los Alamos.
As to your original question about which details to include or omit, “faraway nearby” is a detail I chose to include—it’s a phrase coined by Georgia O’Keeffe to describe the ineffable intimate spaciousness of the part of the country where this book takes place. I used this phrase to widen the perimeter of the space in which the book takes place—“outside the laboratory” does not simply mean literally right outside the laboratory; it means “outside the laboratory” (i.e., that which is not in the laboratory).
There have been those who have questioned why I included a Hopi carver, who would be carving approximately 300 miles from the laboratory, and not someone from a closer pueblo. I certainly didn’t mean to offend people from closer pueblos, such as, for instance, the Nambé. Nor did I mean to erase these people, which I have been accused of—nor did I erase them, any more than I erased all the other millions of details that I chose as a picture-book author not to include in this book.
My goal in writing any nonfiction-picture-book story is to include those details that will most powerfully convey the story I want to tell. The story I wanted to tell had less to do with New Mexico demographics—and more to do with the entire earth. As such, I also left out any and all details relating to the Mexican Americans and white people who lived in the immediate vicinity.
My goal here was not to erase these people or to imply that they were insignificant. No. I had 32 pages, with a few sentences per page, to tell the story of the making of the atom bomb to very young children. The details I included and excluded were included and excluded solely for the purpose of creating the most visually and spiritually dynamic narrative possible. The details must always serve the story, not vice versa.
Many of your titles turn the lens on instances of racial and gender inequality. What’s your approach to respectfully depicting those different from yourself?
WINTER: If an author’s mission is, as is mine, to “turn the lens on instances of racial and gender inequality,” then a respectful approach is implied. If you, as an author, are motivated to write what you write by moral outrage at instances of injustice against people who are “different from yourself,” then it is a given that you respect those people. How could it be otherwise?
We in the children’s book world seem to have entered a Hall of Funhouse Mirrors, by which certain books by certain authors get twisted and perverted and transformed into something ugly and disrespectful—especially in those instances when the authors in question are white and are writing about nonwhite cultures.
Drawing from a lexicon that relies heavily on overused words such as problematic and offensive, certain ideologically driven critics, while striving for what they believe is social justice, descend on a book that makes any reference whatsoever to nonwhite culture, parsing out (and, I would argue, misinterpreting) every detail, every word, every perceived instance of disrespect, misrepresentation, or “cultural appropriation”—attempting to extract a confession of guilt from the author; attempting to get the book corrected; attempting to get glowing reviews revised or demoted by journals; and, in some instances, attempting to get the book pulled by the publisher. This is not justice. This is censorship.
As to who gets to decide what is offensive, the answer is “you.” Of course, “you” might be a proponent of leftist ideology. Or “you” might be a right-wing Christian Fundamentalist. Or “you” might be a radical Muslim Fundamentalist. Or “you” might be a flag-waving patriot. Depending on the country, and the political climate, any number of groups can exert pressure to shut down all it deems offensive. This is not justice. This is censorship.
In America, we now have entered an era when those promoting “cultural authenticity” are policing children’s books. In the name of diversity and inclusion, both worthy causes that I support, these ideological enforcers are attempting to control who can and cannot write about certain subjects—and control how those subjects are being written about. This goes against the very idea of what literature is, what artistic expression is—a product of freedom of speech and imagination.
Writing is, by its very nature, an act of empathy. Writing that does not broach “the other” is boring—at best, it’s what comprises the memoir genre. If authors are limited to writing only about their own experiences, then what we have is a very boring literary world, where no cultural cross-pollination is allowed to happen, where artists are not allowed to use their imagination or hearts or souls to reach across the great divides between individuals and cultures, where art is policed by a small and vocal faction of tyrants. What we have is 1984, where all art has to be on message and be approved by the proper authorities (e.g., social-media critics); where art must follow certain rules; and artists who break those rules get punished, attacked, disappeared. I believe that writers not only have a right to write across cultural lines but, in the case of white writers who write about racism, a moral duty to do so.
All white Americans harbor racism within our hearts—acknowledged or unacknowledged. America is a racist country. The entire system here began in racism and perpetuates racism through the tiniest and largest avenues, from seemingly subtle examples through the more blatant ones, such as the white supremacist movement. Our justice system is fundamentally racist. Our penal system, as many have pointed out, is the new Jim Crow—a means of keeping African Americans disenfranchised indefinitely. Our cities are still largely segregated, and our housing system is a vehicle through which the dominant white culture discriminates against African Americans. Our education system discriminates against people of color. Our economy is most unjust toward people of color. Thurgood Marshall said, and it’s still true, that there is no white person in America who does not benefit from being white.
I believe that educating young children about racism is not just useful but necessary, and that talking about racism should not just be left up to people of color. Racism, in America, is not a black problem. If anything, it’s a white problem. I, like all white people whom Thurgood Marshall describes, benefit from being white in America. My life is a product of American racial injustice. As such, I have no choice, morally speaking, but to devote myself to fighting racial injustice. As a nonfiction writer for children, educating children about racism in my books is my method of conducting this fight.
Here is a message I received through my website—which I printed and taped to my wall: “I just finished reading one of your books, and I realized I had read you before. I am black, and I thought when I read you that you also were black. What a pleasant surprise for me. I also am a writer (unpublished) and I am 77 years old. I realize now how God can use whomever He pleases to get the job done, because these stories certainly need to be told. We are omitted from history books, and even when we contribute many times, others get the credit. Thank you for the unbiased stories you tell which most blacks my age can identify with. I’m hopeful all children will read you and others and learn the truth. And learn to respect all races as being human with hopes, joys, fears and intelligence.”
These words, though just the opinion of one person, help keep me from giving up.
In addition to writing children’s books, you are also a poet and a painter. How do you find these creative mediums influence your picture-book writing? How does picture-book writing influence your poetry and painting?
WINTER: Perhaps because I create visual art, I do always approach my picture-book writing from a visual perspective. Before I write a story, I write down what sequence of images I envision. And I usually have a specific style of art in mind when I approach a story—sometimes even a specific artist in mind.
Look, picture books are about the pictures. Because I always think visually, I think I have a sense of how to provide a certain clear template for the illustrator without being overtly directive. My goal, even while trying to embed a clear sense of what I would like the illustrations to be, is to leave a certain amount of openness in which the illustrator is free to let her or his imagination fly. The more spare the text is, the better that works.
In The Secret Project, for instance, my most spare text in years, I believe I left a lot of openness, space for the illustrator to bring her imagination to bear. I did not know that my mother would be the illustrator of this book, but—full confession—I wrote it with her in mind, and I was thrilled when the editor enthusiastically suggested her as the illustrator. And I was especially thrilled by how she ran with my text—especially, as I’ve mentioned, the image of the Katsina doll floating in the sky. That’s not in the text, and it’s not something I imagined. But my text left space for something like that to happen.
The visual sequence of images is the most important part of a picture book. I’ve never questioned this. Picture books function much like silent movies in this way. If the pictures can’t tell the story, then you’ve got no book, or else you’ve got a very weak one, one that will not hold a child’s attention. That being said, it was writing poetry for adults that got me into the profession of writing picture books. I had written a series of poems in the form of very bad book reports, from the point of view of a misinformed, grossly illiterate 10-year-old boy—all of them about famous men. They are filled with factual errors, grammatical errors, and out-and-out nonsense.
My mother heard me read these poems at a poetry reading once, and she didn’t realize the poems were, basically, er, a joke. There was one book report on Diego Rivera, which begins with the line, “Diego Rivera had a boyhood.” My mother loved it! And so, she asked me, her son, the clown, to write the text for her picture book Diego. That’s how I got into this business of writing picture-book bios. When it was published, in 1991, there wasn’t really even a genre called “picture-book biographies.” It was an exciting frontier. Now it gets its own section in bookstores. It’s taking over the world!
SHEMROSKE: With both of your parents being artists, I imagine you’ve been surrounded by the arts since childhood. What kind of works influenced and inspired you while growing up? What influences and inspires you today?WINTER: Yes, I have been surrounded by art since I was born. Art was the religion in which I was raised. My earliest years were during the 1960s, and I was very much a child of the sixties in terms of the art that appealed to and surrounded me. My father and his artist friends in Dallas (which had a great art scene back in the sixties) were mainly Surrealists at that point, and I loved that stuff. Pop art, too.
Andy Warhol once was driven up to the house I grew up in by one of my father’s art students. My dad was mowing the lawn at the time. He came over to the curb, shirtless, sweating, and down went the automatic window, and there was Warhol, saying, “That’s a nice little house you’ve got there. That’s a nice little yard you’ve got there,” etc. Sitting next to him was one of his bored film stars, who was cursing and demanding that they get the hell out of there.
My parents were friends with Claes Oldenburg—and they even took part in a “happening” Oldenburg staged in Dallas, which was recorded on film by one of their artist friends. That was so inspiring to me that I later staged my own happening with a bunch of my high-school friends—involving the life, death, and funeral of a banana. My friend whose father was a minister performed the last rites.
As a child of the sixties, I loved the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Buffy Sainte-Marie, etc.—as well as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and so forth. But my parents both introduced me to a wide range of music—from Django Reinhardt to Jimmie Rodgers to Sarah Vaughan to classical. When I was just a little kid! My fondest childhood memories involve spending hours and hours at record stores, thumbing through albums in the jazz, classical, and international sections. Maybe that’s why I think it’s OK to introduce kids to all sorts of music in the books I write.
As an adult, I’ve found myself permanently lodged in past eras of music—from medieval through the 1980s. Music after the eighties, with a few exceptions, doesn’t do much for me. That being said, I have performed music publicly since I was in high school, professionally—Irish folk music, indie rock, and jazz, mainly jazz from the 1920s and 1930s.
My taste in art also tends toward earlier eras—you know, those periods back when artists actually knew how to paint. Big empty canvasses of nothing don’t do much for me. Most art from the past few decades just strikes me as one huge con job—except for the art one finds in children’s books, a sanctuary of beauty and talent in an art world increasingly dominated by charlatans. I love early Renaissance painting, folk art from around the world, Japanese woodblock prints, Indian miniatures, Surrealist and Dadaist artworks, and about a trillion different artists.
But it was poetry, and specifically the poetry of Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot, that got me into writing. My taste in poetry continues to be what many people would probably call “conservative.” With a few exceptions, contemporary poetry doesn’t do much for me. Most of it seems to be written mainly for an audience of other poets. The New York School poets—Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch and company—were the last poets other than Allen Ginsberg who seemed to actually care about writing to an audience of nonpoets. They were friends with lots of artists; maybe that’s why.
Over the years, you’ve worked with an abundance of immensely talented illustrators, including your mother, Jeanette Winter. You’ve also illustrated two of your own titles. How does working with an illustrator you know personally change the collaborative process?
WINTER: Well, for one thing, the editor can’t keep you apart! Because, as most picture-book authors know, many editors go to great lengths to keep the author and illustrator apart, to ensure that no direct communication happens. With some books of mine, illustrated by illustrators I don’t know, I don’t see the artwork until it is in final proofs.
But if you’re friends with an illustrator, obviously, you can avoid that particular roadblock. And if the illustrator is your mother, well, that’s an entirely different situation. I actually had to call on an editor of mine to intervene during one book on which we collaborated. My mother wanted me to take out the word God from The Secret World of Hildegard (2007), my story about Hildegard von Bingen (Christian visionary and migraine sufferer), and I asked the editor to moderate.
He did, but my mother had her revenge. As she showed me her finished paintings, we came to the one that was supposed to accompany the page with the God reference. In the upper-left-hand corner of the painting, there was something that looked suspiciously like an enormous Nilla wafer. “Mom?” I asked. “Mmmm, . . . what exactly is . . .? Oh! That’s . . . God!” By this point, my mother was cracking up. Don’t mess with Mom! Who says Swedes don’t have a sense of humor?
Anyhow, I suppose this is a cautionary tale, explaining exactly why editors go to such lengths to keep the authors and illustrators apart. On the other hand, being friends with an illustrator can, if you’re an author, lead to fruitful collaborations and visions for new possible books specifically to be illustrated by that illustrator.
That was the case with my book The Founding Fathers! (2015), which I presented as a book to be illustrated solely by Barry Blitt, with whom I’d become friends after our first collaboration, The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven (2006). Had I not known him, I don’t think I would have been so audacious as to say he was the only illustrator who could possibly illustrate this book. The process of working on it was fun, too, with Barry occasionally sending me sketches—such as, after I’d casually and jokingly suggested depicting the Founding Fathers as baseball players—a series of pencil sketches that depicted just that. The chewing tobacco in manager Ben Franklin’s cheek was particularly perfect.
Although there are naturally recurring themes in many of your books (jazz, baseball, civil rights), the people and events you decide to home in on remain as varied as ever. How do you decide who—or what—to profile? Are there specific qualities that draw you to a subject?
WINTER: Generally, and I know this isn’t a terribly interesting answer, I choose topics I’m interested in—you named a few of them with jazz, baseball, and civil rights. For the past few years, I have really gravitated more toward books promoting social justice—and books that focus entirely on the topic of racism.
In the past couple of years, ever since I wrote The Secret Project, I have realized that picture books don’t have to have happy endings; they don’t have to necessarily celebrate their subject, either. They can be critical. They can be neutral. It gets tiring writing book after book about this or that inspiring figure who overcame enormous difficulties to then change the world. I should know—I’ve written a few of them! Happily so.
But now, I think we are at a crossroads in our culture where a different kind of book is called for. American education is, especially with the seizure of power by Donald Trump, in a crisis. Especially as concerns history, which is my latest passion, there are enormous gaps in the education of young children—much of what they learn about this country and the world is little more than propaganda.
So how do I decide whom or what to profile? I read the newspaper. I get rip-roaring mad about this or that current event or figure. I read books about events and figures in the past who bear some relation or resemblance to current events and figures. And then I sit down with my paper and pen and try to figure out how and if I can turn whatever’s gotten under my skin into a picture-book manuscript. There has to be an identifiable story, and it has to be simple enough to put in a picture-book format. It’s got to provide for visually dynamic illustrations. It’s got to be relevant, important. That’s what’s floating my boat right now. Who knows? In a year I might be focusing all my attention on dogs. That’s where the money is, right?
What does your research process look like?
WINTER: I know teachers and librarians love nonfiction authors to talk about their research process. But I often find myself a little stumped by this. I read books, news, and magazine articles.
With some books, I make trips to the important sites where my books take place: With my book My Name Is James Madison Hemings (2016), I spent a day at Monticello and took the “Slavery Tour,” led by a white man with an iron rod in his hand, who said, at the point we reached the cabin where Jefferson’s enslaved son was forced to make furniture, and I quote, “Well, now we’re gonna put the boys to work.” (He also said, “Ask all the questions about Sally Hemings you want to now, because you can’t ask them in the big house.”)
I took a picture of the room where Sally Hemings used to reside, which is now being used as a public restroom. I took a picture of the sorrowfully neglected cemetery for enslaved people that is in the middle of the parking lot. That’s what my research process looks like.
So many of your books feature distinct, lyrical narrations that exuberantly evoke their time period (
Jazz Age Josephine
Mickey Mantle: The Commerce Comet
, 2017). Can you talk about what goes into discovering and developing these voices?
WINTER: The voice should serve the story—just as the details must serve the story. Everything that goes into a story should serve the story, but especially the voice.
With some books, it’s very clear what the voice should be from the outset—for instance, my book on Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude (2009). Well of course it should be in Gertrude Stein’s voice of course it should. For my book You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! (2009), which, coincidentally, I was writing at the same time as the Gertrude Stein book, I read a lot of Ring Lardner to get my old-timey, New York, tough, urban-sports-writer mojo working. Occasionally, I’d get the two projects confused and start writing absurd, repetitive sentences about Sandy Koufax or clipped, hard-boiled sentences about Gertrude Stein. You never heard of Gertrude Stein?! Koufax is Koufax is Koufax is Koufax.
Sometimes midway through an initially difficult writing process, I’ll have a eureka moment and realize exactly what voice I need to use to sustain an engaging tale. I think, if I remember, that was the case with Dizzy. Suddenly, I remembered my early love of the Beat generation poets, and, in particular, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and I remembered how they used to give poetry readings with bebop playing in the background as they read. Bingo! Once I adopted my Beat poet persona, the story was really a joy to write. The voice itself helped push the story in the right direction at every turn.
SHEMROSKE: What’s next for you?
WINTER: Books about dogs, maybe? I love dogs. Who knows? There are political pressures at work in the children’s book industry that might make this a necessity for me.
The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven. Illus. by Barry Blitt. 2006. Random/Schwartz & Wade, o.p. Gr. 3–5.
Diego. Illus. by Jeanette Winter. 1991. Knopf, $7.99 (9780679856177). K–Gr. 3.
Dizzy. Illus. by Sean Qualls. 2006. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, o.p. Gr. 2–4.
The Founding Fathers! Those Horse-Ridin’, Fiddle-Playin’, Book-Readin’, Gun-Totin’ Gentlemen Who Started America. Illus. by Barry Blitt. 2015. Atheneum, $17.99 (9781442442740). Gr. 3–6.
Frida. Illus. by Ana Juan. 2002. Scholastic, $16.95 (9780590203203). PreS–Gr. 3.
Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude Is Gertrude. Illus. by Calef Brown. 2009. Atheneum, $16.99 (9781416940883). Gr. 2–4.
Hillary. Illus. by Raul Colón. 2016. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 (9780553533880). Gr. 1–3.
Jazz Age Josephine. Illus. by Marjorie Priceman. 2012. Atheneum, $16.99 (9781416961239). K–Gr. 3.
Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Illus. by Shane W. Evans. 2015. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $16.99 (9780385390286). Gr. 1–4.
Mickey Mantle: The Commerce Comet. Illus. by C. F. Payne. 2017. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 (9781101933527). Gr. 2–4.
My Name Is James Madison Hemings. Illus. by Terry Widener. 2016. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 (9780385383424). Gr. 2–4.
Peaceful Heroes. Illus. by Sean Addy. 2009. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, $17.99 (9780439623070). Gr. 4–7.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Case of R.B.G. vs. Inequality. Illus. by Stacy Innerst. 2017. Abrams, $18.95 (9781419725593). Gr. 1–4.
The Secret Project. Illus. by Jeanette Winter. 2017. Simon & Schuster/Beach Lane, $17.99 (9781481469135). Gr. 1–3.
The Secret World of Hildegard. Illus. by Jeanette Winter. 2007. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, o.p. Gr. 1–4.
You Never Heard of Casey Stengel?! Illus. by Barry Blitt. 2016. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 (9780375870132). Gr. 2–4.
You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! Illus. by André Carrilho. 2009. Random/Dragonfly, $7.99 (9780553498424). Gr. 2–4.
Briana Shemroske is the Books for Youth Editorial Assistant at Booklist.
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