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School Library Journal reviews, part 3

I have been reviewing YA books and graphic novels for the School Library Journal magazine since 2018. I enjoy getting a sneak peek at some titles that will be coming out, as I order both genres for my library.  Reviewing is different than writing for my personal blog, as I am limited to 200-300 words for each review, and can only share once it has been published with their edits. The magazine wishes to be transparent with descriptions regarding race, so people don’t default to thinking characters are white, so any physical descriptions of characters are now required in the review. I’ve now reviewed eighteen books for them- here are my first six and my second set of six.

Junk Boy by Tony Abbott

Gr 9 Up–Bobby Lang lives on the edge of town in a dilapidated house with his father, who is disabled and continuously drunk. The kids at school call Bobby Junk, a cruel reminder of the junk-filled property he lives on, and he tries to be invisible at school to avoid the bullying. His story is told in free verse and readers are privy to his thoughts as he ruminates on his lonely life. By accident, he witnesses a moment of violence against his classmate Rachel when her mother discovers her with her girlfriend. Bobby and Rachel bond over their outsider status, and her friendship gives him hope where earlier he felt none. Seasoned YA author Abbott crafts a nuanced story about an unlikely but desperately needed friendship between two outsiders. Both Bobby and Rachel are dealing with weak and abusive parental bonds and the damage this does to them is capably shown. Readers will cringe over what Rachel’s mother tries to force on her daughter because of her sexuality, and will hopefully be pushed to think critically about how words and actions affect others. The narrative also respectfully shows positive aspects of religion and getting mental health assistance.

VERDICT This novel-in-verse has an engaging male POV, and would be a good read-alike for those who enjoyed Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down. The message of breaking through barriers to reach out for help and being an empathetic friend are important themes for teens to understand, and makes this a definite buy for YA collections.

Bearmouth by Liz Hyder

Gr 8 Up–Newt is a young miner, described early on as “not a boy nor yet a wimmin,” who lives and works in a mine named Bearmouth. All the boys and men there are trapped by low wages, cruel management, and a draconian religion, thus dooming them to a life of servitude. The miners develop a family underground with Newt being especially close to Thomas, who is teaching the young miner to read. When a new worker named Devlin is added to their crew, Newt is wary yet drawn to him. Devlin begins to plant seeds of revolution in Newt’s mind, so when a secret is revealed and their way of life is challenged, Newt’s eyes are opened to how very trapped they all are. Debut author Hyder gives Newt a distinctive voice. The prose is written phonetically, as if Newt is sharing the story with what little knowledge of writing they have. It’s a challenge to get into the rhythm of this writing style, which may be off putting to readers, but the world-building is strong, as life in the claustrophobic mines seems to be a cross between a dystopian future and the Victorian era. There is a scene with the threat of sexual assault. Physical appearance isn’t often described, though Devlin is white and Thomas has brown skin.

VERDICT A unique story that will take readers a while to get used to. This book might be a hard sell to teens, but for those who are ready for a fresh narrative, this gripping story of hope, friendship, and revolution will be worth it.

Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher

Gr 8 Up–Amelia and Jenna, best friends since middle school, attend a literary festival after graduation, since they share a passion for “The Orman Chronicles,” a series written by the young and enigmatic N.E. Endsley. While there, curly-haired Jenna meets the author—but Amelia doesn’t, driving a wedge between the two friends just as Jenna leaves for a trip to Ireland before they start college together in the fall. While overseas, Jenna dies in a car accident, leaving her parents and Amelia grief-stricken. Soon afterward, Amelia receives a rare copy of “The Orman Chronicles” in the mail, and she is sure Jenna is behind it. She tracks the book down to an eclectic bookstore in Michigan, where she meets the elusive author, who goes by Nolan. Schumacher’s lovely debut will have romantics swooning over blonde-haired, blue-eyed Amelia and black-haired Nolan’s love story. These two teens have endured loss and family trauma, but both have found acceptance and family elsewhere, and bring out the best in each other. The novel is also an ode to the love of reading and how books can provide the magic and comfort needed during difficult times.

VERDICT Recommended for all YA collections. Readers will root for these resilient protagonists who face heartbreak and must make tough choices.

The Salt in our Blood by Ava Morgyn

Gr 8 Up–The summer before her senior year, Catia discovers that her grandmother Moony, who has been raising her, has died in her sleep. With nowhere else to turn, Cat reluctantly reaches out to her estranged mother, Mary, who brings her daughter back to her apartment in New Orleans. Her mother has been grappling with bipolar disorder for years, with extreme highs and lows that made parenting Cat impossible. A mixture of gritty realism and fantasy are intertwined unevenly as Cat moves between solving the mystery of her mother’s past and interacting with other-worldly beings. Cat begins a healthy romance with a multi-racial young man who proves to be a good balance to her dysfunctional family dynamic. Tarot cards, mysticism, and religion tie in together as Cat unearths a secret from Mary’s past that explains some of her behaviors and sets Cat on her own path of discovery. Morgyn creates an atmospheric narrative that tackles some facets of mental illness and how some youths end up taking a parental role in their relationship with a mother or father. An author’s note explains Morgyn’s connection with Mary’s secret and includes the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Cat and her family are white.

VERDICT This magical realism story would be a good addition to larger collections and might prove welcome to those who do not have traditional households.

She’s Too Pretty To Burn by Wendy Heard

Gr 9 Up–In this thriller, Mick, a blonde junior on the high school swim team and on the outs with her mother, begrudgingly attends a party with a friend and meets Veronica, a Chicana photographer with an edge. The two girls quickly hit it off, with Veronica taking a photograph of Mick immediately after their first kiss that becomes a sensation on Instagram, allowing her to break into the art world. Veronica introduces Mick to her best friend Nico, a 20-year-old brunette who creates subversive art in their San Diego region, and the two teens become willing participants in his illegal art installations. However, soon they are in over their heads as several murders and a raging fire occur and they become pawns in a larger scheme. Heard capably explores the tipping point in which a group can move from righteous anger to destruction when they let the adrenaline of the moment overtake reason. At what level do you go from political activist to eco-terrorist? Heard also captures the extreme highs and lows of teen romance. The imbalance in Veronica and Mick’s relationship could push teens to explore where they would draw the line on romantic boundaries and consent.

VERDICT This psychological thriller is sure to be popular with teens. A sapphic romance with elements of art, danger, and obsession, it is recommended for all YA library collections.

Lucy Clark Will Not Apologize by Margo Rabb

Gr 9 Up–Lucy Clark, a 16-year-old junior in boarding school in Texas, is mourning the loss of the grandmother who raised her, as her parents’ globe-trotting life has prevented Lucy from ever living with them. Alone and bereft, she becomes best friends with Dyna, but when the girls are involved in an altercation with some bullies, Lucy is suspended from school and sent to New York City to live with a cousin and work for an elderly woman named Edith. Lucy is immediately swept up in a mystery as Edith believes someone is trying to kill her. An eccentric group of suspects is revealed, and, in an implausible twist, Dyna joins Lucy in New York and the girls piece together the clues of who is trying to kill Edith. This story feels more like a cozy mystery for adults that was modified to fit a YA audience. The theme of creating a family of choice versus a family of origin is certainly worthwhile, but the trope of absentee parents in YA novels is taken to an extreme here. While the whimsical tone and the multigenerational connections are a plus, the mystery is far-fetched. Little description of Lucy and Dyna’s appearances is given in the narrative.

VERDICT This mystery might take some hand-selling by librarians but would be a good fit for teens who feel misunderstood and yearn to be heard.

It is a pleasure reviewing for this librarian’s magazine, and I hope to continue doing so in the future!

-Nancy

Guest Post on the 2021 YASF Tournament of Books

As the Head of Teen Services at my library, I attend a networking group with other librarians who work with teens in the Chicagoland suburb area. For several years the YASF (Young Adult Services Forum) group has had a yearly Tournament of Books for YA novels from the previous year, and this is my fifth year participating by writing reviews for their blog So like YA know

This year I was assigned graphic novels Flamer by Mike Curato and Go With The Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann. Both books were excellent and dealt with issues facing teens today. Make sure you read my original reviews, as the YASF review was edited considerably for length. Click here to find out which book I chose and WHY!

-Nancy

The Crossroads at Midnight

The Crossroads at Midnight is a collection of five creepy short stories written and illustrated by Abby Howard. It is a good introduction for an older YA audience looking for horror graphic novels, who are ready for some gore, but not too much.

The Girl in the Fields

A queer teen is outed when her private online correspondence is read by her conservative parents.  They threaten that their pastor will cure her, and living out in the country, Frankie has nowhere to escape to.  But she seems to strike up a friendship with a neighboring girl who she can’t see because of the tall fence. Determined to meet in person, she climbs over but can’t find her, but unfortunately runs across a farmer who is a religious zealot and who plans to kill her with his tractor. This was a heavy story to start off with, but it had an interesting blend of reality with the unexpected.

Mattress, Used

Christina, a frazzled college student who is crashing in a friend’s apartment snags a used mattress from a city street. Her roommate is rightfully disgusted, as stains are evident. But Christina’s nights become filled with nightmares with a large creature says he wants her flesh. Upon waking she is exhausted, feverish and develops a bad rash. After a horrific long hospital stay in which she loses a lot of skin, she is visited by the creature once she returns home. Is she doomed to lose the rest of her skin? The last panel shows the mattress out on the road again- who’s next???

The Boy From The Sea

Two sisters vacation with their father at a beach, when a strange boy befriends the younger sister. The older sister clues in that the boy means her harm and is on guard to keep her sister safe. But the older sister needs to make a heartbreaking decision when he comes to drag her sister into the ocean. Thirty years pass and another agonizing scene occurs with no recourse.

Our Lake Monster

The naivete of youth! A young teen reminisces about the days in which her family traveled with a lake creature, before a tragedy occurred, putting an end to their side-show income. She believes the lake monster is still kind as it was when it was young and much smaller, and waxes poetic to her little brother about it. She then makes a decision that has terrible consequences for the entire family.

Kindred Spirits

This melancholy story was strangely sweet, although it was the only story that did not include a young character. An older woman Norah who has never married or had children lives out in the country, which is adjacent to a bog. A bog woman mysteriously shows up at her doorstep and believe it or not, the two women strike up a friendship of sorts. Two other voiceless bog women join them, and Norah researches who they might have been in the past and the circumstances of their death. Later, after rejection after rejection by the townspeople during her time of need, she makes a decision that brings her peace.

Howard’s black and white art was powerful. Her crosshatching of shadows and effective use of white vs black gutters to hint at the changing tone was spot-on. Her art reminded me of Junito Ito’s work- both in style and substance. Body horror was forefront in most of the narratives, and you need to have a strong suspension of disbelief. These bittersweet tales are a perfect slice-of-life horror.

Thanks to NetGalley for an early online copy. As a teen librarian, I will definitely be buying a copy for my library’s collection!

-Nancy

Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed

It’s Diana’s 16th Born Day! She is very eager to turn 16, as she hopes it means her Changeling phase is over. She often wonders if there is something wrong with her, as she was shaped from clay instead of being born naturally, to make her go through such an ugly phase that her sisters have never been through. During her Born Day Feast, a storm whips up, which starts throwing lifeboats from the outside world against her shores. The boats are full of war refugees. In saving their drowning children, the way back to Themyscira is closed to her and Diana becomes a refugee herself. She ends up traveling to a refugee camp in Greece, and from there to America, by a married couple named Steve and Trevor. Posing as an exchange student, they set her up with a Polish woman named Henke and her granddaughter, Raissa. Diana quickly learns about the bad and seedy side of New York City, but has Raissa to help guide her and show her the ways of this new world. When they discover a child trafficking scheme, can these two teenage girls make a difference?

I had been looking forward to Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA rendition of Wonder Woman, and was not disappointed. This is a heavy graphic novel chock full of questions of diversity and social justice that Ms. Anderson is never afraid to ask. Diana’s naive nature translates beautifully to the minds of a teen reader just starting to ask these big questions for themselves. We see our main character transform from a teenager to an adult in both body and socially, to become an informed and upstanding citizen of the world. That sure is something for our youth to aspire to today.

Though the book didn’t have a set color scheme, gold and teal are used throughout. Most notably, they are used at the very beginning and very end, serving as a nice visual bookend. The linework is thin and delicate, which belie the great strength and emotion in the story and the characters.

For fans of Ms. Anderson’s prior work, this is a must-read. For everyone else, it’s a Wonder Woman story perfectly suited for our times.

-Kathleen

Anderson, Laurie Halse, and Leila Del Duca. Wonder Woman: Tempest Tossed. 2020.

The Oracle Code

After a robbery gone wrong, teenage Barbara Gordon is shot, crippled from the waist down, and finds herself looking at a long life in a wheelchair. Her father, Commissioner Gordon, checks her into the Arkham Center for Independence (or ACI): a facility that specializes in therapy and independence for differently-abled people. Dr. Harland Maxwell, the head of the facility, assures Commissioner Gordon that they will be able to help Babs, but she remains skeptical. She used to love solving puzzles and cracking codes, but this one is too big for her to handle. Slowly, Babs makes new friends and even catches herself having some fun. However, patients start disappearing from the facility under mysterious circumstances: one of them being a newfound friend. Does Babs still have it in her to solve puzzles in order to find out what happened?

Though we’re all tired of hearing how to “adapt to the new normal,” this book will help teens do exactly that. Babs went through a huge change: losing her mobility. We clearly see her go through the five stages of grief as she mourns the use of her legs and the future she saw for herself. The emotions she goes through are not only appropriate, but completely normal for making and learning to deal with such a huge adjustment.

As the ACI is Arkham-adjacent, a big element of the book is a ghost story. It’s appropriate too as Babs feels scared by the person she has become, and is mourning her past self, as mentioned above. Much of the book deals with overcoming fear, and the spooky elements only add to that tension.

The art was pretty standard for a Batman related graphic novel. The colors were predominantly muted, with blue and grey backgrounds on which other colors popped. There were motifs of puzzle pieces and computer code sprinkled throughout that I thought were very clever. Some are more obvious than others. There were, however, a few typos; closer editing would have been welcome.

As we have all had to make a huge adjustment, so has teenage Barbara Gordon here. I’d give it to any teen or adult that needs a bit of help doing this for themselves, and validation that their emotions are completely normal.

Kathleen

Nijkamp, Marieke, and Manuel Preitano. The Oracle Code. 2020.

Brain Camp

“Something isn’t quite right at Camp Fielding” is the premise for a summer camp from hell experience for a pair of young teens.

I actually read this YA graphic novel a few years ago and never reviewed it, and while recently taking a walk through my local library I spotted it and checked it out again. I also re-discovered why I didn’t review it, it just wasn’t that great, but Kathleen and I are honest in our reviews and I can share reviews even if they aren’t completely positive.

Jenna and Lucas are underachieving teens who mysteriously are selected for an all-expenses-paid summer camp, that they never applied for, under the premise that it will boost their college readiness skills. Their parents eagerly agree and off they go the very next morning arriving a week later than most campers. These two misfits bond with Dwayne and the three immediately notice that something is very off at the camp. Campers seem to be growing intellectually in leaps and bounds, but a strange bird-like creature is controlling the camp directors and feathers ominously appear in connection with unexplained events. When Dwayne is sidelined it is up to Jenna and Lucas to figure out what is happening and try to save all the campers from an insidious plot.

Faith Erin Hicks is a favored author/artist of mine (Friends with Boys, the Nameless City trilogy, Pumpkin Heads and Comics Will Break Your Heart), although in this book she strictly provides the art. And the art is what elevates this meh graphic novel. She draws appealing characters and really shows emotions and nuances that help push the narrative forward.

Taken in parts there are some good elements in the story- there is an attempt to show some racial and socioeconomic diversity, issues with growing teen bodies are addressed, and there is an interesting supernatural twist. But stitched together it didn’t quite work. As I said earlier, the art by FEH elevated the story and I have read many books by her since.  I believe a YA audience will enjoy this story and art as they consider how they themselves would save the day like Jenna and Lucas did.

-Nancy

School Library Journal reviews, part 2

I have been reviewing YA books and children’s graphic novels for the School Library Journal magazine for the last two years. I enjoy getting a sneak peek at some titles that will be coming out, as I order both genres for my library.  Reviewing is different than writing for my personal blog, as I am limited to 250-300 words for each review, and can only share once it has been published with their edits. I’ve now reviewed twelve books for them, I shared six on my previous post, and six now. I feel it helps me as a professional, for when I accepted my job as Head of Teen Services last year, my writing for this blog and for the magazine were pluses in my favor for the library director.

The Map From Here to There

Gr 7 Up: Endearing new couple Paige and Max from The Start of Me and You are back for their senior year in this sequel about friendship and finding life balance. Over the course of a school year, Paige struggles with what choices lay ahead for her after graduation. Despite being happy with Max, she wrestles with which colleges to apply to and saying goodbye to her close-knit group of friends. Her anxiety gets the best of her and her relationship with Max begins to disintegrate; she gets caught up in her head about choices to make in the future and loses sight of how to enjoy the moment she is in. An experienced YA author, Lord captures teenage struggles effectively and shows how senior year is a difficult time for many. Teens are almost at the end of their school career and thinking of the different paths they will soon be taking, yet they need to live in the here and now. Friendship is an important part of the narrative, and the author ably shows that one does not have to choose a relationship over friends, but that they can balance both. Paige’s and Max’s journey is realistic and readers will root for them to reconcile.

Verdict: An appealing romance, at times heavy on the angst, that can stand alone but should be a definite buy where the first book was popular.

Gr 7 Up: Four friends—Ava, CJ, Jordan, and Martha—who have been tight since kindergarten are entering their senior year and beginning to face the realization that they will all be going in different directions. The opening chapter establishes that one will become President of the United States, but readers don’t know which one. Is it Ava, an artist who is struggling with her future choices; CJ, an earnest do-gooder; Jordan, a budding ace journalist; or Martha, a strong young woman who is facing some hurdles in life? As the novel spans a year of their experiences, a red herring is thrown in to muddy the waters as to who the future president could be. Debut author Watson creates four appealing and diverse young women; however, the narrative can seem formulaic and strives hard to check all the boxes, thus feeling like a made-for-TV movie. But this coming-of-age drama has a twist that will throw off readers as to which young woman becomes president, as all are smart and capable, and worthy of the office. Plus, the message of enduring friendships is always important for young people to read.

Verdict: A fun and light read, this book will appeal to teens who like contemporary fiction. A solid purchase.

Aster and the Accidental Magic

Gr 4-7–A move to the mountains results in adventure beyond a young girl’s wildest dreams. A strange species of gigantic birds that reproduce on a 15-year cycle is gearing up for a migration—always a destructive event. To help guide the birds, Aster’s scientist mother is building a robot. Her work takes the family to the mountains, and young Aster is initially distraught when her life is uprooted. But as she explores the countryside, she finds magic and mischief, befriends a seasonal deity, acquires a pet dog, outwits a trickster, and has the adventure of a lifetime. Aster learns to cope with the unexpected and finds solidarity with her family and new friends. The conclusion hints that more fun awaits in future volumes. Featuring simple lines and appealingly bizarre creatures, the art will entice readers. The Alps-inspired landscapes and characters are colored with muted Photoshopped blocks of color, with panels that let the busy narrative flow. At times the style turns anime-like to convey extreme moments.

Verdict: Those who love Luke Pearson’s “Hilda” series will eagerly jump on board the Aster bandwagon.

InvestiGators

Gr 2-5–In the first installment of what promises to be a wildly successful graphic novel series, Green (“Kitten Construction Company”) once again shows off his knack for pun-filled animal tales. Alligators Mango and Brash are friends and secret agents for S.U.I.T. (Special Undercover Investigator Teams), tasked with solving their first case: finding Chef Mustachio, who went missing just before he was about to unveil his latest concoction. These masters of disguise are off and running. But when there’s an explosion at the Science Factory, the duo are asked to look into that mystery, too. No matter where they go, Mango and Brash blend in seamlessly with humans who somehow never notice that they are interacting with alligators who sport vests outfitted with gadgets. Jokes, especially visual puns (“Badges?” “We’re not badgers, we’re alligators!”) and toilet humor, come fast and furious, and the clean, simple cartoon art and paneled layout are easy to follow. Kids who are tickled by Green’s irreverent humor will appreciate the drawing tips that conclude the book.

Verdict: Like the heroes of Dav Pilkey’s “Dog Man” or “Captain Underpants,” the Investigators are bound to resonate with kids.

Gr 9 Up–Cariani transforms his popular play into a fully realized YA novel of interconnected vignettes. The third-person narration opens on Ginette and Pete going to look at the stars in their hometown of Almost. Although they are beginning to fall in love, a verbal spat leads to Ginette’s leaving. Every subsequent chapter is a two-person vignette, a short story informed by her walk home past various locations. The couples experience the joys and struggles of love, with a magical realism bent, and not all the stories end happily. Of the ten couples featured–one more than found in the play, and including LGBTQ+ representation–only two characters are teenagers, so this may require some handselling to get YAs to fully connect with the stories. It will be worth it.

Verdict: For New Adult sections, theater enthusiasts, and born romantics, a charming and whimsical collection.

Gr 7-10–Recent valedictorian Rachel has been laser-focused on her goals of obtaining high grades and getting into Northwestern University. Now that summer has arrived, she can finally relax. Reflecting that she had refused to participate in many high school rites of passage, and after finding a self-help book that encourages saying “yes” to new life experiences, Rachel decides to try this approach. She’s quickly out of her comfort zone as she inadvertently becomes involved in a love triangle, reconnects with an old friend, and learns new truths about her classmates. While the John Hughes–esque narrative is rom-com in nature, Culli has crafted a more substantial book than readers might initially guess. She captures teen life and thoughts authentically and shows that the way people present their lives to the public is not always what is truly happening behind the scenes. A strong supporting cast of characters also adds depth.

Verdict: A definite purchase for YA collections, this winning book will have readers considering how a few key decisions could alter their entire lives. Lessons in taking risks, being true to yourself, and not buying into stereotypes create a truly compelling read.

It is a pleasure reviewing for this librarian’s magazine, and I hope to continue doing so in the future!

-Nancy

Teen Titans: Raven

The day before Raven’s foster mom was to sign her adoption papers, they are hit by a drunk driver. Vivaine is killed, and Raven is sent to Vivaine’s sister Natalia and her daughter Max in New Orleans. Raven remembers the accident, and her foster mom vaguely, but nothing further than that. The doctors have assured her that her memory loss is only temporary With the help of Natalia, Max, and a mysterious boy named Tommy, Raven slowly feels like she’s getting back to normal. However, Raven can’t help feeling like she doesn’t want to remember something that happened before the accident. She’s also somehow able to hear what others are thinking… making high school more of a drag than it already is. Are these thoughts and feelings – maybe powers – a side effect of the accident, or are they something more?

This DC Ink’s reimagining of Raven’s origin story is compelling. Raven feels real. She’s scared, confused, and vulnerable: emotions that no teenager wants to admit that they feel. We see Raven struggle to accept help dealing with these big emotions, and cheer for her when she does. We learn along with Raven that the bonds of chosen family and sisterhood can be just as strong as the bonds of blood family – maybe even stronger. Kami Garcia sure knows how to play to her audience.

Gabriel Picolo’s art is lovely. The colors are for the most part black, white, and purple, with other colors as an accent or to draw your attention to an important detail. Raven is mostly rendered in full-color, as she’s the narrator and main character. Sometimes other characters are rendered in full-color instead of or along with Raven, if that character is talking or to illustrate their importance to the scene.

Above all, I adored the atmosphere of this book and the African-American women power that came along with it. The New Orleans magical mystique was palpable on every page. The magical elements are glittering with not a little dash of malice, as if to allure but also to scare. Natalia and Max are both African-American, and are both powerful witches in their own right. And that’s awesome!!! Max is a new character introduced in this book from what I understand. I do hope we see more of all of these characters in a future installment.

Kathleen

Garcia, Kami, and Gabriel Picolo. Teen Titans: Raven. 2019.

Guest Post on 2020 YASF Tournament of Books

As the Head of Teen Services at my library, I attend a networking group with other librarians who work with teens in the Chicagoland suburb area. For several years the YASF (Young Adult Services Forum) group has had a yearly Tournament of Books for YA novels from the previous year, and this is my fourth year participating by writing reviews for their blog So like YA know

This year I was assigned graphic novels Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up WIth Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. Both books have gained impressive followings, rave reviews, and book awards due to their positive and true-to-life representation of LGBTQ+ life. Click here to find out which book I chose and WHY!

-Nancy

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