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Pfeffer, Susan Beth

Susan Beth Pfeffer

Personal

Born February 17, 1948, in New York, NY; daughter of Leo (a lawyer and professor) and Freda (a secretary; maiden name, Plotkin) Pfeffer. Education: New York University, B.A., 1969. Hobbies and other interests: U.S. movie history.

Addresses

Home—14 South Railroad Ave., Middletown, NY 10940. Agent—Curtis Brown, 575 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.

Career

Writer.

Awards, Honors

Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, and Sequoya Book Award, both for Kid Power; South Carolina Young Adult Book Award, for About David, and The Year without Michael; American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults designation and inclusion among the 100 best books for teenagers, 1968-93, both for The Year without Michael; honorary doctorate from Mount St. Mary College.

Writings

YOUNG ADULT NOVELS

Just Morgan, Walck (New York, NY), 1970.

Better than All Right, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1972.

Rainbows and Fireworks, Walck (New York, NY), 1973.

The Beauty Queen, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1974.

Whatever Words You Want to Hear, Walck (New York, NY), 1974.

Marly the Kid, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1975.

Starring Peter and Leigh, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1978.

About David, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1980.

A Matter of Principle, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1982.

Starting with Melodie, Four Winds (New York, NY), 1982.

Fantasy Summer, Pacer (New York, NY), 1984.

Paperdolls, Dell (New York, NY), 1984.

Getting Even, Pacer (New York, NY), 1986.

The Year without Michael, Bantam (New York, NY), 1987.

Turning Thirteen, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1988.

Head of the Class, Bantam (New York, NY), 1989.

Most Precious Blood, Bantam (New York, NY), 1991.

Family of Strangers, Bantam (New York, NY), 1992.

The Ring of Truth, Bantam (New York, NY), 1993.

Twice Taken, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1994.

"MAKE ME A STAR" SERIES

Prime Time, Berkley (New York, NY), 1985.

Take Two and Rolling, Berkley (New York, NY), 1985.

Wanting It All, Berkley (New York, NY), 1985.

On the Move, Berkley (New York, NY), 1985.

Love Scenes, Berkley (New York, NY), 1986.

Hard Times High, Berkley (New York, NY), 1986.

"SEBASTIAN SISTERS" SERIES

Evvie at Sixteen, Bantam (New York, NY), 1988.

Thea at Sixteen, Bantam (New York, NY), 1988.

Claire at Sixteen, Bantam (New York, NY), 1989.

Sybil at Sixteen, Bantam (New York, NY), 1989.

Meg at Sixteen, Bantam (New York, NY), 1990.

FOR CHILDREN

Awful Evelina, illustrated by Diane Dawson, Whitman (Morton Grove, IL), 1979.

Twin Surprises, illustrated by Abby Carter, Holt (New York, NY), 1991.

Twin Troubles, illustrated by Abby Carter, Holt (New York, NY), 1992.

FOR MIDDLE-GRADE READERS

Kid Power, illustrated by Leigh Grant, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1977.

Just between Us, illustrated by Lorna Tomei, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1980.

What Do You Do When Your Mouth Won't Open?, illustrated by Lorna Tomei, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1981.

Courage, Dana, illustrated by Jenny Rutherford, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1983.

Truth or Dare, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1983.

Kid Power Strikes Back, illustrated by Leigh Grant, F. Watts (New York, NY), 1984.

The Friendship Pact, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1986.

Rewind to Yesterday, illustrated by Andrew Glass, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1988.

(And illustrator) Dear Dad, Love Laurie, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1989.

Future Forward, illustrated by Andrew Glass, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1989.

April Upstairs, Holt (New York, NY), 1990.

Darcy Downstairs, Holt (New York, NY), 1990.

Make Believe, Holt (New York, NY), 1992.

The Riddle Streak, illustrated by Michael Chesworth, Holt (New York, NY), 1993.

Sara Kate, Superkid, Holt (New York, NY), 1994.

Sara Kate Saves the World, illustrated by Tony De-Luna, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.

Nobody's Daughter, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1995.

The Trouble with Wishes, illustrated by Jennifer Plecas, Holt (New York, NY), 1996.

The Pizza Puzzle, Bantam (New York, NY), 1996.

Justice for Emily, Bantam (New York, NY), 1997.

Devil's Den, Walker (New York, NY), 1998.

Birthday Wishes: Four Stories, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1999.

Who Were They Really?: The True Stories behind Famous Characters, Millbrook Press (Brookfield, CT), 1999.

Revenge of the Aztecs, Jamestown (Columbus, OH), 2000.

"PORTRAITS OF LITTLE WOMEN" SERIES

Amy's Story, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1997.

Beth's Story, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1997.

Jo's Story, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1997.

Meg's Story, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1997.

Amy Makes a Friend, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1998.

Beth Makes a Friend, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1998.

Jo Makes a Friend, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1998.

Meg Makes a Friend, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1998.

Christmas Dreams: Four Stories, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1998.

A Gift for Amy, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1999.

A Gift for Beth, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1999.

A Gift for Jo, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1999.

A Gift for Meg, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1999.

Ghostly Tales: Four Stories, Delacorte (New York, NY), 2000.

OTHER

You Can Write Children's Books in Your Spare Time, Mine Book Press (New Hampton, NY), 1993.

Contributor of short stories to Sixteen, Visions, and Connections; contributor of one-act play to Center Stage, edited by Ronald R. Gallo; contributor of an essay to Vital Signs 1, edited by James L. Collins.

Sidelights

Called "one of the most popular young adult writers on the scene" by Book Report contributor Miriam Rinn, prolific author of young-adult and middle grade novels Susan Beth Pfeffer has garnered praise for her handling of controversial subjects within the dramatic novel format. A Publishers Weekly critic, for instance, called the author "a natural storyteller with an acute ear" in a review of Whatever Words You Want to Hear, a realistic tale of teenage romance. Other novels take a lighter view of life. In Children's Book Review Service critic Glenda Broughton's opinion, Pfeffer's What Do You Do When Your Mouth Won't Open? is "another delightful story," this one about a twelve year old who, though terrified of public speaking, finds her courage when she has to present an essay at a school contest. "Probably lots of kids will identify with [the protagonist's] problems and cheer her strength and perseverance," Broughton concluded. Pfeffer's tales, "filled with humor and lively dialogue, tackle many of the social issues that dominate daytime TV and perplex young people struggling to become adults," according to Rinn. Best known for young-adult novels such as About David, The Year without Michael, Family of Strangers, Nobody's Daughter, Justice for Emily, and The Pizza Puzzle, Pfeffer also writes for a younger audience in novels such as Make Believe, The Trouble with Wishes, and Devil's Den. Such a mix of writing styles appeals to Pfeffer. As she told Book Report's Rinn, "I'm interested in the problems children have, and I like writing short books."

A Suburban Youth

Born in New York City in 1948, Pfeffer and her family lived in Queens before moving to suburban Long Island. Pfeffer once noted that she had "the best of all environmental childhoods," living outside the center of New York but able to make frequent trips to the city in the company of her mother, a secretary, and later, on her own. Frequent visits to the planetarium and the Metropolitan Museum of Art piqued her curiosity about the world. Her father, a lawyer who tried cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and taught law at Long Island University, was also a large influence on Pfeffer. When she was six, she watched him labor to put together a book on constitutional law over the course of a summer at their cabin in the Catskill mountains. Later she read her father's name on the title page of the published book and her name in the dedication. "I knew right then I wanted to be a writer," she once told Authors and Artists for Young Adults (AAYA). "And growing up in a household where people wrote books I didn't have the sense that only special people wrote books, that you had to do well in school to write books. It was just one more career choice." Thus inspired, Pfeffer set about writing her own "book," the tale of a romance between a pair of scissors and an Oreo cookie.

As Pfeffer once commented, "I always wanted to be a writer. From first grade on, it was my dream. But I didn't just sit around and wait for it to happen. I wrote all the time, not just school assignments, but stories and poems and plays that I showed only to my friends, and sometimes not even to them. And I read all the time as well. Not just stories, but plays (where I learned a lot about dialogue) and biographies, which taught me about real people and how they behave. I also paid a lot of attention to my friends and family and to myself as well. It was important to me to understand why people act the way they do."

Pfeffer was something of an outsider growing up: she hailed from a middle-class family living in a wealthy suburb, and was a student at private schools who felt out of place when she first went to public schools as a seventh grader. But she did form a tight circle of friends, all of whom enjoyed movies as much as the young Pfeffer. She recalled for Rinn that she was not a good student, even in English, and generally hated school. "'I wasn't real good at following the dictates of anybody else,'" she commented. Teachers were the luck of the draw for her; if she had a good one, she enjoyed school, but "even the good teachers were presenting material she found mediocre," Rinn explained. Some teachers were bullies in the classroom, while others were real mentors, allowing and encouraging dissent and questioning. Her trips to New York were a refuge for her, as were the books which she increasingly devoured. Biography was one of her favorite types of reading material, and young adult romances were another. But by the eighth grade, she began to think she could write much better herself. "'I began to think in terms of plot,'" she told Rinn. "'I wanted to write books for teen-age girls that were.… funnier, deeper, more realistic.'" At about this same time, Pfeffer also discovered the works of writer Mary Stolz. Speaking with Rinn, the author noted that the works of Stolz were very influential to her own developing style. Increasingly she wanted not only to read but also to write books that dealt with bigger topics than the next prom or who was cute in school.

In high school, Pfeffer was a classic underachiever, while her older brother excelled at academics. She went to school, as she once told AAYA, because "it was just one of those things I had to endure to become an adult." Though not overly fond of academia, Pfeffer attended New York University after high school graduation, majoring in television, film, and radio and building on her love of movies. She intended to become a director of documentaries, but instead discovered that she "stunk" when it came to visual images. Not only could she not hold a camera steady or read a light meter, but she could also not direct people effectively. Despite having a soon-to-be famous Martin Scorsese as her teaching assistant, Pfeffer decided that film was not for her. Instead, she devoted much of her free time as a senior to writing a novel for young readers. During her final term of school twenty-year-old Pfeffer sent out the manuscript of this book and within a matter of months it was accepted for publication as the young adult novel, Just Morgan. This story of an orphaned girl earned Pfeffer a $750 advance and a glowing review from Robin Davies, who noted in the New York Times Book Review that there is "lots of fast, fresh, often very funny dialogue in this … funny, worthwhile novel."

Becoming a Writer

The ease of publishing her first novel tricked Pfeffer into thinking the writing life was going to be simple, but her second novel, Better than All Right, took two years to sell. However, she persisted and, from the outset chose to tackle difficult, sometimes edgy subject matter: teen murder, suicide, sexual harassment, dysfunctional families, and missing or runaway children.

Pfeffer's first awards came with the 1980 title About David, a controversial work dealing with teen homicide and suicide. When seventeen-year-old Lynn returns home, she finds the neighbor's house surrounded by police and spectators and learns the horrible truth: her schoolmate and friend David has killed his parents and then ended his own life. He has also left behind a mysterious suicide note, but the police are not making it public. Lynn thereafter attempts to make some sense of this tragedy in her journal, getting little assistance from her usually understanding parents, who are bereft at the loss of their best friends, David's parents. Through the help of a new boyfriend and an understanding psychologist, Lynn slowly works through her own shock, and is ready to go forward by the book's end. Reviewing this novel in Best Sellers, John Lansingh Bennett noted that it "may add a measure of empathy, some slight understanding of grief and how it passes, a touch of humanity, to its teen readers."

More problem novels followed from Pfeffer. With her 1987 title The Year without Michael, Pfeffer deals with the tragedy of missing children via the microcosm of the Chapman family and their missing son, Michael. While the parents—who already have a strained relationship—try ineffectively to cope with the disappearance, it is left to sixteen-year-old Jody to attempt to keep the family together. Pfeffer won critical praise for her insights in The Year without Michael. Writing in the New York Times, Elinor Lenz called the book a "sensitive and probing view of a contemporary family in agony." Similarly, a reviewer for Horn Book observed that the fact that Pfeffer's novel "creates so wrenching an effect on the reader speaks to the author's considerable talent in bringing a sense of intimacy and immediacy to her writing." And a contributor for Publishers Weekly dubbed the novel "heart-breaking."

Dysfunctional Families and Troubled Teens

Pfeffer indulges in series writing in the "Sebastian Sisters," but as usual, the author takes a fresh and troubling look at sisters and families. The siblings—Evvie, Thea, Clair, and Sybil—are just as feisty and individual as are their parents, Nicky and Megs. Far from the usual suburban family, the Sebastians atypically move from town to town as father Nicky tries and fails various get-rich-quick schemes. The tight-knit family gets by through a sense of humor and shared love, but by the fourth book in the series, things are so bad financially that Nicky kills himself so that his family will receive his life insurance. Each of the books in the series focuses on one of the daughters as they turn sixteen. Pfeffer hails the quartet of books as among her favorite novels, and her judgment was shared by School Library Journal contributor Merilyn S. Burrington, who called the members of the Sebastian family "some of the most complicated, intriguing people in contemporary [young adult] literature."

Another intriguing family appears in Family of Strangers, the story of a dysfunctional family as told through the youngest of three sisters, Abby Talbott. Abby is in the uncomfortable position of being a surrogate for the son the parents lost in infancy; such pressures are added to by an over-achieving older sister. A family crisis prompts Abby to attempt suicide; during her recovery she tells the story of her family through letters and journal entries. Jacqueline C. Rose, writing in Kliatt, found Family of Strangers to be "engaging, though often painful to read." Lucinda Snyder White, writing in School Library Journal, also commended the novel as an "introspective portrait of a hurting teenager trying to find her own way." Writing in Booklist, Maeve Visser Knoth concluded that Pfeffer "manages the difficult task of balancing weighty adolescent issues with intriguing characters and an absorbing story."

In Most Precious Blood, fifteen-year-old Val learns—upon her mother's death—that she is adopted. Though she ultimately meets her biological father, she is still troubled by the feeling that her adoptive father may have underworld or Mafia connections and that all is not as it seems in her household. Another teenage girl is sexually harassed in The Ring of Truth when the state's lieutenant governor makes a pass at her. Orphaned and living with her grandmother, sixteen-year-old Sloan manages to get away from the man's advances, but not before he kisses her. This gets blown out of proportion by a gossip column, but the ensuing scandal forces Sloan to reassess her own past in this novel with "true-to-life characters" and a "skillfully spun plot," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Not all reviewers were pleased with The Ring of Truth, however. Alice Casey Smith, writing in School Library Journal, called it "tacky" and "slight," and felt that it "trivializes and sensationalizes the seriousness of such occurrences." On the other hand, Katherine Kelley, reviewing the same novel in Book Report, found it to be a "timely story that keeps the reader involved with Sloan and the pain and betrayal she faces."

More teenage angst is served up in Twice Taken, about sixteen-year-old Brooke, who, while viewing a television report on missing children, discovers that she was abducted by her father. Calling an 800 number provided by the show, Brooke sets off a chain of events she could never have expected, including some uncomfortable discoveries about her mother, her new step-sisters, and stepfather. She still loves her father, and in order to try and protect him from prosecution Brooke is forced to comply without protest with all that her new family demands of her. Though Margaret Cole, reviewing the novel in School Library Journal, had reservations about the authenticity of the tale, she still had praise for the "lively narration, peppered with wry, insightful wit," as well as the story's "balanced resolution." A contributor for Publishers Weekly had similar reservations, yet concluded that Pfeffer "maintains so brisk a pace and so appealingly plumbs her heroine's emotional life that the reader will want to believe the story."

Pfeffer has often been praised for her pacing, a technique she consciously employs. As she told AAYA, "I don't take a lot of pride in characterization, I don't really care about finding just the right word or phrase, and I don't do description. I find description incredibly boring and I just won't do it. I get my biggest joy out of mixing a bunch of stuff together and creating people or families that you know really well. And I like being funny." Rinn also noted that Pfeffer "wants to get right to the action." Praising the author's skill with dialogue, Rinn further noted that the individuality with which Pfeffer has her characters speak infuses them with a sense of reality that no amount of physical description would impart. "The way [Pfeffer's characters] talk and what they say tells the reader a great deal about them," Rinn observed.

Middle-Grade Novels

Pfeffer has also written numerous novels for younger readers, and she evidences many of the same concerns in these as she does for her young-adult novels. In Nobody's Daughter and its sequel, Justice for Emily, both of which are set in the early years of the twentieth century, Pfeffer tells the story of eleven-year-old Emily, who is sent off to the Austen Home for Orphaned Girls after her great aunt, her last living relative, dies. There the young girl learns hard truths about being helpless in society, degraded not only by the administrators of the orphanage, but also by town children at the local school. However, Emily does make friends with some other plucky orphans and takes heart from the help of a local librarian. When her friend Gracie is killed in an accident caused by several girls in town, nobody believes Emily's version of events, and she runs away to the town where her sister—adopted eight years earlier at the death of their mother—lives. Her sister's adoptive father, however, dashes Emily's hopes for a reunion, in a book that Carol A. Burbridge, writing in Book Report, called a "fast-paced historical novel." A Publishers Weekly reviewer found Nobody's Daughter to be a "wrenching story."

Pfeffer reprised her youthful heroine in 1997's Justice for Emily, in which the heroine of Nobody's Daughter tried to get justice for Gracie by naming the girls who push her into the street. As they are all from prominent families in the town, hard times ensue for Emily at school, and she is nearly expelled because of her accusations. Finally, she is saved from having to testify against the three girls when a surprise witness attests to the same story. Patricia Hare, writing in Book Report, had praise for the continuation of Emily' story, noting that in spite of its historical setting, the book still "presents modern topics such as prejudice, teen violence, child abuse, homelessness, and the importance of education."

With The Pizza Puzzle, Pfeffer introduces seventh-grader Taryn who wants to get even with a teacher who has humiliated her. She develops a plan to have numerous pizzas sent to the teacher's home, but does not have a chance to carry it out. However, exactly such a situation develops, with six pizzas sent to the teacher's house. When Taryn is blamed for the prank, she is aided by a new friend in an attempt to clear her name and outdo this bullying teacher. Booklist's Chris Sherman praised Taryn as a "likable, believable character," while a contributor for Publishers Weekly noted that "some readers may have fun following the twists and turns" in Pfeffer's novel.

Though versatile in theme as well as audience, Pfeffer remains best known for her hard-hitting young adult novels featuring young women on the cusp of self-understanding who must deal with very adult problems. Pfeffer, who is unmarried, relies on her own school memories as well as school visitations to keep her in touch with not only teen problems, but also teen speech. But as she told Rinn, some things are universal: "Emotions don't change," the author commented. Pfeffer has often expressed her enthusiasm for writing, once noting, for example, in Something about the Author Autobiography Series that what she loves best about being a writer "is that people actually pay my for making up stories." The author once further commented: "And writing for me at its best still doesn't feel like work. Which makes it the very best kind of job there is."

If you enjoy the works of Susan Beth Pfeffer, you might want to check out the following books:

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, 1868.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, 1911.

Johanna Spyri, Heidi, 1880.

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Children's Literature Review, Volume 11, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.

Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 17, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994.

PERIODICALS

Babbling Bookworm, February, 1978, Barbara Ann Kyle, review of Kid Power, p. 4.

Best Sellers, November, 1980, John Lansingh Bennett, review of About David, p. 303.

Booklist, October 15, 1993, Hazel Rochman, review of Make Believe, p. 443; June 1, 1994, Chris Sherman, review of Twice Taken, p. 1804; December 1, 1994, Chris Sherman, review of Sara Kate, Superkid, p. 682; September 1, 1995, Mary Harris Veeder, review of Sara Kate Saves the World, pp. 78-79; May 1, 1996, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Trouble with Wishes, pp. 1507-1508; October 1, 1996, Chris Sherman, review of The Pizza Puzzle, p. 352; January 1, 1997, Lauren Peterson, review of Justice for Emily, p. 862; May 15, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of Devil's Den, p. 1627; December 15, 1999, Ilene Cooper, review of Who Were They Really?: The True Stories behind Famous Characters, p. 781.

Book Report, September-October, 1992, Sharon Johnson, review of Family of Strangers, p. 51; January-February, 1994, Miriam Rinn, "Author Profile: Susan Beth Pfeffer," pp. 29-30, Katherine Kelley, review of The Ring of Truth, pp. 48-49; May-June, 1994, Carol Burbridge, review of Make Believe, p. 45; November-December, 1994, Bonnie Morris, review of Twice Taken, p. 47; September-October, 1995, Carol A. Burbridge, review of Nobody's Daughter, p. 241; September-October, 1996, Bonnie L. Rasch, review of The Pizza Puzzle, p. 43; May-June, 1997, Patricia Hare, review of Justice for Emily, p. 36.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1995, p. 174.

Children's Book Review Service, March, 1981.

English Journal, January, 1972, John W. Conner, review of Just Morgan, p. 138.

Horn Book, March-April, 1988, review of The Year without Michael, p. 205; May-June, 1992, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of Family of Strangers, p. 345.

Kliatt, March, 1994, Jacqueline C. Rose, review of Family of Strangers, p. 11.

New York Times Book Review, May 24, 1970, Robin Davies, review of Just Morgan, p. 16; November 8, 1987, Elinor Lenz, review of The Year without Michael, p. 38.

Publishers Weekly, September 23, 1974, review of Whatever Words You Want to Hear, p. 155; June 26, 1987, review of The Year without Michael, p. 74; November 9, 1990, review of April Upstairs, and Darcy Downstairs, p. 58; July 15, 1991, review of Most Precious Blood, p. 66; February 10, 1992, review of Family of Strangers, p. 82; April 12, 1993, review of The Ring of Truth, p. 64; September 20, 1993, review of Make Believe, p. 73; June 6, 1994, review of Twice Taken, p. 66; January 2, 1995, review of Nobody's Daughter, p. 77; June 24, 1996, review of The Pizza Puzzle, p. 61; March 2, 1998, review of Devil's Den, p. 69.

School Library Journal, September, 1989, Merilyn S. Burrington, review of Sybil at Sixteen, p. 276; September, 1991, Bonnie L. Rasch, review of Most Precious Blood, pp. 283-284; April, 1992, Lucinda Snyder White, review of Family of Strangers, p. 146; December, 1992, Jana R. Fine, review of Twin Troubles, p. 88; April, 1993, Alice Casey Smith, review of The Ring of Truth, p. 142; December, 1993, Nancy P. Reeder, review of Make Believe, and JoAnn Rees, review of The Riddle Streak, p. 116; June, 1994, Margaret Cole, review of Twice Taken, p. 152; December, 1994, Christina Dorr, review of Sara Kate, Superkid, pp. 79-80; November, 1995, Blair Christolon, review of Sara Kate Saves the World, p. 80; June, 1996, Christina Dorr, review of The Trouble with Wishes, p. 107; September, 1996, p. 206; January, 1998, Carol A. Edwards, review of "Portraits of Little Women" series, p. 90; June, 1998, Carolyn Noah, review of Devil's Den, p. 151; December, 1999, Ann Chapman Callaghan, review of Who Were They Really?: The True Stories behind Famous Characters, p. 158.

Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1994, Donna Houser, review of Twice Taken, pp. 89-90; April, 1995, pp. 25-26.

ONLINE

Random House Web site,http://www.randomhouse.com/ (September 12, 2003), "Authors/Illustrators: Susan Beth Pfeffer."*

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