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Tag: New Zealand

Picturebook Study: Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo by Joy Cowley and Tracey Moroney

Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo cover


Joy Cowley is one of New Zealand’s big name children’s book writers. As a child of the 80s, I grew up reading Joy Cowley, whose books were purchased as class sets, and whose work could be found on the shelves of any primary school library. As a child who grew up in Motueka and Nelson, Joy Cowley was also a local writer, and though I didn’t realise it at the time, provided an essential local balance to this kid who was in love with Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. The Terrible Taniwha of Timberditch, published in 1982, is one book that left a lasting impression on me, mainly because it was terrifying!

This particular picture book is not distinctively New Zealand in flavour, unless you consider that ‘Scottish’ is New Zealand’s most commonly listed heritage across the population. In Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo, Cowley has drawn upon a Scottish poetic tradition to create an otherworldly story populated with ogres and so on.


A ‘wee wishy woman’ is kidnapped by an ogre, who takes her to his lair. She is ordered to cook for him. So she happily cooks the stew and watches him eat it. But the wee wishy woman turns out to be a trickster, and has cooked the stew with glue. She manages to escape because the ogre is all gummed up, unable to chase her.

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Picturebook Study: Scarface Claw by Lynley Dodd

scarface claw book cover

Honestly, for a close-reading I could have picked any of Lynley Dodd’s Slinky Malinki series (or from the even-better-known Hairy Maclary series set in the same world). I find it impossible to pick a favourite. But if I have a favourite character, it is probably a tie between Slinky Malinki and Scarface Claw. Although I grew up in New Zealand, I’m a little too old to have grown up with them, though I have collected the entire series and enjoy reading them to my daughter, over and over again. Every New Zealander who has ever read a picturebook will be familiar with these animals. Teachers will be able to name all of them. If there’s an archetypal New Zealand picturebook series, this is it. For a read-along experience, Penguin has partnered with Kiwa Media and turned some of the Hairy Maclary books into apps. While not created from the ground up for a touch screen, the app versions do offer word highlighting, which can be useful to an emergent reader perhaps.


Most readers will already know from previous books that Scarface Claw is ‘the toughest tom in town’, introduced thus in Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. This book focuses specifically on his toughness, presenting a range of scary scenarios that are not the least bit daunting to Scarface Claw. Finally the reader finds out that there is ONE little thing Scarface Claw is scared of **SPOILER ALERT**: Scarface is scared of his own reflection.

Scarface Looks Into The Mirror


The most amazing thing about Lynley Dodd’s books how nice they are to read aloud, over and over and over again. Actually, I think the weakest in this regard is the first and most famous Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. I’ll admit I sometimes get ever-so-slightly tired of the repetition of that, which may be as much a comment on how many times I have been called upon to read it aloud. Hairy Maclary is a book which builds on itself, which is excellent for child literacy and speech development and so on, but taxing on an adult reader. For a repetitious book, Hairy Maclary is still excellent. But it is in the subsequent books that Lynley Dodd’s poetic language really shines. To borrow from culinary-world, the mouthfeel is wonderful. It’s all to do with the scansion.


Font is also important. The reader is given clues on how to read with use of all caps:


is the roughest

and toughest

of cats?

The boldest,

the bravest,

the fiercest of cats?

Wicked of eye

and fiendish of paw

is mighty,



The poetry has a distinctive meter, and if you tap the rhythm on the table you’ll see how scary it sounds, sort of like the narrative poems of yore, a la The Highway Man (though this is different again).

Something that may pass unnoticed until it is pointed out is that the animals do not talk. There are many picture books about animals, which I would divide into two distinct types: First are the anthropomorphised animals who are human stand-ins. This is of another kind, in which the animals are actual animals, thinking and behaving as humans expect animals might. This requires a good understanding of animal behaviour, and it’s clear Lynley Dodd has a history of living with pets.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to complexity of vocabulary for young readers, and apparently Lynley Dodd’s work has sometimes been criticised for including words beyond the comprehension of her audience. Another school of thought believes that children should be exposed to vocabulary beyond their comprehension; this is exactly how they learn. I fall into the second camp, and I doubt Dodd would have achieved such perfect rhythm and meter if she had limited herself to words from a children’s dictionary. In the end, does it matter if children don’t know the exact meaning of some words? The illustrations and the language are more than enough to compensate.


As with pretty much every picturebook, a lot of the story’s success rests upon the facial expressions of the characters — or animals.

Who needs talking animals, when so much language is exchanged in the eyes?

Booksellers New Zealand Blog

In this particular story, even the scary black spiders have big, expressive eyes. As for Scarface Claw himself, this is not a truly scary creature — few creatures really are in picturebooks, which are often read right before bedtime. The young reader is instead encouraged to laugh at Scarface, and also to emphasise with him; children will be familiar with the feeling of being scared of some things and content about others. Here, the contentedness of Scarface is achieved via the closed eyes. Plus, isn’t it always funny to see a cat licking his leg? There’s something graceful and private about it, and when the reader sees Scarface in a more vulnerable moment, empathy is encouraged.


scarface claw content licking leg

Scarface Licks His Leg

The real gem illustration occurs on the penultimate page. After seeing Scarface in a variety of relaxed poses (and scary ones, in previous books) the reader sees for the first time Scarface looking both terrified and adorable. He now has big eyes and flat ears. I accidentally skipped this page when reading to my daughter, who realised a page had been missed. She knew the word that went with it, too. “Where’s the page with EXCEPT…?’ she asked. This was an interesting exercise, borne of nothing more than two pages being stuck together, because I realised just how important this penultimate page was to the story, which could have worked without it, but wasn’t nearly so good.

Another technique Lynley Dodd uses in a number of her books is an intriguing object only just visible on the page — it’s usually someone’s tail, propelling the reader forward to the next page, where fans will know exactly whose tail it is; the next page need only confirm it. In this book, the reader sees Scarface Claw’s tail dangling down from the wall. On the following spread we see Scarface himself, in repose:

Scarface Relaxes Fencetop


The technique isn’t limited to tails — the reader sees the leg of the oh-so-vital mirror before seeing the mirror itself, a good three pages later. So this technique doesn’t necessarily need to be used on consecutive pages, but can foreshadow well in advance.

To go with the ominous rhythm, horror elements have been included judiciously into the illustrations. The picture of Scarface Claw at night outside in a lightning storm features trees with curved, finger-like branches which I have since learnt to associate with Tim Burton. But overall, the book’s scariness is tempered by insertions of comedy. The dogs are supremely comical with their ‘lolloping and leaping’, and their tongues hanging out, with Hairy Maclary grinning like a muppet.


This is one of Lynley Dodd’s later books, first published in 2001 by Puffin. Dodd has said that it takes her a year to write and illustrate each book. My softback edition places the colophon at the back of the book. The back side of the front cover very cleverly doubles as both a promotional poster for other books in the series and a checklist of cats which my daughter loves to name before the story begins. As far as she’s concerned, it’s a part of the story.

slinki malinki and friends

Slinky Malinki And Friends, inside the front cover

This story is only 160 words.


For an example of a picturebook that is written around the technique of ‘tails first then turn the page’ (or whatever it’s actually called) see the Australian classic I Went Walking, which doubles as a book for toddlers as well as an early reader for slightly older children.

I Went Walking Cover

I Went Walking Tails First

When a character is scared of something a child doesn’t find scary, this is a sure source of humour for a child, and is utilised by other writers, too. In series one, episode eleven of Lake Campbottom, the character of Gretchen fails to be frightened of all sorts of nasty things, but is then terrified of a cute chipmunk with big eyes.

scary chipmunk


Two New Zealand YA Novels: Mortal Fire and Into The River

Kim Hill discusses Elizabeth Knox’s latest young adult novel with Kate De Goldi.

The daughter of a Pacific Island mother with a formidable background is a maths genius, among many other things. But all her life she’s been aware of something she calls ‘extra’ — an otherness to things. This is described very well by Elizabeth Knox. When Canny sets out on a trip with her stepbrother and his girlfriend, she finds herself drawn into enchanting Zarene Valley where the mysterious but dark seventeen-year-old Ghislain helps her to figure out her origins.

How does Mortal Fire relate to Elizabeth Knox’s two Dreamcatcher books?

This is set in a world similar to our own, but history has gone in slightly different directions. This is set in ‘Southland’, which is putatively New Zealand but also possibly attached to Australia. (Not necessarily physically but an antipodean entity.) The earlier books are set at an earlier point in history (around the Edwardian age). There is a special place set aside where people bring dreams to them. Now we’ve skipped ahead to 1959. (Elizabeth’s birth.)

Marvellous Aspects Of Mortal Fire

Knox’s work is described by the publisher as being ‘immaterial’, though Knox’s great facility is to lodge the reader in the material world. The style is no frills, though this is part of the point really. Some writers want each sentence to be a perfect entity. Others are looking at a broader canvas, using language in a more utilitarian way to tell the story. Knox probably falls into the latter camp, which suits the kind of stories she tells. She also spends a lot of time in this book setting up. But she nevertheless inspires confidence, so you do plough through the exposition. We will be taken somewhere meaningful.

Knox is a fantastically concrete writer, whether someone is manipulating bees (for magic) or it’s underground in a mine (so enthralling). The concrete writing lodges the reader in the here and now, including the problems of our modern world — big issues, particular things that have gone on in New Zealand, not least the Pike River Mining Disaster. In the story there is a secret entwined in that incident. This allows Knox to explore big issues such as power, (and in a different subplot) our inability to save people who are ill.

Knox is fantastic at ‘processes’, at describing how stuff is done.

There are many layers in Knox’s work. The magic of the material world adds to the layering. There will be probably be theses written about this author in future. There is so much to explore. There is complexity/nuancing/instability in her characterisation. No one is ‘good’ or ‘bad’: There are a whole lot of complex reasons to explain why people are as they are.

Knox is the preeminent heir to Margaret Mahy and Diana Wynne-Jones.

The book becomes page turning in the last two thirds of the book.

Names are always meaningful. (So ‘Canny’ is significant.) This technique is reminiscent of Catalogue Of The Universe (though not in any way derivative). Two characters come together and learn to love each other’s difficult parts. The place names of the alternate NZ are also really powerful. The names suggest New Zealand was settled earlier than it actually was.

The information in the book is belayed at a beautifully measured pace. The reader is almost expected to be mathematicians ourselves, putting the patterns together.

The earlier time of dreamhunting is mentioned. This book isn’t a sequel to Knox’s earlier ones, but simply exists in the same world.

What makes this a YA novel is that it involves a transformation, in which Canny discovers her full power. The story around her origins is so complex. This is a great YA novel. There are parts of YA that have been a little ‘used up’. It’s very difficult these days to be exciting with social realism. Kate De Goldi suspects that the only legitimate YA at the moment is speculative.

Into The River by Ted Dawe

Kim asks, What does this say about Ted Dawe’s Into The River? This is totally social realism, and very successful. But speculative fiction goes so well in YA stories because adolescence is an overwrought time. Everything is at full throttle. When that is being explored in social realism sometimes it just becomes melodramatic, unless it’s in the hands of a really good writer. But in a magical world, that same drama seems sort of persuasive.

Ted Dawe is an excellent writer. De Goldi can’t understand the furore around the content. Though explicit, it’s in context. The moral panic that has spurted out over Dawe’s book is in response to prizewinners. If a book doesn’t win a prize it can go more often under the radar. What about Singing My Sister Down, the short story by Margo Lanagan? Why are more people not outraged over that? Lanagan’s short story shocks but it contains no sex. It seems to be sex that shocks people. Also violence and drugs, but mainly the sex. Nevertheless, De Goldi urges people to red Ted Dawe’s book, because there’s an incredible sweetness about the main character. There’s no real message being promulgated in any way, but he holds a mirror up to society and asks the reader to take a hard look.

Both Into the River and Mortal Fire achieve that.

3 Retro Picturebooks

Kate De Goldi and Kim Hill discuss three ‘animal’ picturebooks on Radio New Zealand.

Blue Moon Bird by Sabrina Malcolm

This picturebook is really charming. Sabrina Malcolm is principally an illustrator, possibly best known to New Zealanders via her collaboration with Melanie Drury on Koro’s Medicine.

De Goldi was drawn to it but at first couldn’t work out why. Then she realised it was probably the slightly retro feel. The illustrations have a palette and design influenced by the 70s. That’s deliberate of course. Even the toys are retro. The pictures are intricate. The MC has red hair of course, like all good heroes and heroines!

This is a very simple, modest, unassuming story with a very alluring opening, echoing people as various as Roald Dahl, but other authors right through storyland history. The story is incredibly compacted.

The text is very beautifully designed throughout, incorporated into the visuals.

The middle page spread is particularly beautiful.

The story is about loneliness and friendship. Shaun Tan explored those same ideas with The Lost Thing (in an entirely different way, of course).

The writing is very economical. The pictures star, but the writing is also very good. There’s a lot of momentum.

This is an adventure a boy has all by himself. The adult caregivers are mentioned but never actually there, so the young readers know the boy has safe harbour.

Blue Moon Bird would be a lovely story to read to an under 5.


Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham

Mal Peet is an English author and illustrator best known for young-adult fiction:

Elspeth Graham is Mal Peet’s wife. They have collaborated on two beautiful picturebooks which have been illustrated by some wonderful artists. Elspeth does a lot of work on books for young/learner readers, and does a lot of research for those books. She comes up with an idea that entrances her for one reason or another. For Cloud Tea Monkeys she got very interested in merchants who took long, dangerous journeys to find foodstuffs. She and Mal go for walks. She talks passionately, then he picks up the ball and then writes the story. They didn’t meet the artists at all. These days it’s much more likely that you’ll have had discussion with your artist.

These stories are beautifully written.

The sentences are of varying lengths. The word choice is excellent, and unusually for a picturebook, the colon and semi-colon is used beautifully as well. (It’s a triumph!)

In terms of a story to grip, first of all it paints a place, a child, a culture and then the line, ‘Inside the house, the mother coughed.’ Twice, because this is going to be really important to the story.

The illustrations are by Juan Wijngaard, who is Dutch, born in Argentina, and studied art in Britain but now lives in California. He has also illustrated the work of some brilliant authors such as Jan Mark and William Mayne.

Cloud Tea Monkeys is enchantingly old fashioned (which is by no means a criticism). This is old-fashioned in quite a different way from Sabrina Malcolm’s work — the illustrations in this book are reminiscent of Arabian Nights. There are little line drawings throughout, but they are framed on the opposing side of the text, which is very much like books from the 50s and 60s.

Mysterious Traveller by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham

The artwork in Mysterious Traveller is equally beautiful. P.J. Lynch is an Irish artist.

Again, the story is alluring in the Arabian Nights kind of way. A baby is left by travellers who get caught in a sandstorm, found and raised by a man. She eventually becomes his eyes.

Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham wanted to write picturebooks that were longer than usual because they grew sick of having to read nine picturebooks every night before bed. Kim Hill hesitates before calling these picturebooks because the text is so thrilling. [This includes some assumptions about picturebooks!] These fall somewhere between chapterbooks and picturebooks. It probably would take a couple of nights to read a single story.

The words on the tongue are a genuinely sensuous experience.

These are gift books — books that will be read over and over again.

Well done Walker Books for bringing us back to that kind of book, and well done to Mal and Elspeth for insisting on it.

3 New Zealand Books For Junior Readers

Kate De Goldi and Kim Hill discuss three books on Radio New Zealand.

The Queen and the Nobody Boy by Barbara Else

This is the second installment, following The Travelling Restaurant, which is hysterically funny.

Sequels can fall down a bit but this is very good, if not a little more taut in its storytelling than the first.

Queen Sibilla is about to come of age and everyone hopes she’ll come into her magic, though there’s some anxiety around this. The story is told from the point of view of a young man. – Hodie, the odd-job boy. He’s a boy of character and sensibility and kindness. He ends up doing good against his better nature. This is a story of a growth of nature.

Else has a very arch way of poking fun at the inflated egos of people of status. For a fantasy writer she is very good at describing the material. There’s a lot of food in here too.

Highly recommended, especially for junior readers.

Guardian Review.

Here is the official Fontania Website.

The New Zealand Art Activity Book

This is allegedly for kids, but adults may want to keep it. Strongly reminiscent of a previous book about creative writing in the classroom. [If anyone knows what that book is, let me know!]

This book tries to jump would-be artists out of their comfort zones when it comes to making art. Exercises on every page narrows the process to give readers a specific way in to a project. There are ways of translating noise into art, ‘taking a line for a walk’, ‘sticking two pencils to your hand’, and other activities that wake up the kid inside the adult, or actual kids. You’re asked to cut things out of the book, so De Goldi recommends buying two — one to keep, because you don’t really want to cut bits out of it.

This book is full of fantastic ideas. Published by Te Papa Press.

A Winter’s Day in 1939

A really riveting first novel. Set during WWII. There are all the coordinates of people being taken away to camps. Adam and his family live in a part of Poland that was once the Ukraine. Their father has been given land as a reward for services to the army. He’s done good things with the land.

The story includes wonderful detail about living from the land. Readers will learn so much from that.

The story is not complicated, though there is a lot going on.

A device used is italicised, interpolated narration to explain what’s going on in the wider world of the war.

The story is told through the view of Adam, the second child in the family, and pretty immediately they are the victims of what’s going on between countries. Their farm is taken from them and so begins an enormous journey across a huge amount of the USSR. The author makes the reader wonder what it might be like to lose absolutely everything. Every now and again she reminds us clearly and sweetly that this is from a boy’s point of view (rather than an adult’s) because he’s feeding a rabbit.

The soviet labour camp is just dire, but their capacity for survival blows you away. There are many tales about children surviving through war, and this one can stand proudly beside them.

There is a big surprise at the end which will make you sad. The family eventually comes to New Zealand. This is the author’s father’s story blended with facts from other people’s lives. He had kept documentation. There is much attention to material detail. The relationships are fascinating, with the boy having a difficult relationship with his father.

There are small and big kindnesses from the people they eat.

There’s a strong sense of the family coming from the land, with the land being their life blood, which is surprising in a story with a backdrop of war.

Highly recommended for anyone between about 8 and 12, or even adults. Would be good to read aloud.

Small Presses Contributing Great Books

Book Island is a new venture rather like Gecko Press in Wellington, bringing in European books to translate into English. There is room for two such enterprises — there must be because Gecko haven’t done these two particular books. Book Island is focusing on Dutch and Belgian books.

Sammy and the Great Skyscraper Sandwich by Lorraine Francis and Pieter Gaudesaboos

An incredibly simple story about Sammy who is very hungry and builds himself a massive sandwich.

The illustration style is 1950s formalism. This book asks you to hold it up and be a part of the story. There’s a lot of food in it, and there are lists of what will be put in this absurd sandwich. At the end he decides to just have a banana, which depicts the feeling you sometimes get after cooking something.

Bernie Loves Flora by Annemie Berebrouckx

Bernard derives from ‘Bear’. This is a take on that old story The Gift of the Magi. You can see what’s going to happen. At the end is a lovely index for the meaning of different flowers. It’s very sweet, very charming, a beautiful production for under fives, but a book to be appreciated by adults as well.

The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde are magnets for illustrators, particularly European illustrators (for obvious reasons).

See: How Hans Christian Andersen Revolutionized Storytelling, Plus the Best Illustrations from 150 Years of His Beloved Fairy Tales

The Little Mermaid

(This mini edition also happens to be a book app, developed by Auryn Apps.)

The number of times this has been either filmed or used as the basis for another story or otherwise recreated is astounding. The controversial thing about this story is the ending. Hans Christian Andersen was somewhat excoriated for in her time. Mary Woolstonecraft would not have approved. The basic idea is that unlike humans, mermaids don’t have a soul. They fuse with the foam in the tide and they die. It’s all about yearning and endurance. This has been appropriated in gay scholarship because Hans Christian Andersen may have written this story as a disguised love letter to the son of his mentor.

So the ending is often left off, because Andersen added a new ending a few years after writing the original, in which the sky fairies come down and tell her that there is a way of immortalising herself even though she is a mermaid. She has to do good and help others. Andersen’s ending said that every time a kid did a bad deed it took away a year in the life of daughters of the air. They cried, and every time a good deed was performed it added a year.

It’s interesting to see how this story is concluded in modern times. The original ending is simply not used. P. L. Travers, the real expert on fairytale, lambasted Andersen for the ending.

This particular edition has been illustrated most beautifully by the Viennese Lisbeth Zwerger, who has illustrated just about all the Grimms and Andersen stories. If you’re looking for a gorgeous edition of a classic fairytale, look for one illustrated by Zwerger. The pictures are in the tradition of Arthur Rackham, an English illustrator who used sepia tones, but she’s got a lot of colour in her work now. She also won the Hans Christian Andersen medal when she was only about 36 or 37, which is pretty extraordinary. She has exquisite perspectives. In these particular pictures the hair of the characters is quite arresting and is a standout feature. The pictures make you want to blow them up and hang them on the wall.

The translator, Anthea Bell, is also fantastic, and was the person charged with the formidable job of translating Asterix for the English speaking market.

It’s about six years old now, and if you buy the hard copy it makes a beautiful gift. [De Goldi does not mention the app version.]


View entire book online.

For more on The Little Mermaid, see: (Un)dressing The Little Mermaid: Disney Adapts Andersen from Bad Reputation


For a list of books about Mermaids, see this list from the Miami University Database

funny-reasons-mermaid-pant-perfect-hairbook of mermaids robin jacques cover

The Selfish Giant

This is a very sad story, along with The Happy Prince — a Christian allegory. This is a very beautiful edition illustrated by Australian based artist Ritva Voutila, published by Allen and Unwin. The illustrations are reminiscent of Maurice Sendak, bordering on the grotesque occasionally. The Giant looks rather attractive in a sort of soft, gentle way and he’s been depicted variously over the years, often as a skinny, fierce fellow depending on the period in which the artist is working. The pictures are dark and illustrated, scanned from full-blown oil paintings. This is one of the most beautiful retellings.

The stigmata is not too explicit in this version. At any rate, the child isn’t depicted ever. You find yourself looking for the child all the time, so it can be interpreted as the giant being a believer, but not everyone is. This is a product of a post-Christian era.


More in the gallery here.


What Is Your Concept Of Childhood?

If we compare Americans and French, it seems as though the relation between childhood and adulthood is almost completely opposite in the two cultures. In America we regard childhood as a very nearly ideal time, a time for enjoyment, an end in itself. The American image of the child…is of a young person with great resources for enjoyment, whose present life is an end in itself. With the French…it seems to be the other way around. Childhood is a period of probation, when everything is a means to an end, it is unenviable from the vantage point of adulthood.

– Childhood In Contemporary Culture, Wolfenstein (1955)

I am neither American nor French, so as an adult who grew up in New Zealand, I’m wondering about my own view of childhood. Is it possible to fit neatly in the middle, viewing childhood as neither particularly good nor particularly bad? I certainly had worries as a child. I distinctly remember that one of my greatest fears at the age of five was to arrive home from school to find the gate shut. Dad had built that tall gate several years previous, to keep me in, after I ran off  ‘to see the lions’ at the age of two and a half, wearing nothing but a nappy and a bib (I’ve heard that story many times), but I feared that if I ever came home from school and it was shut, I’d never ever get into the house again. I don’t know quite what I thought. Perhaps I was expecting permanent banishment. In fact, I never thought that far. My fear was irrational. So every morning before I left for school I told mum to leave the gate open for me.

Mum remembered the gate almost all of the time. Except for once. When I got home it was shut tight and I couldn’t reach it. I screamed and hollered so loudly that the mother from across the road came and rescued me… and changed my pants. How humiliating. I suppose my own mother had got caught up at the shops or something. I wasn’t permanently banished. I don’t remember worrying so much about the gate after that, though.

These days I worry about bigger things, but I’m better able to cope with those things, so the worries seem neither more nor less significant than that simple childhood fear of abandonment. Childhood would be blissful, perhaps, if we could approach it with the carefree spirit of adulthood, knowing all that we know as grown-ups.

I do find it interesting that different cultures have different general concepts of childhood, because the American view of childhood as bliss, and its depictions in certain stories, has never sat right with me. It’s nice to know that this is due in part to my culture, and not to some terrible repressed memories I must’ve had, colouring my relatively pessimistic view forever after!

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