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Inside Heavy Medal

Rose Lee Carter and the Historical Fiction Advantage

Midnight without a MoonHistorical fiction has done well over the years in terms of Newbery recognition. In the past ten years, about 43% of the Medal and Honor books fit the category (18 of 42 if you count “When You Reach Me” and “Splendors and Glooms”), and all but one year included at least one historical fiction title.  Those eighteen represent a wide variety of styles and content, so it’s not like they’re all the same kind of book. At all. But there is something about historical fiction and the Newbery.  Maybe it has a built-in advantage when you look at the list of elements to consider from the Terms and Criteria: Theme, Information, Plot, Characters, Setting, and Style.  

I’m thinking especially of Information and Setting. It just seems like historical fiction authors often have to put more visible work into those components than they might with a novel set in current times.  For example, comparing “Midnight without a Moon” (set in 1935 Mississippi) to “Well That Was Awkward” (modern, New York setting), the techniques that Linda Williams Jackson uses to convey time and place, as well as accurate information, seem more crucial to the success of her novel. I’m not saying that her book is more distinguished….just that those Setting and Accuracy elements are more prominent, in ways that might be more likely to push some key Newbery buttons.

The Criteria make it clear, though, that having more Setting and Accuracy to chew on should not necessarily give a historical fiction book an advantage: “Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.” Still…doesn’t 43% seem high?  

Of the historical fiction I’ve read so far this year, “Midnight without a Moon” stands out. I particularly admired the strong first person narration. I never felt like Rose Lee was just a representative of her time, put there to tell us what it’s like; it’s her particular world, her direct experiences that stay at the forefront. The early scene in which she’s chased, taunted, and spat upon by Ricky, who “just liked to give colored folks a good scare so we’d remember our place” (p. 7) is a scary example of the conditions faced by Rose Lee and her family. She’s angry, but also resigned: “nothing was bruised but my pride, and I was already used to folks beating away at that” (10). And she’s mostly worried that Ma Pearl will be mad that she broke the eggs. Readers see the injustice of Rose Lee’s world, but also get to know something about her as a person: her complaints (she’s got a lot of them), her dreams, and her thoughts.

The use of dialect is effective and purposeful. Ma Pearl’s words may be challenging for some young readers, but her meaning comes through with context. We might not know what “fune’” means when Ma Pearl says, “You jest left a fune’, not a dirn wedding” (73), but it makes sense within the sentence and as part of the funeral scene. Monty, by contrast, speaks formally, with “indeeds” and “corrects” (116). Rose Lee’s language is in between, peppered with colorful expressions: “The sun beat down like I owed it money from six years back” (34). The distinct voices establish personalities and help us keep track of a rather large cast of characters.

Rose Lee’s narration is self-centered, but she’s observant and thoughtful and her awareness increases over the course of the story. When she learns about Emmett Till’s death she imagines what it would be like to be “weighted down with a seventy-pound cotton-gin fan,” (186) and considers the weight of a sack of cotton that which she knows so well. She wrestles with subtle distinctions between right and wrong, as when she wonders if Papa, whom she respects, would have let Emmett Till’s abductors take her brother (151).

Rose Lee’s character arc is really the heart of the book, and I found it engaging and convincing. In the beginning, she wants to leave Mississippi for a kind of vague “better life up north” (130). But as she learns more about the world, her reasons shift. “I wanted to leave before I was old enough to face the life-and-death decision of whether to stand up for my rights…” (131). Later, she’s more direct: “Things had to change or I had to leave. Someday” (221). And finally she makes the decision, on the last page, to stay. It’s really a powerful moment, one that I think will surprise some (but not all) readers. It’s an inspiring ending for a book that’s filled with so many upsetting events. The theme is encapsulated in those final sentences: “…a change was coming. And I, Rosa Lee Carter [significantly using her true name for the first time] would be right there to be a part of it” (308).

Is this a possible worthy addition to the long list of Newbery historical fiction? I think it might be.  I was also impressed with “The Pearl Thief” and “It All Comes Down to This.” Any others from the genre we should be thinking about?  

Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at


  1. Depends on how far back it has to be set for it to be considered historical. For instance, Auma’s Long Run is set in the 1980s. Would you call that historical fiction?

    • I would, Monica. My understanding is that in order to be identified as such, the historical events must play a significant role in the plot of the book. So a book about three kids growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s wouldn’t necessarily be historical fiction (more likely realistic fiction) unless the plot hinged on specific details from that time period, like to Stonewall riots. The plot of Auma cannot be extracted from the time period. It has to take place in that time period.

      A good example of this is The Meaning of Maggie, a book that takes place in the late 80s but literally has nothing to do with anything that was happening in that time period. The time period is tertiary, not crucial, to the plot of the book. I would even argue that After Tupac and D Foster isn’t historical fiction because really the only 90s-ishness of the book is Tupac himself. Nothing happens in that book that couldn’t happen in a contemporary setting.

      • I would have too so there is another contender for you:)

      • Oh, should also say I really like your definition. Don’t know if I ever had considered that history had to be significant for it to be considered historical. Just looked at dates — 25 years or something like that. After Tupac and D Foster is a really intriguing one to consider under your more expansive definition.

      • I disagree with this definition, that specific historical events have to be a part of the book. Our Only May Amelia or Anne of Green Gables are books that focus on the every day life of a girl, not on particular historical events, and yet I would have a hard time describing them as realistic fiction rather than historical fiction. As someone who loves historical fiction the setting and seeing the ways in which the world was both the same and different is one of my favorite parts, not the particular historical event (though I enjoy learning about those too.)

        I agree that it’s easier to see the historical fiction aspect of a book set a hundred years ago versus a book set fifty or twenty years ago, but there are still differences in the setting that are important. A book about kids growing up in 1960’s Brooklyn is going to look extremely different from a book set in Brooklyn in 2017 regardless of whether any “important” historical events happen, differences that extend beyond the obvious superficial things like fashion and music.

        I had read somewhere that historical fiction included books set outside the life experiences of the intended audience, which was a definition I always liked.

      • Steven Engelfried says:

        I guess it does depend on how you define historical fiction, but even if you take out a few that I included in my 18 of 42 count, and drop it to 14 or 15, it’s still 33%+.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Even though books set in the 60s-90s may be outside the experience of the intended audience, I would hesitate to classify many of them as historical fiction. This may be unfair, but I can’t avoid the impression, in many such books, that the setting was chosen to allow the author to draw on their memories of childhood and avoid having to put in the extra work of researching, for authenticity’s sake, the cultural milieu of today’s youth or those of the more distant past.

        Is 33-43% really unexpectedly high? When I think of possible settings, I get: in the past, in the present, fantasy/sci-fi, or non-fiction. The latter two are probably going to be under-represented, so maybe that’s a very reasonable figure for historical fiction?

        In historical fiction, I thought CROSSING EBENEZER CREEK did the Criteria things well, so there may be some argument for it, though I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for it myself.

      • You’re not wrong, Alys. I should have written that historical context must play a major role in the plot of the book. The Hired Girl and Hattie Big Sky are two other historical fiction books that don’t require events but rather context for their plots to work.

        Thanks for helping me re-frame my definition.

      • Hold on! Anne of Green Gables isn’t historical fiction at all! It was contemporary fiction – when it was written. Which brings up an interesting question: When does contemporary fiction become historical fiction? Nowadays, Anne’s story couldn’t happen, because our society has changed so much. (I fudge and call it “classic.” The author didn’t write historical fiction, though.)

        And then there are books about the aftermath of 9/11. – Last year’s Towers Falling was contemporary – but fit this particular time period (children of 9/11 survivors). By the definition above, this would be historical fiction even though it’s current events.

      • It won’t let me reply directly to Sondy, so I hope this ends up in the right part of the thread

        Anne of Green Gables actually was historical fiction when it was published. It was published in 1908 but takes place in the 1870’s. Although I guess that goes back to whether you consider a 40 year difference to be historical fiction. I think so, but obviously not everyone agrees.

        But I think it is an interesting question about when contemporary fiction becomes historical fiction.

        I like the context aspect that Joe brought up. I can see that as “would this story, the characters, and the worldview that merges them make sense in the modern world?”

  2. When I assist patrons with historical fiction assignments/reading interests, I usually choose books in which the historical aspect plays a big part (especially for assignments). As much as I enjoyed Raymie Nightingale, its era setting (1975) doesn’t have as much to do with the story as does Penny From Heaven, for example (post World War II). I’m assuming that the reason for the request is that the teacher/young reader/parent wants a book that incorporates the specific era into the story. I’m not saying that this should be the standard definition, but those are the type of books that spring immediately to mind when a patron asks the question.

  3. Eric Carpenter says:

    I am only half way through BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA but its 1920s setting seems, so far, to play a significant role in the story and will certainly be in the discussion this year.

  4. Meredith Burton says:

    I thought the setting for Midnight without a Moon was vivid and added a great deal to the story. Roselee is affected by Emmett Till’s death, and her decisions hinge on that historical event, so history helps to drive the plot in a realistic way. I liked that the author explored the real events of Emmett Till as it is a travesty of justice children need to learn about.

    As with Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I found Roselee’s family’s attitudes very authentic for the time period. Beyond the Bright Sea is my favorite historical fiction book this year because Wolk discusses an event I did not know about. Midnight without a Moon is my second favorite historical fiction title thus far.

  5. The historical fiction definition is fascinating, and I wonder if this kind of discussion would or would not be pertinent in a Newbery Committee discussion? If, say, a committee member finds certain aspects lacking in a book he/she considers “historical” fiction (not enough details? not enough historical significance? not enough accuracy, etc?) while another member does not view a particular book as “historical fiction” and thus forgives such slippages?

    • Steven Engelfried says:

      Interesting point Roxanne. It might also work the other way, where a book is set in the past, but not in a historical fiction-y kind of way (minimal details about the time), a member might fault the book for that lack, instead of forgiving it.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        In both cases however wouldn’t this be a case of wanting a book to be something that it isn’t? The committee should be judging the books based on what they are.

      • Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

        Yes, I agree with you Eric. Fitting (or not fitting) into a defined genre should not be a factor in choosing a distinguished book. And we’ve seen just in this discussion how the definition of a genre is not even the same for all people. So I would hope that during a committee discussion the group would get past that and reach the point where they are “judging the books based on what they are.” All the members will be trying to do this, all year long, but we all come to books with our own ideas and habits. Ideally, that rigorous, Criteria-based discussion can help members focus on the book that’s on the table….it should be so easy, but sometimes it’s just not.

      • Last year PAX was a huge favorite for Newbery recognition, but I think this actually may have been one of the book’s downfalls. It read like historical fiction – but the vagueness of the setting – the lack of detail really bothered some readers. I happened to love Pennypacker’s choices, but I wonder if the committee found fault in her approach?

  6. I’m looking forward to reading MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON. It hadn’t even been on my radar yet – so I’ll try and get a copy. I adored IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS. The setting and information play a critical role in the story, and I’m eager to hear what others think. When I went through our club reading list for other historical fiction titles, I actually jotted down BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA with a question mark, because the time period didn’t stick out to me as much as the place setting. I realize that was just an impression, because there was an actual historical event that the story was rooted in, but for me the lasting impression wasn’t related to that historical period, it was related to the geographical setting and Crow’s relationships with the people she loved. That being said, I still thought BEYOND THE BRIGHT SEA was incredible, and I’m planning to read it again. I’m afraid on my first go through I was still aching for the chance to respond the way I did to WOLF HOLLOW, and BRIGHT SEA took a little more time for me to love.

    • Steven Engelfried says:

      I agree with Susie, lots of good stuff in IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS. I thought it was interesting that Emmett Till’s murder, which is a key event in MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON, is also very relevant to Sophia in IACDTT. It happened 30 years earlier, but when she reads about it in has a big impact on how she sees herself.

  7. Aside from the historical fiction aspect, I’d like to discuss some of the plot/character/content of this title. I appreciate much of the book as expressed here positively by Steven and others, especially the head-on examination of Colorism within Rose Lee’s community. However, I have questions about some of the supporting characters and their developments – especially Rose Lee’s cousin Queen. I feel that she is there to “make some points” — 1. to highlight the different treatments of black people based on the hues of their skin tones; 2. to set up a likely outcome from Ma Pearl’s strict rules as a parallel to one of the sisters from the older generation; 3. to add, but somehow gratuitously, the drama of the ill use of black women by white men, without being fully fleshed out/treated by the author. Queen’s arc with the land owner’s son, to me, is one extra element too many that takes away some of the focus from the main plot line and makes the pacing slightly less tight.

    Others who have read the book, am I off the mark here?

    • Steven Engelfried says:

      I did have some questions about the number of supporting characters and subplots. You could argue that Queen’s pregnancy, the abuse of Aunt Ruthie, and Rose Lee’s baptism could be extracted from the book and the main plots and themes would still work. Each of them did provide different insights into Rose Lee and/or her time and place Of the three, I thought the Aunt Ruthie thread, though it was powerful and purposeful, was the one that could have been dropped most easily.

      It can be a fine line between writing that “makes some points” too overtly and writing that serves as “interpretation of the theme,” and I feel like all of those subplots contribute to the themes. But do they contribute at a “distinguished level?” To me, distinguished interpretation of the theme includes conveying themes naturally within the flow of a book. If, as Roxanne suggests, they take away focus and detract from the pacing….maybe not quite. I also have a little concern about the sheer number of events that happened, all in less than three months. But I’ll add, as a reader, I jumped right into all of those threads and was glad with learning more about Rose Lee and her family.

    • Eric Carpenter says:

      I think these somewhat extraneous threads lead me to feel that the book took too long to get to the good stuff. Overall I really like the book but it felt 50 to 100 pages too long and most of that bloat seemed to be in the first half of the story. It’s a book I plan on recommending to my students but I recognize that many may give up before getting fully invested in the story.

  8. Hannah Mermelstein says:

    Question to those who have read this title: What age do you think is the intended and/or ideal audience? I would by no means argue that it is too old for the Newbery, but I did decide it might be too old for my Mock Newbery Committee (4th-6th graders). I also think it’s one of those books where the ideal reader who could appreciate the fullness of what the book has to offer might be slightly older than the reader who would likely be drawn to the book. But perhaps that’s not others’ perception.

    • Sorry Hannah, I just posted about this same thing without seeing your post asking about the same thing. Jinx! Hopefully it’s discussed now, because I’m curious…

  9. I think while we’re getting lost in talking about the definition of ‘historical fiction’ and what classifies as such, we’re missing out at another Newbery worthy point of discussion with this novel which is age appropriateness.

    I read this one early on in the year and had to rely on some random notes and my old Goodreads rating to jog my memory. I liked the book very much. ‘Visceral’ is a word I would use to describe it. ‘Authentic’ being another. However, as my thoughts have settled and I’ve read some other titles, like VINCENT & THEO, I cannot get behind this one as a Newbery book either for the same reasons. Age appropriateness. While the crude language, teenage pregnancy, graphic depicitions of brutal violence, and frequent use of the N-word add to the authentic feel of the voice in this book, I’m not sure I would say it is handled with a Newbery audience in mind. It skews too old in my opinion.

    Maybe I’m just a pansy. I don’t know. But since we haven’t talked about THAT yet in this thread, I thought I’d toss it out there.

    • You mean, talk about you tossing out the word “pansy” with such ease? I’m up for that discussion.

      • Mic drop!

      • Wow. I have to be honest, I used the word “pansy” to imply that I was being wimpy and thin skinned. That’s the only way I’ve ever heard the word used. I literally just had to Google the word and search for other meanings to see why you (roger) responded to me the way you did.

        I apologize if it offended anyone who read it or turned off anyone from commenting on the actual age appropriateness issue that I brought up.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Until I read this response and looked it up, I thought it meant something else, and I can only assume Mr. H, who has never struck me as ever having less than the best of intentions, did too.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        There was some discussion last year about Jason Reynolds’ use of the word “cupcake” in Ghost. If you Google the word “wimp”, “cupcake” et al are listed as synonyms, and until told otherwise, that’s all I thought such words meant. But if you look up those words directly, some of them did originate with specific derogatory associations to gender and/or orientation. In the case of Ghost, most respondants defended Reynolds and Ghost basically by saying he didn’t mean it in *that* sense, that the word had been appropriated for more general use as a synonym for “wimp.” I don’t think that necessarily addresses the initial concern, but I think it applies.

      • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

        I’m going to step in here and say that I don’t condone the use of the word “pansy” in this way on this blog (or elsewhere). Unlike cupcake, I’ve never heard the word pansy used in an inoffensive way when talking about anything other than the flower, and believe that the use of this word in this way would be considered offensive by most. The “wimpy and thin-skinned” use of the word pansy generates from the slur used against homosexuals (seen as wimpy and thin-skinned).

        Or as says:
        Extremely Disparaging and Offensive. a contemptuous term used to refer to a male homosexual.
        Offensive. a weak, effeminate, and often cowardly man.

        I understand that Mr. H used it out of ignorance, not intolerance. But it ranges from offensive to extremely disparaging and offensive, and now those who weren’t aware are aware.

      • Leonard Kim says:

        Sharon, of course I don’t disagree, but I still never understood why Reynolds and “cupcake” got a pass. One of the points that I was trying to make is that I and Mr. H had never until now known “pansy” to be used in an offensive way, just as those defending Ghost hadn’t known about the offensive sense of “cupcake” until it was brought up. Sure doesn’t list the offensive sense of “cupcake” – defining the slang as “a sexually attractive young woman” which already raises red flags in my mind, but it’s not hard to turn up definitions of “cupcake” as “a weak or effeminate man” which is basically the same definition you cited.

      • Sharon McKellar Sharon McKellar says:

        Had someone used the word cupcake in the comments of this blog, I would have responded similarly. Ultimately, arguing about the merits of a book, taking into account the use of single words and/or other potentially offensive content is part of what we do here. I’m sure it’ll come up this year at some point.

        We can’t change what’s in books, can only discuss how it impacts us, the reader, and what it does to/for the story and how that relates to the Newbery.

        What we say, however, in our discussions, is a different story.

      • Not to drag this out any further, but again, I literally had no idea of the meaning of that word and still am somewhat embarrassed that Roger, who is typically pretty selective with his comments on here, had to scold me over its use. Interestingly enough, I did devote some small modicum of thought to the word choice when typing, in that I didn’t want to use the word “wimpy” because it just seemed too easy and I didn’t want to use the word “sissy” in that it ironically, sounded too derogatory. Both would have been better in hindsight.

        And for the record, I questioned my wife, my father, and two colleagues after this happened and all four thought the word simply meant, “wimpy.” I’m not trying to make excuses here (well, I guess I kind of am), but more or less trying to provide some context to the word choice. The dictionary is pretty clear though and I was obviously in the wrong. Again, I apologize if anyone read it and took offense. It was careless and ignorant.

  10. steven engelfried says:

    I likely wouldn’t use it with a 4th-6th grade group, Hannah, but it seems right for many 7th and 8th grades.. I booktalked it this summer to a group of mostly middle schoolers. In my library network
    most libraries have it in their Juvenile collections, with a couple in a Young Teen section, but none in the Teen collections. Definitely some mature content in MIDNIGHT, but I think, as Mr. H. points out, it does add to its authenticity, even though it might put it out of the comfort range for some 14 and under readers.

  11. The discourse over the use and definition of an offensive word makes me once again aware of the different life and literary experiences we all have. It is definitely, absolutely plausible that some people are not aware of the homophobic usage of “pansy,” and it is a learning opportunity when someone points out that the use of the word could be hurtful. I imagine that Mr. H. and Leonard will probably never use this word again in conversation or online discourse to avoid offending someone else.

    This also makes a very strong case for face-to-face, real-time, honest, behind the door, collegial and professional discussions about books for a prestigious award. If any expression is used that raises flags, I know that a responsible Chair or a member of the Newbery Committee will make sure that it is clarified and the discussion will proceed with a new understanding on all parties.

    As to why authors, using words that suit a character/situation within the context of a literary work, get a “pass” and we, as critics, do not, when using same/similar words: I think the reason would be pretty obvious. No?

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Hi Roxanne, I was definitely being unclear. The unwritten question was, “why didn’t The Hired Girl (to take one example) get a pass here on Heavy Medal?” But it was also a rhetorical question. And like Sharon said, it is better discussed in the context of this year’s books. There are even Korean characters I am annoyed by this year! (MILES MORALES, AMINA’S VOICE, to name two.)

    • steven engelfried says:

      Roxanne mentions how this might play out in face-to-face Committee discussions. Those discussions are long and intense. We all have a lot to say, and it’s important to feel like you don’t have to measure every word. That’s where confidentiality helps. The more those discussions are true back and forth conversations, versus fifteen people taking turns making statements, the better. I can picture someone trying to come up with the right words and using what might be considered a wrong one. So yes, I would expect that if someone used terminology that others felt was inappropriate, we would identify it, clarify it, and then proceed. I would hope that the Committee would be cohesive enough to do this respectfully and efficiently, and get back to the books.

  12. Leonard, you might not recall, but I was adamant about giving the use of certain words and expressions not only a “pass” but affirmation that it suits the character and her growth from ignorance. I actually don’t know that “Heavy Medal” as managed by people with different opinions and a public forum could dole out or withhold “passes”. If I remember it correctly, Jonathan was not in agreement with Nina. And there were divergent opinions on the comments section. Yes?

  13. On the age appropriate language topic-
    One reason to use emotionally-charged words, including racial and gender slurs, in a book for MG and YA readers is exactly because of what has just occurred here. Most children and many adults don’t know all the words that are slurs. Not out of bigotry but out of lack of exposure. Language changes, often quite quickly, and slang tends to be highly regional. Inclusion in a book, where the emotionally-charged words are used correctly, serve a reader well when they illuminate why and how a word is offensive. It invites a conversation at home and in the classroom so that children can learn to use language kindly and effectively.
    Complicating the issue is the concern that the inclusion of such language hurts person for whom the slur is a target, and normalizes the word’s use.
    I think this is one of the issues where reasonable people value both sides even thought they are in contradiction to each other. I would never want a child to be hurt by a slur in a book, but I would not like to see those words censored out of books either. To do so is to deny history and deprive readers of an important learning opportunity.
    I noted the racially-charged language in this book and would welcome a conversation on whether in this particular use it serves the reader well by making it’s offensive nature clear or poorly by seeming to condone the use of racial slurs.

    • I definitely would not be concerned about whether or not the text seems to condone the use of racial slurs because I think it’s obvious the slurs are used to enhance the authentic feel of the narrative. I think most readers would understand that. I guess I would be more concerned about whether or not kid readers of the Newbery age range are developmentally ready to soak in those words (albeit in context) and learn from them appropriately. In filling the narrative with this much racially-charged language and authentic dialect, did the author present it in a way that is suitable for children of this age range? I guess that’s my question.

  14. Don’t lose sleep Mr. H! And thank you for reconsidering your usage of this word. I was in a work meeting a couple of months ago where someone blurted “pansy” in a spasm of hilarity, meaning it (I’m guessing) the same way you did. I was surprised at how angry and embarrassed I was but it was a good object lesson for me.

    I don’t worry too much about kids being developmentally ready for certain words or topics or about them missing an author’s context. If the language or topic is right for the story, I’m good. (Remember THE CANNING SEASON’s “You little fucks”? Probably cost it any chance at the Newbery but was completely right for the story.)

  15. I once in a while read a book twice, and barely ever three times. Be that as it may, from time to time, a book tags along that influences me re-to think everything. A book that breathes life into another point of view, to history, to what I pondered the past.

    “MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON” has done that for me. As an evaluate accomplice for Linda Jackson, I’d perused this original copy twice before it went to print. What’s more, this evening I completed the process of understanding it for the third time as an ARC. I have esteemed it Every. Single. Time.

    Its a great book, can be hard to read sometimes and You have to re-read bits. Good article Keep It Up

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