the best friends you’ll never have

Browsing in Thoughts

If you really think about it, the Baby-Sitters Club was a genius idea. Obviously, those at Scholastic and Ann know this already, since I am sure that it paid for many houses and several college educations. But they hit upon a formula that works very, very well when you consider the target audience.

When writing for the middle grade reader, you’re generally advised to write about characters a few years older than the reader. That’s why so many successful books for this age group are about kids aged 13-14–old enough to be seem very glamorous to someone in fourth or fifth grade, but not old enough that they have to deal with issues that you’d find in YA. The BSC, written about seventh and then eighth graders (except for Mal and Jessi), fits this mold exactly.

The Baby-Sitters Club added a little something extra, though, that you don’t see in Girl Talk, et al. And that “something” is… baby-sitting. Why was the inclusion of baby-sitting genius? Yes, baby-sitting is one of those things, like thirteen-year-old boys, that seems much more awesome than it is in reality. You’re a kid, you get baby-sat, it seems like the coolest thing in the world. But naturally, plotlines involving baby-sitting will also involve children. These children are, in many cases, the age of the intended reading audience.

So what the Baby-Sitters Club was able to do was bring the glamour of middle school (everyone who has been through middle school is laughing at the idea of it seeming cool, but you know you thought it was!), but have characters who are the same age as the reader that they can relate to. This way, you get a series that covers all the basis: cool older kids, relatable younger kids.

And that is why Scholastic editors from the late 80s-early/mid-90s were all able to buy yachts!*

*Just kidding.

I had surgery last month, which explains my lapse in posts. But I will now return to a more regular posting schedule.

In the past year or so, the Alice McKinley books have taken over the BSC as my “comfort” reading. I read recently that Phyllis Reynolds Naylor decided to have Alice grow up in the series (each book covers roughly four months of her life) because she wanted a challenge as a writer and didn’t want to be stuck in a sitcom.

Of course, this immediately brought the BSC to my mind, where they were, more or less, stuck in a middle school sitcom, only growing and changing as much as staying in eighth grade forever would allow. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. I liked being able to grow up along with Alice, starting with the series in 1997 when she was still in middle school and I was ten and being able to read the last book as an adult in 2013. You can trace the evolution of Alice as a person, which I think makes her seem very real.

But one of the problems the Alice books have, which I think ruin the effect slightly, is that Naylor started the series in 1985, and then covered four months a year after that until the last one, so we only got to the summer after Alice’s senior year in high school in 2012. The world is going to change a lot in an almost thirty-year period. Like the rest of the world, Alice had to be introduced to computers and cell phones. Each book was written to be true to the year they were published, so even aging chronologically, you still have a time warp. For the new editions, which is what I read on my Kindle, they have edited some things that date the books, but the books would have to be rewritten completely to make them all 100% modern. I noticed this when I was reading the end of Now I’ll Tell You Everything, because although Alice entered college with Facebook and email, when they open the time capsule from Mr. Hensley’s class at the end, they open a capsule containing a Michael Jordan poster and newspaper articles about the Soviet Union. So even within this one book, there’s an acknowledgement that aging chronologically can’t work 100%, unless you can keep up a very grueling schedule to have someone age in real time, which is when you need a team of ghostwriters.

With that in mind, I don’t think I would have preferred for the BSC to age. You can suspend belief completely, and not really be distracted by time. Maybe aging in real time would have been possible for the BSC, though, since they published a book every month, instead of just every year. In the end, I find the time warp comforting, in a way. I think what the authors/editors chose for these different series works for what they are. The Alice series shows someone growing up. The Baby-Sitters Club shows a friendship and mysteries and fun. They are limited by never getting any closer to adulthood, and sometimes, that’s what we want to read.

Would you have preferred to see at least some aging in the series?

There are books that have a universally bad reputation among BSC fans, such as Mallory Pike, #1 Fan. I actually like many of these books. As I’ve mentioned, the later books hold a more nostalgic place in my heart than the earlier ones, since I had a 90s childhood and not an 80s one. But there are books that I feel should get more shit than they do, and one of those books is Super Special #12, Here Come the Bridesmaids.

I remember very clearly when this book came out. As you can see on the cover image I found from Young Adult Revisted, not only were the names of the sitters written in various colors on the cover, but it also had an announcement for the contest to name the new baby-sitter:

Now, considering the fact that eleven still seemed ancient to me at the time that this book came out, I mostly just accepted the weirdness of the book at face value. But this book is very strange, and you really have to suspend your logic to get into it. (Although frankly, this applies to many, many BSC books.)

First up, there is Jessi’s plotline. Jessi is… Santa Claus. At Bellairs. Because literally, the only person in Stoneybrook available to play Santa is an eleven-year-old girl. Even Jessi knows it’s weird, and she tries to pawn the job off on her dad, who says he is way too busy, along with apparently every other adult male in Stoneybrook. They try to explain this away by saying that it is a volunteer position, so it’s hard to find people to do it. Well, duh. And why does Bellairs have a volunteer Santa anyway, when it is a business run for profit? Who does this volunteering benefit? If your store is doing too badly to pay for a Santa, then don’t have one. Don’t get someone to do it for free. If it were a last-minute charity thing, MAYBE I could buy it. But not a department store Santa. And the worst part is that it’s all Maureen’s fault. She is not even an incompetent BSC client parent who is used to relying on the BSC for everything! They could have at least gotten good old Charlie Thomas to do it.

Mrs. Barrett, on the other hand, is an incompetent client parent who can’t do anything without the BSC. Which is why Stacey is her bridesmaid, I guess. Mrs. Barrett couldn’t find anybody else except for a BSC member to share in this important day. They kind of justify it by pointing out that Stacey has gone on vacation with the Barretts and stuff, and has usurped Dawn’s position as the sitter closest the Barretts. It’s still weird to have your kids’ baby-sitter as an emergency bridesmaid instead of a distant cousin or a frenemy, but whatever. We can deal.

Dawn’s plot is a pivotal one in her story. After all of her tantrums and credit card fraud, Jack and Carol are finally getting married. (By the way, isn’t it strange when Carol is the person who you are probably closest in age/life stage to? Yes, yes it is.) The beach wedding is to be expected and seems beautiful. Dawn wanting as many BSC members there as possible, also expected within the context of the series. But as a “divorced kid” myself, as the series oddly puts it, Dawn assuming that Mary Anne would be a fellow bridesmaid is bizarre to me. She is the daughter of Jack’s ex-wife’s new husband. Why wouldn’t Dawn expect SUNNY to be the bridesmaid instead of Mary Anne, since Sunny is also Dawn’s best friend, and is much closer to Dawn’s California family? It’s weird enough that Mary Anne is coming to the wedding in the first place.

This is not weird, but a sad point for me. This book is one of the last appearances of Ben and Mallory as a couple. As I have noted before, at one point, Ben and Mallory’s relationship is just kind of forgotten about and sometimes he is even lumped in with the clients, and this is Mallory’s last plot that centers around Ben, I think. In this case, he is being a real asshole. Mallory has been asked to baby-sit during the Barrett-DeWitt wedding, on a day that she and Ben had tentatively agreed to go caroling. He is uncharacteristically very Mary Anne vs. Logan about it. I suppose this and the whole card catalog debacle was their undoing.

Are there any books you can think of that compare with this one for such logical issues, besides the obvious ones that involve child labor laws?

Recently, Ann revealed that a Baby-Sitters Club reunion book is not off the table. I started thinking about A) whether I would want one and B) what I would want it to be and C) what Ann is likely to write.

The Summer Before was okay, but didn’t reveal all that much that was new because it takes place before the start of the series. So a reunion book would be much more exciting, in my opinion. There are several options.

  • BSC in high school. An obvious choice. Put them in ninth grade, a direct continuation of Graduation Day, and wrap up some FF/GD storylines. (Mary Anne and Cary!) While I’ve never been a super-dedicated fanfic person, when I have written it, I have almost always chosen this time period to explore. Ann, however, seems to like writing about people a bit younger. She wrote some things that could be considered more YA in her pre-BSC fame days, but she doesn’t seem to do that now. The BSC a bit older would have to be like California Diaries, most of which she did not write. And do we want to see our beloved BSC members in more grown-up situations?
  • BSC as adults. Ann doesn’t really write for adults, so I don’t see this happening. I mean, of course I would LOVE a book like Now I’ll Tell You Everything for each sitter. But yeah, not likely.
  • Older Karen/Clients-as-sitters. The fandom reaction would be hilarious to a Karen-focused book. I’ve never been the biggest fan of “new BSC”-type stories, though. I care much more about the sitters than the clients.
  • BSC, second generation. I.e., the children of the original BSC. This could be interesting, and it would fit with what Ann has been doing with Family Tree. AND we’d see what the sitters were like as adults, but Ann wouldn’t have to write an adult novel. This might be my favorite option.

    Any other ideas? What would you like to see?

  • Lately, I’m finding that I’m less inclined to read BSC Snark than I used to be. I’ve never been the biggest fan of snark, and it’s never been the focus of my interest in discussing the BSC. But recently, I’ve found that the snark has taken a quite virtriolic turn, and often ends up reading like long personal attacks against Ann herself. I don’t find it amusing or pleasant to read, the way I do a funny snark by my personal favorite snarkers, 3-foot-6 and alula-auburn.

    I do think that Ann could have done a better job in the series with, say, her portrayal of overweight people–Ethel Tines, Norman Hill–and she could have had a class of people in Stoneybrook besides “lawyers.” Reading Ann’s newer books, however, I think she has gotten a lot better with all of issues that people complain about in the books, and from the readalong I did of her earlier books, I’d say the BSC books are an improvement.

    This also came to my mind this week because I recently reread, for the 100th or so time, Beverly Cleary’s two memoirs, which are favorites of mine. As I am wont to do, after I read them, I was googling around, and came across this article from People in 1988.

    It included this quote, which stuck out to me:

    Unlike many other writers, she has resisted the idea that children’s books should be politically relevant. “I write about people, not problems,” she says. She has, on occasion, been criticized for this, particularly by those who wonder why her books include no minority characters. “I write about middle-class America—which, in my experience, is pretty much the same no matter what one’s color may be,” she says. “I like to think that the children in my books are the color of the reader.”

    I think that recent events, such as Ferguson, have really brought to the forefront for people who may have been otherwise unaware that the experience of being middle class and white in America is not going to be universal for everyone who would be considered “middle class.” But Beverly Cleary is of a different generation, where it was a family scandal that she married a Catholic, and her first book came out four years before Brown vs. Board of Education.

    Now, of course, I don’t think you could continuously publish books without non-white characters without getting some pretty heavy criticism. When I was younger, however, I don’t recall there being controversies like the one that erupted over Girls‘ all-white NYC. I got a comment on my most recent Link Roundup post from tintin lachance, who shared a quote from this article with me (titled, coincidentally, “Where’s Ramona Quimby, Black and Pretty?”):

    When I worked in publishing back in the early ’90s, I had a friend who brought me along to sort publisher book donations at a well-known author’s NYC apartment. On our way, my friend told me that the author, who had quietly and modestly started an admirable literacy foundation, had also broken the color barrier in series book covers. She had had to fight to get a black main character on the cover of a book, against marketing resistance fearing the book wouldn’t sell to the series’ great white readership. She won the battle, and that book sold more copies than any of its prior series-mates. This is anecdotal, but I have no reason to doubt its veracity.

    While this is, as it says in the article, anecdotal, I have to agree with tintin that it sounds like they’re referring to Ann and Jessi’s Secret Language. I also can’t think of another children’s book series from my childhood of a similar size to the BSC that had a black main character except for Saddle Club‘s Carole, who, as I remember, was not black in the earlier books.

    My point with these two quotes it that Beverly Cleary is of our grandmother’s generation. Ann was born in 1955, which makes her the same age as Cleary’s twins. She is also a couple of years younger than my own mother, and I was born a month before Kristy’s Great Idea came out. So generationally, we’re dealing with grandmother/mother/current generation of people who are having kids and beginning our reign of dominating the discourse. I think we have to remember that the BSC books were written between 28 and 14 years ago, and some things are going to be out of date. It is the same as when you talk to your parents, and they say something that you find offensive. Should you start a dialogue about it? Yes. Will the result perhaps be, “Well, that’s what I’ve always said, so I’m just going to keep saying it”? Maybe. Society is evolving constantly, and while I think we should always read critically, I don’t think we should expect writers of the past to have the same views as writers of the present.

    I think it’s important to look at the books in their context of their time period. If Ann wrote something egregious in Family Tree or any of her other newer books, then yes, let’s criticize the hell out of it. But for snarks of BSC books, I’d like a return to fun and lightheartedness, and less what comes off as hatred for Ann.

    Now, of course, what Ann has against people who chew gum and watch TV, I’ll never know.

    From the beginning, the tagline of this site has been “The best friends you’ll never have.” This is a tongue-in-cheek way of revealing a kind of sad truth about myself, which is that apart from a brief spell in sixth grade, I didn’t really have friends until I was in ninth grade. I think that my childhood experience matches up pretty well with the typical INTJ experience. I loved to spend my time reading, writing, and creating, and had little use for other children. I couldn’t find other kids on the same wavelength.

    Instead, I read a lot, and I read a LOT of BSC. So that’s where the tagline comes from.

    I fantasized about having a big group of friends. But looking back, I’m wondering that if I were a middle school student, and I was invited to join the BSC–would I?

    On the one hand, obviously I would. I had no friends. It would have been a dream come true for me to have had people to hang out with, eat lunch with, partner up on group projects with, who would have chosen me for their team in gym class even though I sucked at sports. Just think how much worse Mallory’s “Spaz Girl” experience would have been if she hadn’t had the BSC to support her. That’s what my middle school experience was like.

    On the other hand, as I mentioned, I’m an INTJ. I need lots of time for my own weird projects (like this blog and the wiki!). The BSC was a huge demand on the time of the sitters. Also, one thing I found out later is that, at least for me, baby-sitting is a hard job, and nowhere near as enjoyable as I thought it would be. Parents who limit television-watching make it extremely difficult for sitters, because then it’s ALL the kids want to do. But I digress.

    I mean, obviously, with my situation in middle school, an automatic group of friends who would stick by me would have made a huge difference in my life. But all that baby-sitting… Eh. Who am I kidding? I would have joined in a heartbeat.

    My favorite part of playing Life was when you got to pick your house. I’ve always had a strange fascination with real estate, even as a small child. Anyway, so today I got to thinking about the different houses that the BSC lived in, and which one was my favorite.

    Kristy’s mansion holds an obvious appeal, although I wouldn’t want a family big enough to use all that space. Maybe I could turn part of the house into my own three-story closet. It also just seems like a lot to take care of. You’d need to be way more than a millionaire nowadays to take care of a house like that.

    For my personal tastes, I think the Schafers are the winners here. I love description of Dawn’s dad’s California house, with its skylights and courtyard. I think it sounds really cool, and I wish there would have been some scenes that took place in that courtyard so we could have gotten an idea of what it was like. Maybe something like this?

    I also like the Schafers’ (and later Schafers/Spiers’) farmhouse in Stoneybrook. I love old houses in general. It does seem like it would be small and dark, though, and not all that convenient.

    But it did have a barn. This is the part where the mega-purists of the fandom are going to get a little upset with me, because I think the best house in the series is the renovated barn. While Randy Zak from Girl Talk also lived in a renovated barn, hers seemed much less pleasant, like a barn that they just added insulation and electricty to. They didn’t have rooms, just screens dividing rooms.

    The Schafer-Spier barn/house, on the other hand, is light and airy. They have actual bedrooms on the second floor, and the whole place just seemed so lovely and comfortable. I love the idea of a barn/house because it’s like a loft apartment, but you don’t have to live in an apartment building. In my head, there’s a ton of white and windows everywhere. Mary Anne’s books in FF basically double as house porn.

    Here’s an idea of what it might look like:


    Now, with the conversion of the barn into a living space, the BSC lost one of their most important assets, which was a place to hold events. Perhaps this should have been a sign for Kristy that the end is near when Mary Anne didn’t freak out about the loss of the BSC’s event space.

    What is your favorite house in BSC?

    For girls who love mysteries so much, there are lot of puzzling things about Stoneybrook that they just blithely seem to ignore. There is, of course, the infamous Time Warp, and the Mystery of Sabrina Bouvier. Nobody ever brought up how they were able to go on so many vacations and celebrate holidays multiple times. They were in a Twilight Zone episode, but Rod Serling didn’t pop in at the end to hammer the point home to the viewer.

    Rod Serling

    “Seven middle school girls stuck in a world where no one ever ages and doomed to never enter the hallowed halls of Stoneybrook High School. This meeting will now to come to order… in the Twilight Zone.”

    There is one major plot point of the Baby-Sitters Club that just seemed to fall off to the wayside, and it has always bothered me. Sure, we can chalk it up to “Ann Hates Mal,” but perhaps there is something more sinister afoot. I am talking about, of course, the death of Ben Hobart’s and Mallory’s relationship. I wrote about it briefly here, but I’d like to go into more detail today.

    Now, Mallory and Ben had a rocky relationship. Who could forget their fight over the card catalog, or the Caroling Debacle in Here Come the Bridesmaids!? He did, however, play a Loganesque Supportive Boyfriend role in Mallory Hates Boys… and Gym. But Mallory and Ben were together, and he warranted the occasional Chapter 2 mention and visions of future redheaded children surely danced in Mallory’s head.

    Look how cute they were at the dance!

    Somewhere along the way, it all went sour. In Abby and the Secret Society, we see that Ben has now become a client of the BSC, and is participating in a bathing cap decoration content with the other clients. He makes a “shark attack” cap, which seems perfectly eleven-year-old boy to me, so I don’t think it was a ghostwriter/editing error in this case. They did not, say, mean to write “James Hobart.” Although frankly, if you can’t tell the Hobart boys apart, you have no business writing BSC books, amirite. He was also in Christmas Chiller, annoying Mallory and also seeming eleven-year-old boyish. Yet in neither book is their romantic history ever mentioned. No “Ugh, ex-boyfriends are SO LAME,” as would be appropriate in the case when a former flame does something totally embarrassing.

    But in Stacey and the Stolen Hearts, Ben and Mallory write each other Valentine Grams! This book was published a mere three months after the release of Christmas Chiller. What happened in the interim? Was there some sort of Pike-Hobart melodrama that we never got to witness, and the other sitters weren’t even aware of it? Was it too painful to Mal herself to mention in various books and her chapters in Christmas Chiller? To me, it is a great oversight that Ben and Mallory’s relationship wasn’t given the attention it deserves. We knew about every fight Logan and Mary Anne had, every time Kristy was embarrassed by something involving Bart, Every Stacey Boyfriend Ever, Claudia’s problems finding a steady guy and later being torn between two men… Hell, even Jessi and Quint, her fellow eleven-year-olds, got a satisfying resolution to their story. But Ben? He was vaguely mentioned, I think, during the Spaz Girl era, but Mallory wasn’t in the mental state to deal with the issue.

    This still doesn’t explain, however, how Ben was suddenly reverted to Sitting Charge. I want, nay, demand a satisifying explanation and resolution to Ben Hobart and Mallory Pike, Boyfriend and Girlfriend. For all the nerdy girls with wonky noses and glasses, who didn’t deserve to be given such short shrift in the books, we want an answer for the callous treatment of Nerd Love.

    Not long ago, there was a post on the BSC Snark livejournal comparing the TV actresses to the movie ones. Veteran BSC snarker 3-foot-6 mentioned that she felt that the tv show did a better job capturing the feelings of the books because the books were really more of a late 80s/mid 90s thing, whereas the movies came out in 1995. She says,

    I recently decided the reason the movie sucks is that it was just made too late. The whole movie is so quintessentially 1995 – baby doll dresses! Girl power soundtrack! – and the books are so rooted in the late 80s and early 90s. The whole fashion/slang/culture aesthetic is off just enough that it doesn’t feel familiar to fans. Whereas the TV show is right there in the horrible fashion and shitty dialogue wheelhouse of the books.

    This is an interesting point, because, as someone who started reading in 1993, the books that I read when they were new, which probably began around the 70s or so, are the ones that feel the most BSC to me. I understand that this is a blasphemy for many in the BSC fandom, since by this time, the quality had dropped down considerably and Ann was only writing outlines by this point. But like I have said before, BSC has never been something that I’ve read for the quality in the first place; it’s something I’ve always read for a feeling, for a fantasy. The books that came out in the mid-90s and later are the ones that conicide with my own childhood. They are the ones that didn’t already seem kind of outdated when I read them the first time around. Kristy’s Great Idea already felt a little old when I read it the first time at the end of first grade.

    I’m not sure, actually, why so many people consider the BSC to be an 80s series in the first place. Yes, it started in 1986, but sales-wise, the series peaked in around 1992. Mary Anne and Dawn’s parents hadn’t even gotten married yet by the end of the 1980s. Only 29 regular series books, three Super Specials, and six Little Sister books had come out by December 1989. Going by numbers, the BSC is really more of a 90s phenomenon, in my opinion.

    Perhaps I feel this way because I only became aware of the BSC series when I started school, and barely remember the late 80s. To me, the BSC is rooted in my childhood, which 1995 would probably be considered the apex of, and long-time readers of this blog or people who have interacted with me on various fora know that I make no bones about much preferring the ghostwritten books, ones that focus more on interesting topics such as boy drama and malling-used-as-a-verb.

    I do realize that this is an unpopular opinion, though. Agree? Disagree? Should we do a final four bracket of the various BSC ghostwriters and Ann, ending in a Peter Lerangis vs Ann M. Martin smackdown? OMG I might actually do this.

    Last week I watched the movie Young Adult, which stars Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt and was made by the people behind Juno, which I’ve never seen. Besides feeling lots and lots of secondhand embarrassment for Charlize Theron’s character, Patton Oswalt’s excellent turn at dramatic acting, and this song from Teenage Fanclub, the movie has one very important thing going for it. In the movie, Charlize Theron’s character’s profession is… wait for it… YA series ghostwriter!!!

    Now we can imagine how Nola Thacker looked while working on the BSC, amirite?

    So Mavis, Theron’s character, is a ghostwriter for a YA series called Waverly Prep, which I imagine to be more in the Gossip Girl vein than the BSC or SVH, but whatever. The thing that stuck with me, besides the realization that ghostwriter for a YA/middle grade reader series is kind of a dream job for me, is that the fact that the series has just been CANCELLED is a plot point that’s kind of floating in the background the whole time, and, in my opinion, the thing that really sets off Mavis’s mid-30s crisis, even more than the fact that her long-ago boyfriend had a baby and is apparently happy.

    This, of course, brought to mind the BSC and its end in 2000. The end of the BSC has always been spun as, “Ann decided it was time for the thing to end,” but it’s always struck me as more PR than truth. Let’s look at the facts:

  • Before the introduction of Friends Forever, they redesigned the Mystery series, only to use the new covers for, oh, three books. Now, it’s possible that the art department and the editorial department just didn’t communicate that well, but it says to me that Friends Forever was something that was moved along quickly and was somewhat of a surprise to those who worked on the series.
  • California Diaries and Little Sister ended without a satisfying, wrap-everything-up ending, whereas Friends Forever had Graduation Day. The Claudia/Alan, and yes I am just going to go with this fantasy of mine here, Mary Anne/Cary (or at least Mary Anne-on-her-own) plotlines were not resolved. Stacey/Ethan also didn’t really get a satisfying conclusion.

    It seems to me that the ending of the BSC, and perhaps even the transition to Friends Forever, was more sudden than Ann & Co. let on. It would have been fairly easy to put together Graduation Day, because it’s the obvious conclusion to the series. It would have been harder to decide a proper sendoff for Ducky and Karen. Perhaps the California Diaries team and the Little Sister team didn’t even know they were being axed alongside the BSC and figured that rumors about the end of the BSC wouldn’t affect them–maybe Little Sister had better sales than its big sister series, much like how the Full House “Michelle” books were being published long after ABC cancelled the show. I’m not sure how good California Diaries sales were, but I can see them attracting the audience that felt embarrassed to be buying the BSC, but still wanting to feel some connection to the characters.

    It’s entirely possible that only the FF editorial team was given enough notice to properly finish out the series. Maybe the LS and CD people had a whole bunch of books outlined that they never got to finish. I’d ask @PeterLerangis, but I’m sure Scholastic made him sign a blood oath to never tell the true story.

    One of the things that struck me about the plotline in the film is that they did in fact use the word “cancelled,” exactly as you would for a television series. I guess it makes sense for a book series as well; I had just never thought of that way. I had always seen the end of a book series as more as an agreement between the author and publisher, not the publisher deciding to no longer publish the books. Looking back on it, I think this is probably a naive attitude to have about how the publishing world works. Just like how many cancelled series have episodes in the can that will never air, I am sure that many book series had more plots outlined and new characters in the wings that never ended up on bookshelves.

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