Category Archives: the arts

Free Reading Friday: The Upside of Unrequited

upside of unrequitedI really enjoyed The Upside of Unrequited. Considering how much I loved Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, it’s no real surprise that I found Becky Albertalli’s “companion novel,” very enjoyable.

As much as I really liked Simon, I think this book spoke to me more. Probably because like Molly, the main character, when I was in high school, I too was a fat girl who had a darn lot of crushes and no actual boyfriends to speak of. Sure, I may not have had two moms or a twin sister who seemed to be developing a romantic life well before me, but I had a plethora of very good friends, none of whom seemed to be struggling romantically the way I was. And I attributed quite a bit of that to the fact that most of my friends didn’t have the same sort of waistline I did.

I actually saw myself quite a bit in Molly’s character. Granted, I would have never sworn around my folks the way she swears around hers, but I did have a pretty good relationship with my folks. But, like Molly, I kept a LOT of things to myself. Like Molly, I spent a lot of time throwing myself into projects to keep busy and keep my mind off all the ways I was unhappy. Like Molly, I think I was suffering from depression (only mine were not diagnosed). Like Molly, I never really felt comfy in my own skin and could not see myself the way others saw me. Like Molly, I had a big heart and was a great friend. But also like Molly, at times I was a rather “shitty” friend–because I wanted to be happy for them, but I was so jealous of them that it was hard at times.

And like Molly, I pretty much never acted on my crushes. I was far too afraid of being rejected. I had crush after crush after crush. I admired from afar. Even when I thought a guy liked me (which I actually thought a few times), I was too scared to act on it. And, as a result, I ended up losing out on what I later found might have been actual relationships, or at least dates.

It took me a long time to find my confidence and be ok with who I am. I’m glad Molly was able to do it (to a large degree) over the course of a summer. I wish my journey had been that short!

This book is great for just about any teenager who has ever struggled with his/her self image. It’s great for anyone who has ever had unrequited crushes. It’s wonderful for anyone who is LGBTQ+. It’s just a wonderful book.

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Travel Thursday: Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh castle.jpgAlthough I think London is the foreign city that has my heart, Edinburgh is a close second. I don’t know if it is the stunning architecture, the incredible history, the friendliness of the people or the fact that it is just big enough to feel like it would take months to really see it all, but still small enough to feel homey, but I adore it. In fact, despite my sheer adoration for everything London has to offer, if I was really going to pack my family up and move them to a city in the UK, I’d probably pick Edinburgh. London would be the place for me if I was single, but Edinburgh definitely seems more like my speed with a husband and two kids.

Not that I’m moving over seas any time soon (or ever).

I’ve only been to Edinburgh twice, but both time I’ve visited Edinburgh Castle. I guess that’s not really a surprise since both times I was leading a student trip and if there’s a castle or cathedral in the area, it seems student trips will stop there. We actually visited three castles/palaces and three cathedrals during our nine day trip (and one of those days was spent entirely in flight).

Edinburgh viewEven by castle standards, Edinburgh is pretty spectacular, if for no other reason than it has the best view of any castle in the UK that I’ve visited. I love the fact that it is set up on top of the hill. The view is breathtaking. Since I’d already visited the castle three years ago, I didn’t do nearly as many touristy things on this visit. I’d already seen the crown jewels and watched the one o’clock gun fired. So this time I spent a lot more time just walking around and taking everything in. I got to casually stroll through the castle, which was lovely. I spent time looking out over the entire beautiful city. It was such a nice break from neurotically counting my students to make sure they were all accounted for.

It was also nice to have just a bit of time to myself. On these trips, I rarely let students out of my sight, however, since there is only one way in or out of the castle and I knew my students would have no way to get into any trouble or get lost inside the castle, I was able to give them all an hour to just explore and enjoy. Sure, I made them promise to stay in pairs (and most stayed in groups of 4 or 5), but I let them feel a bit more grown up and explore without one of the adults looking over their shoulders. This also meant I got some quiet time to myself. Sure, I could have hung out with the other chaperones, but we’d also been together pretty much nonstop and it was nice to just walk around and take it all in.

The history at this castle is pretty amazing. Even by the old standards of the UK, this castle is old. St. Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building within the castle walls dates back between 1130-1140. It is so amazing to not only see this building still standing, but to be able to step inside and touch this piece of history. I also have to admit to being more than a little obsessed with the TV show Reign for awhile, and even though I know that about 90% of the “historical” element to the show is bunk, I still loved following the story of Mary Queen of Scots. To me it is so cool to visit the castle where she actually gave birth to her son, James VI.

Although I’m not big on military history, one of my chaperones is a former Marine and he thought it was pretty cool that the Scottish National War Museum and memorial are located inside the castle. He did have a slightly funny moment when he saw what was labelled as a soldier’s privy and thought it might a bathroom set up for military members (as part of a thank you for their service). Since he had to go to the bathroom, he was disappointed to find out it was just a exhibit of what bathrooms were like at the time prisoners of war were kept in the castle.

castle far offSpeaking of bathrooms, the only downside to visiting the castle this time was that I really had to go to the bathroom! I got a little turned around and could only find the bathroom in the cafe. Unfortunately there were only two stalls and the line actually extended out the door, around the corner, up the first set of stairs, onto the first landing and partially up the second set of stairs. I think I spent 20 minutes of my free time in the queue waiting for relief. I was really glad I had not followed the lead of my students and gotten coffees to help warm up on the slightly blustery day.

Long wait for the bathroom aside, it was a great day.

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Munchie Monday: Rococo Bee Bar

Rococo Bee BarI know I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, but I am willing to spend rather ridiculous amounts of money on chocolate. Some people go on shoe shopping sprees. Some have an affinity for purses or tools, or for people like my husband, Magic the Gathering cards. I always tease him about the thousands he has spent on cards over the years. He fires right back at me about chocolate. I can honestly say I spend way less on chocolate each year than he spends on his Magic addiction, but that is not to say the chocolate bills don’t rack up.

On my recent trip to the UK, my students joined in on mocking my spending habits. While many of them thought nothing of dropping 30 pounds on clothing from Oxford, 50 pounds on jewelry in London or in one case, over 100 pounds for a cashmere sweater in Edinburgh, when I spent 47 pounds at a chocolate shop in York, it was days before I heard the end of it.

Not that I cared much. I don’t like clothing with logos or names on it, I hardly ever wear jewelry and don’t even want to think about caring for a cashmere sweater! Yes, I’ll take my edible spending habit any day.

When I went into York Chocolate Story, I really, really wanted to take the chocolate tour. York is, after all, a chocolate city. Yes, that’s right. While other cities in the UK earned their wealth from wool or cotton or steel or coal, York has pretty much always been known for its sweet treats. They have a chocolate trail where visitors can follow in the footsteps of chocolate development. This was my kind of city. On our initial walking tour we passed about a dozen sweet shops and I made sure to memorize where the ones that specifically dealt in chocolate were.

Despite my complete love for chocolate, I’ve only ever been on two chocolate tours before, once in Hershey, Pennsylvania and once when my husband and I went on a bourbon themed trip in Kentucky. We found a small family owned chocolate shop that did tours and then tastings of bourbon balls and it was great. I’ve wanted to go on several other tours, but I’m always on vacation when I find them and inevitably no one else wants to go with me. Since I was chaperoning a student group on this trip and they wanted to shop for souvenirs, this tour was another pipe dream for me. Instead, I had to settle for a visit to their cafe and shop.

At least it was a really cool shop with tons of candies to choose from. It was really hard to limit myself. I wanted so many of the delicious looking treats, but I limited myself to a box of filled chocolates from York Chocolate Story, a tin with some sort of amazing looking chocolate bark, three large chocolate bars from various localish confectioneries, a box of six truffles from the chocolate case and one tiny bar from a company called Rococo Chocolates.

Until I grabbed this bar, I had no idea it was “London’s Best Luxury Online Chocolate Shop.” Turns out I managed to miss their actual shop when I was in London. Despite being in Covent Garden twice during my three day stay, I didn’t find them–in all fairness, one of the times I was tied up with a student who was having a panic attack and didn’t get to see anything there. I really wish I’d have gotten to visit the star. While York Chocolate Story did have a decent selection of Rococo’s chocolate bars, they didn’t have any of the specialty Roald Dahl ones and I would have bought at least three of those: one for myself and one for each of my kids who love Dahl’s books.

Basil and limeI grabbed the miniature Basil & Persian Lime dark chocolate bar. I wanted to try this one since it was a flavor combination I’ve never had before. Whenever I am somewhere new, I often try to find truly unique chocolates. Anyone can make a regular old milk or dark chocolate bar (granted with varying degrees of success), but I like to try the more exotic. I’ve had spiced chocolate before, but usually it’s cardamom or ginger or chili. I’ve never had, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, chocolate infused with basil. I was also hoping the tartness of the lime might offset the bitterness of the dark chocolate. Although I have gotten much better at appreciating and even enjoying dark chocolate, I still like it best when it is paired with something tart like raspberry, lemon or lime.

The bar itself is very cute to look at. I love the detail of the bee on each section of chocolate. I was wondering why it was called a “bee bar” and while I’m still not sure if there is a connection other than the design, I liked the connection I could verify.

My first taste of the bar was a bit off putting. The basil was VERY strong and the lime marginal. However, as it slowly melted on my tongue, the basil died away and the lime became the lingering note. The dark chocolate was definitely bitter and not that offset by the basil or the lime. It was not an extremely bitter dark chocolate though, so I found it tolerable. On one of my bites I did sort of feel like I was actually crunching on dried herbs–not so much in taste as in texture. I found it slightly unnerving, but not so much that I stopped eating it.

The bar did leave a slightly odd aftertaste in my mouth. It was slightly herby and slightly sour. I definitely wanted a big drink of water after I’d finished with two squares of the chocolate. After that, I still had a lingering taste of chocolate in the back of my throat, but it was just barely there and sort of nice.

I split the other two squares between my kids and they both really liked it. Of course, they are far less picky about sweets than I am. Probably because they are not allowed to blow their allowances on chocolate bars.

Overall:

Taste: 7/10
Appearance: 9/10
Value: 6/10 (at $2.45 this bar is a bit small for the price)

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Free Reading Friday: We Are Never Meeting in Real Life

We are never meeting in real lifeI’m torn about We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby. On the one hand, Irby is pretty darn funny. I really enjoyed her very first essay “My Bachelorette Application.” It set what I felt was a very realistic and funny tone for the book. I also enjoyed all of her essays about her cat Helen, except maybe the last one. I know Irby worked in a vet’s office for 14 years (in fact, I LOVED her essay looking for a new job due to moving in with her wife) and she understood that what the vet was telling her about Helen was pretty hopeless, but having just put my beloved cat of 20 years to sleep, it just seemed a bit harsh at the end.

Then again, that’s the reason I am torn about this book. Irby is, without a doubt, honest in her essays. She is often brutally, in your face honest and sometimes it’s a bit hard to take. There were a couple of essays that I had trouble reading in one sitting just because they were so blunt that I felt I needed a break part way through. “Mavis” is a good example. Actually, a few of the essays talking about her relationship with Mavis were hard to read because it was hard to see why they were actually a couple and why they were getting married. I also am still not sure Irby is happy with it all and I like her, so I want her to be, especially considering her really rotten childhood.

Overall, this book is filled with more gems than it is hard to read portions (at least for me). One of my favorite parts was when she and her friend witnessed a Civil War reenactment while killing time between a wedding and the reception. It cracked me up when the re-enactor told her that her necklace was intense. I love her reply, “Honey, you are wearing a hoop skirt in 2013.” Even though Irby acknowledges her necklace was a bit intense and there’s a good chance the girl didn’t even mean it as an insult, Irby’s quick wit and defense mechanisms kicked in.

It took me a bit longer to read this book than I expected, but I’m glad it did.

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Travel Thursday: Edinburgh museums

Edinburgh whale and squidIn between touchdown in Edinburgh at just before 11 am and 10 pm that night when we finally got to sleep, we had time to explore the city. Part of that time was taken up by bus and walking tours, but about three hours was left for us to simply explore the city. We were all exhausted and the wind was raging in a way that brought to mind the plains of Kansas, so after walking around Greyfriar’s Kirkyard and getting some food, we decided to head into the National Museum of Scotland, which just happened to be right across the street from where we’d all eaten.

We decided to give the kids their first taste of travel freedom. As long as they remained with a buddy, they could explore the museum the way they wanted. We gave them two hours and a meeting place. Many of them really wanted to go to the top of the museum to walk along the outside observatory level to get a really great view of the city. Since I was also interested in doing this, I headed up with a group of 8 girls. Unfortunately, because the winds were blowing so hard, the rooftop viewing area was closed, so we had to remain indoors and actually look at the exhibits.

Edinburgh museum galleryAt first my students were disappointed, but then they found what looked like a giant hamster wheel, climbed in and started walking. I got some pretty hilarious videos to post on my Facebook travel page so their parents could watch them. This renewed both their energy and their desire to see more of the museum. So, we all went exploring.

The museum has some pretty cool hands on exhibits for kids. I was pleasantly surprised with how many very polite school groups we saw in the museum with kids exploring history, science and technology in a very hands on way. Sure, there were exhibits that were hands off, but those were interspersed with items anyone could touch and experience.

I found a lot of strange and fascinating things in the museum. A personal favorite was the giant whale and squid models featured at the top of this page. They reminded me of my visit to The House on the Rock in Wisconsin. When my best friend and I went about 12 years ago, we were both astounded by the whale vs giant squid fight they have on display there. I snapped this picture to send to my BFF.

Edinburgh millenium clockI also thought this strange Millennium clock tower was interesting. Or creepy. Or maybe both. The detail on it is incredibly intricate and full of strange, disturbing, somewhat macabre imagery. It is filled with images from the best and the worst of the 20th century. It is really pretty darn tall (10 meters) and has four separate sections that are supposed to resemble a medieval cathedral. It’s tucked away a bit in it’s own sort of darkened hallway, which adds to the creepy effect of the clock. It not only moves, as any good clock should, but also plays rather eerie music. It’s more than a bit depressing, but it definitely made my time at the museum more interesting!

The museum also has a cool collection of clothing, dating back to the 17th century, which is pretty neat. There are also a whole bunch of very modern, very couture looking outfits featured in the collection, including paper dresses and this interesting hybrid of dress and wings. It looked like the perfect outfit for an alien creature.

edinburgh light houseBefore I visited the museum, I had no idea that Scotland was the birthplace of lighthouses, so it was pretty cool to see a giant lighthouse bulb in the center atrium. When I think about it, it makes complete sense for an island nation to be the place where lighthouses got their start, but I love learning new bits of information like this, which is why I love visiting museums in different cities. Even the boring ones have something cool to offer.

Although I will admit that well before our two hour exploration time was up I found many of my group members gathered on benches in the atrium, half laying, half sitting, clearly struggling to keep their eyes open. I’m not sure they really knew what they were looking at. They just knew they were happy to be sitting down.

We got a bit of a second wind while walking back toward our meeting spot in the newer part of the city. Of course that was probably at least partially due to the actual wind being kicked up in our faces and propelling us forward. We still had an hour to kill before our meeting time. Some of our group members really wanted to shop and some wanted to head into the The Scottish National Gallery. A good number of my students had taken AP Art History and AP European History, so they were interested in seeing some of the paintings. As I’m never on these trips to shop, I happily agreed to stay with the art enthusiasts.

waterfallAt first, a few of the kids weren’t thrilled to be in the museum. I could tell they stayed with my group simply because they were too tired/had no desire to shop. However, the more we looked at paintings, the more into it they got. They were thoroughly impressed with the gorgeous landscapes like this lovely painting by Frederic Edwin Church called “Niagara Falls, from the American Side,” which was painted in 1867. They also really liked the Poussin’s Sacraments. We spent a good five minutes just sitting in that room (in part because we needed the rest), looking over each painting and charting the timeline of them.

They loved seeing works by artists they knew like Monet, Cezanne, van Gogh and Degas. Many of them were also captivated by a series of really cool flower paintings that were so detailed that they found tiny aphids, ladybugs and flies among the lovely buds.

unfinished paintingWe were all fascinated by a few unfinished paintings that were hanging in the gallery. This one, “The Allegory of Virtue” by Correggio was really cool. It was worked on between 1550-1560. The description explained that it was believed to be a first draft of a painting. I’d never really thought of drafting when it comes to paintings, so this was cool. This was the first time that I’d seen an unfinished painting like this hanging in a museum. And this wasn’t even the only one, which made it even cooler. My students were floored by these partially finished paintings.

 

They were also impressed with the fact that all these museums were free. Sure, they asked for donations (which I gave at both), but all these cool exhibits and glorious works of art are absolutely free to any visitor, regardless of where they come from. I know that we do have free museums in the US, but it seems they are few and far between and a great many people do not have access to them. I am so glad my students (and I) got to explore way more than just shops on this trip. I loved getting a taste of true Scottish history and culture on this trip.

 

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Wildcard Wednesday: travel souvenirs

souvenirsAny time I travel anywhere without my kids, their inevitable first question upon my return is not: How are you? What did you see? Did you miss us? No, their first question is the same universal one uttered by kids all around the globe: What did you bring us?

On my most recent trip to the UK, this particular question was a bit more specific, although just as insistent as usual: Did you bring me my wand?

Much to my delight (and my instigation), both of my kids LOVE the Harry Potter series. My son, who is 11, and I have read the first 5 books together. We started this tradition when he was 7 with the first book. My son is a very advanced reader. He was no doubt capable of reading and mostly understanding all seven of the books back in first grade when we started the first book. However, I knew he wasn’t even remotely emotionally ready for the series and so we took our time, each reading a page for 15-20 minutes at bedtime. It took us quite awhile to get through that first book, but it was perfect. He never lost interested, in fact, he was enthralled until the end. When we finished it, I let him reread the first book as many times as he wanted to. We repeated this when he was 8 with the Chamber of Secrets. At 9 we moved on to the Prisoner of Azkaban.

I’ll admit I was quite worried about what the Goblet of Fire would bring when he hit 10. He was stunned at the death scene, but since we read it together, we were able to talk through it. We did the same with The Order of the Phoenix, although the talk took a bit longer as I spent quite a bit more time crying than he did.

As he gets older and is more emotionally ready to deal with the content of the books, I have decided to step up our reading of the books. I’m going to hand over The Half Blood Prince this fall when he starts sixth grade instead of making him wait until February.

My daughter, who is 8, however, is still only on the second book. Unlike my son, she still truly believes in the magical world and is very concerned with the prospect of being a muggle. Although I have tried to tell her they are just books, I don’t think she believes me. She refuses to believe that Hogwarts is not a real place, so I finally had to tell her that she won’t get her letter because she is not British. For now it seems to have done the trick. She no longer asks why her brother hasn’t gotten his letter AND she has stopped asking when exactly she’ll get hers.

It was no surprise to me that when she realized I was actually going to the UK that she’d ask me to bring her back something Harry Potter related. After all, she knew I’d already visited Platform 9 3/4 once and when she asked if I’d be going back, I wasn’t going to lie to her.

Knowing where I was going, she made her request: a wand. And a spell book. After all, what good is a wand if there are no spells to go with it?

My son was less sure of what he wanted until he looked at the Platform 9 3/4 shop website and saw a copy of the Marauder’s Map. That was what he wanted.

I’d visited the shop at Platform 9 3/4 three years ago and knew wands were not cheap. I just happened to be looking around on the WISH app and found Harry Potter’s wand for under $10, so I bought it. Sure, it took several weeks for it to arrive, but I ordered it in plenty of time. I also ordered her a spell book off of Amazon. For less than the cost of one wand in the UK, which I would have to pack in my luggage and bring back home, I got her a wand and a spell book. I hid them away, told my husband where to find them and had him bring them to the airport when he picked me up. As I was loading my bag into the back of his vehicle, I slipped the wand and book into my suitcase so that I could open it later and surprise my daughter.

And she was ecstatic!

We were a bit less ecstatic when all through dinner she tried to cast spells on us. She couldn’t understand why her new wand was not working quite the way she hoped it would. I was VERY sleep deprived after being up for 20 hours straight, but managed to remind her that she was only 8, and hadn’t actually been taught how to do the spells yet. I reminded her that even Hermoine needed a little help. She was pretty ok with that, especially when I jumped in my seat a bit when she tried to levitate me. Yes, I know, that will probably come back to bite me in the end, but I’m not quite ready to destroy her sense of wonder yet.

My kids loved their souvenirs and I loved not having to pay full price for them, especially since hers were available in the states. I did get my kids some inexpensive UK specific items. I got them some fun candies we don’t have in the US. I got them really need multi-colored pencils from a Scottish art museum. I got them buttons from a castle, a bookmark from Oxford and cool scene changing postcards from a Harry Potter store I found in York. All told, those souvenirs rang up to less than 10 pounds.

It’s not that I’m cheap, but my kids already have so much. I like to see their faces when I bring them something from my travels, but I also hate spending hours and hours searching for the one thing they really want when I can just order it ahead of time and have it waiting. I learned that lesson four years ago when I went to Vegas with my best friend and my son wanted a scorpion encased in plastic/glass for his bug collection. He figured Vegas was in the dessert, so this would be an easy find. I agreed. Turns out I spent a good portion of the trip trying to find it and finally, in one of the last stores we visited, which was completely off the strip, I found one. Too much work for something that sits on his shelf. So now, if I can order ahead, I do.

 

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Teaching Tuesday: Audiobook Sync

Two years ago, our school librarian, who happens to be one of the best people I know (and my school BFF), introduced me to Audiobook Sync. It is a free summer audiobook program for teens. Although I only found out about it in 2016, it has actually been around since 2010.

The purpose of the program is to offer a variety of books to teens to expose them to a world of both fiction and nonfiction as well as give them the opportunity to enjoy books in audio form, something many of them are probably not familiar with. The program has offered classics like Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Macbeth as well as modern books by popular YA authors such as David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, Ruta Septys Between Shades of Grey and I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, three of my personal favorites. Audiobook Sync also offers some pretty amazing non-fiction like this year’s The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea, and last year’s The Witches, Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff and The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor by Mark Schatzker.

The program is pretty simple. Each Thursday, two books are offered for download. Students have one week to download the books to their devices before they disappear forever and two new books show up. Once downloaded, the books themselves never vanish. No matter if it takes students two days, two weeks, two months or two years to finish the books, as long as students don’t delete the books, they are theirs to keep and listen to as many times as they’d like.

When I first heard about the program, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I LOVE books. I love actual paper books that I can hold in my hands. I love the smell of them. I love the fell of them. I love their decorative covers. I love the satisfaction of seeing my progress every time I turn a page. I was a reluctant to convert any of my books to digital format and held out against a Kindle for way too long. However, once I got used to digital books, I realized how amazing they are when traveling. Instead of filling my beach suitcase with four or five books, which take up valuable packing real estate, I can load up my tiny Kindle and read those same books on a device that fist in my coat pocket. It took me awhile to convince myself that if I could convert to digital books, I should give audiobooks a chance.

I won’t lie, one of my biggest reasons for holding out was that I was worried I wouldn’t really be “reading” the books. I had many conversations with my fellow bibliophiles about whether or not listing to books was cheating. They all assured me that it wasn’t and that being a lover of theater, I might actually appreciate the theatrics that go into many audiobooks. I sighed and downloaded my first audiobook, 100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith.

I WAS HOOKED!

After listening to some pretty amazing books, including I’ll Give You the Sun, which became one of my all-time favorite YA books, I rushed back into school in July and raved about the program to my students. Since we are on the balanced calendar, there were still four more weeks of the program, which meant 8 more books that my students could download.

While not every book is amazing (some due to content and some due to mediocre performances), I have found some truly amazing books using this program. I have even gotten our school librarian to buy paper copies of many of the books so that I can book talk them and get them in the hands of my students.

 

If you are a teacher with reluctant readers, a parent looking for a way to get your kids interested in books or a teen who wants something fun to do this summer, check it out. There are still five more weeks in the program for this year (it is ending a bit earlier than usual this year) and still some amazing sounding books to download.

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