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Why do most children’s books have a liberal bias?

24 January 2014

Anyone who wonders why conservatism is such a lost cause in this country only needs to turn on children’s television to see what the voters of tomorrow are being taught.

I used to think that I was the only person who detected a liberal bias in children’s programmes, but if I am actually losing the plot, at least there are two of us. As Henry Jeffreys writes in this week’s magazine:

The purpose of children’s stories has always been to educate as well as entertain. I was brought up on the Railway Stories by Revd W. Awdry, which later became the TV series Thomas the Tank Engine. These stories have a strict moral code: when an engine misbehaves he is chastised and often punished by the Fat Controller. In a story that terrified me as a child, my namesake Henry the Green Engine refused to leave a tunnel because he didn’t want the rain to mark his new paint job. To teach him a lesson, the Fat Controller had him bricked up in the tunnel. The lesson was clear — don’t be vain about your shiny new paint job. 

Compare this with a programme on CBeebies (the channel of choice for my daughter) called Mike the Knight. Mike is a knight in training and each episode consists of a ho-hum quest such as stopping the local Vikings stealing pies. He’s not a very like-able figure, Mike, arrogant and stupid, just the sort of character who might benefit from a bit of bricking up in a tunnel. Through over-confidence he initially fails in his quest and becomes disheartened. Rather than tell him where he’s going wrong, his companions — a couple of camp dragons and his sister — bolster his confidence and eventually, with a bit of luck and a lot of help from his friends, the quest is completed successfully. Everyone then tells Mike that he ‘has saved the day’.

Compare and contrast; the former lesson, although not necessarily political, naturally leads to a conservative outlook in life, that is that authority has a role in taming our inner child and turning us into mature adults responsible for their actions and its consequences. The latter contains the message that misbehavior is a product of unfortunate circumstances, in this case a lack of self-esteem, and it is one that naturally leads to a liberal outlook in life. Long before people are at the age when they gravitate towards a political philosophy these lessons will form their view of why things are as they are. If you exposed children exclusively to either of these two separate lessons they would likely grow up to have different views about how to run the departments for education and justice.

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Children’s books are basically the same. I’m not a climate change sceptic but if I were, selecting a children’s book would be a nightmare, since half of them seem to have some environmental theme, with the poor animals endangered by evil humans (off the top of my head The Snail and the Whale).

Others contain the message that people can overcome stereotypes about gender roles (Zog); overcome their fear of the others because preconceived ideas about people are wrong (The Pirates Next Door); or that humans are bastards (The Hunter). There are plenty more.

Am I just turning into a colossal middle-aged bore? Possibly, but none of the older books we have, from the 50s and 60s, have these underlying messages; My Naughty Little Sister is naughty simply because she’s a bloody nuisance, which is what most people with a more sensible view of human nature at the time thought.

Is this because lefti-ish ideas are easier for children to understand, or is it because these are ideas that certain well-educated, arts-centred adults believe in? I recently found in my in-laws’ house a book from the early 1970s featuring some of the endearing things that children say about the world, and a lot of them could be slogans from the anti-austerity movement; lots of things about why the world isn’t fair because some people are rich, and why can’t people just get rid of all guns and why can’t they just give everyone in Africa enough money so no one starves. In real life you can’t simply magic away such problems and there is no happy ending, only a trade-off between different problems.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those books mentioned, of course – my kids love them – but I do wonder what goes into their head. I was reading Michael Morpurgo’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin the other week, in which the protagonist refuses a large sum for his services because, as he says, ‘when one man becomes rich ten are made poor’. I’m not an unswerving free-marketer and I doubt trickle-down theory, but that’s just plain untrue, as I told my children. They are five and three.

Boy, are they are going to hate me when they grow up.

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Show comments
  • Fergus Pickering

    For some reason my post has disappeared. I shall repeat the main thrust of it. Most of the great writers of children’s fiction were conservatives as far as I can see, often conservatives with anarchic imaginations. Lewis Carroll, Richmal Crompton and Roald Dahl come to mind with no thought at all.

    • John Wolfenden
      • Fergus Pickering

        Well bethought, Mr Wolfenden. I would have added Frank Richards to my list had I thought of him. Billy Bunter is indeed immortal.

      • rob232

        Many thanks for the links. Although I was familiar with George Orwell’s essay I was not aware of Frank Richard’s reply. Although I enjoyed his stories as a boy I didn’t know very much about him and have since been reading about him.
        He has been compared to P.G.Wodehouse and I am reminded of the quote by Evelyn Waugh that he had created a world for us to delight in.
        George Orwell’s article comes out as quite churlish

  • rob232

    Children’s literature has always reflected the prejudices of the age.The books I read as a child all exhorted the values of the empire. They were full of racism,sexism and class snobbery. Many were blatently anti Catholic. I remember that one old book we had in the house dating from before the war (I think it was Blackie’s Girls Annual 1929) approved of shunning a classmate because of her ‘fat Jewish brothers’. Unfortunately my mother burnt the book so I can’t be more exact.
    None of this did me any harm mainly because these were not the values taught at home. One imagines it will be the same for modern children exposed to values which are too ‘liberal’.

    • Eddie

      Spot-on. The diversity obsessives seem to think that people having gollywogs or eating jam from jars with them on encouraged children to be racist. Utter nonsense! I doubt war stories make boys violent either – they just are! It’s innate!

      I was a boy in the late 70s but loved some books from an earlier age (time had filtered out the jingoistic trash though). I adored Professor Branestawm – though these days the lack of women and ethnic minorities in those books would get them burnt on the pc bonfire of the vanities. Kipling’s Just So stories are just perfect – though sadly he has been labelled a racist by the usual jobsworths.

      Maybe that why boys are turned off reading? Because they are given girly Jacqueline Wilson books and not good old fashioned violent adventure? Boys like facts too, not group hugs in circle time!)

      But I do think that a constant propaganda of children’s TV is social engineering and attempted brainwashing – and it is meant to be. The CBBC shows seem to have a pro-multiculti and thus pro-immigration agenda; also, they constantly refuse to reflect the real world – with the child care nurse characters being male and the car mechanic female. Fine. But fantasy.

      I always find it fascinating that Mark Twain’s books were removed from libraries in the 19th and early 20th centuries because they showed white kids associating with blacks; and now, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, they are removed from the same shelves under pressure from black campaigners who think they should be banned because they show ‘Uncle Tom’ figures.

      Plus ca change. Bigots, it seems, come in all skin colours!

      • mctruck

        Beg to differ on Prof. Branestawm! Norman Hunter’s boffin inhabited a world dominated by women, from Mrs Flittersnoop in his own home to the dowagers and wives of Pagwell.
        Notably, his friend Col. Dedshott showed the good sense not to get involved in unwinnable battles, and remained single…

    • Fergus Pickering

      I think many lefties would spurn a fat, Jewish brother

  • Terry Field

    The alternative to ‘ socialist fairness’ can only be explained to adults since the complexity of the argument is not to be understood by children.
    Many adults have the intellectual and educational level of children, and in consequence can never understand other than simplistic ‘left-wing’ slogan-level ideas.
    This perpetuates the socialist misery.
    It is unalterable.
    That is how we now live, as a result of universal suffrage, and this sort of democracy is well past its sell-by date.

  • Marie Louise Noonan

    Brats don’t watch TV in the way they used to.

  • Marie Louise Noonan

    Was Walt Disney a ‘liberal’?

  • Marie Louise Noonan

    Why is it that people buy into some simplistic political paradigm left over from the French revolution?

  • ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©

    “Anyone who wonders why conservatism is such a lost cause in this country only needs to…”

    remember what your lot has done to it.

    Fixed that for you, Ed West.

  • Liberty

    I don’t think they will hate you when you grow up, you may find [as I and my son do] that undergraduate socialists are misguided, the world works better with markets and wealth for one is not poverty for others because the wealthy either invest directly, leave it with a bank to invest or it is spent – it is never wasted. So get rich son but do it honourably, invest and spend it wisely for it is a dead cert that the government won’t.

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  • rtj1211

    The bottom line is that no children’s stories will be right for all children, since in every society you have attitudes which condemn some to misery.

    Would you still be a Conservative if your values condemned your son to misery??

    You might like to ask whether your relationship with your children is more important than your personal political views. Since if you aren’t open to the possibility that your children might fare better with different values you have some growing up to do.

    You might be lucky, they might be naturally conservative like you.

    But if they turned out liberal, what choices would you make??

  • James Allen

    This is the thin end of much larger wedge. Our culture is dominated by leftist ideas… Even the Tory party overseas state spending at 50% of national production. Perhaps a little leadership from the Right might help – I dunno, by cutting back the state and motivating people to be self-reliant, for example?

  • Donafugata

    Discipline, which is an important feature in traditional fairy stories, the brothers Grimm et al, has been abandoned for the moral relativism of the 1960s.

    Children, of any age, have an inate sense of justice and are confused by the liberal bias rather than enlightened by it. They need to begin with a clear sense of right and wrong until they are old enough to develop a more nuanced understanding of human nature.

  • tjamesjones

    So we’ll probably all happily agree here, presumably no UKIP v Tory split on the question of children’s literature? Or is there?

    In any case, my best example of the problem is any character that is a dragon in any modern children’s books. They are invariably wet, never harm or scare anyone. Because that’s what life is like isn’t it, just so long as we wish hard enough.

  • Ron Todd

    I don’t get to watch much children’s telly (thank goodness) what did annoy me about the bits I saw was the presenters; usually one obviously gay man one ethnic minority and one woman.

  • Swanky

    We’re not ‘climate change skeptics’ either, Ed — as you know. We’re not skeptical that climate changes. We WERE skeptical that alarmism was warranted. And no scientist/warmist/alarmist has yet been able to tell me why a tiny bit of warming is a terrible thing. They’re even less convincing when people are dying in English winters.

    • Peter Stroud

      Absolutely right. I am an old codger with children in their 40s and 50s. So I found little to complain about in their childhood books. Now I am despondent to hear that, some current children’s books, are used as propaganda vehicles for the CAGW brigade. The very same group who work tirelessly to stifle any claims that counter their doctrine: no matter how scientifically sound. Let us hope that teachers,in the latter years of today’s children’s schooling, will counter this propaganda, and encourage them to challenge politically inspired science: whoever peddles it.

      • Swanky

        Not terribly hopeful about that, Peter, but share your sentiments.

  • rtryyee

    This really is a misrepresentation of Mike the Knight. Almost every episode involves him messing things up through selfishness and self-absorption before being led to see the error of his ways. It’s pretty much exactly the same narrative arc as the Thomas stories – nowadays they don’t involve ridiculously unfair punishments.

    And The Snail and the Whale is hardly an environmentalist’s dream – the whale gets distracted by motorboats having already strayed too near the shore. And how is a book with the message that “preconceived ideas about people are wrong” left-wing? What do you want, a book full of stereotypes that turn out to be true? The lesson there would be roght-wing? I really don’t tihnk this argument has legs.

    I literally did more research last night reading to my son than the author of this article has bothered with. you’re not a ‘grumpy old man’, you’re just an uninspired old hack.

    • tastemylogos

      I though your post was actually quite decent. Wrong in my opinion, but fine. I personally cringe when seeing what my kids are watching and do y best to find them other channels of entertainment, but your perception is fine. It is all subjective, init?

      Then your last paragraph gave the game away. I thought to myself…. ‘Only a leftie could be offensive about somebody holding an alternative world view or opinion’. (not certain, obviously but the amount of times this materialises is bloody uncanny)

      Looking at your recent posting history, I wish Paddypower provided odds.

      • rtryyee

        it’s not a question of ‘holding an alternative worldview’, it’s that the writer here is literally and directly misrepresenting the things he’s writing about. And without these examples his article falls apart.

        what i find weirder here is the idea of what being right-wing is. Does Mr West want his children to grow up not sharing anything with others or indeed working with others to solve problems, treating people who look different to them with disdain and unfairness, and mistreating animals?

        His actual beliefs seem to pretty much be those of a book he decries – that ‘humans are bastards’, and that we shouldn’t teach our children any different.

        It’s a wonder, if this genuinely is right-wing thinking, why the right aren’t always in power, with these kinds of ideas.

        • tastemylogos

          > writer here is literally and directly misrepresenting the things he’s writing about.

          He has the decency to use anecdota evidence to substantiate his point. You have simply dismissed it without even referencing those citations! Says much about your position.

          > Mr West want his children to grow up not sharing anything with others or indeed working with others to solve problems.

          What planet are you on?!?!?! Where do you get these simplistic views of the wolrld from? cite a political thinker that sums ‘Right Wing’ thinking in such a way.

          That definition of ‘Right wing’ reveals a lot about your bigotry and intellectual vacuity than anything else, fella. Laughable.

          • rtryyee

            Um, i do reference them – he’s deliberately misrepresenting the texts in question. And the inferences of what he considers ‘left-wing thinking’ is that he takes the opposing view. ergo he genuinely does want his kids growing up not helping others or sharing.

            But he doesn’t really, cos this is just clickbait.

            • tastemylogos

              > he’s deliberately misrepresenting the texts in question

              nice use of the adjective, ‘deliberate’. As if, anybody deviating from your world view cannot be doing so, honestly.

              > . ergo he genuinely does want his kids growing up not helping others or sharing.

              change the record pal. Only a simpleton would dichotomise (sic) the political spectrum in such a way.

              Left = helps otehrs. Right = selfishness.

              Simple concepts emanating from a simple mind,

              If you’re not, say, 20, and therefore lacking the time, experience and reading in which to formulate well thought through ideas and analyses, it is quite frankly pathetic.

  • ADW

    Is it any wonder so many adolescents are utterly convinced the world owes them a living and that anything unfortunate that happens to them is entirely someone else’s fault?

    The original Little Red Riding Hood at least taught children something unsentimental about wolves and how to deal with them, and the Gingerbread Man paid for having an outsized gob as I recall (he showed off about running fast, until caught and eaten). Same with the boy who cried wolf – it taught children not to seek attention unnecessarily.

    Best of all the Emperor’s New Clothes – should be required reading for anyone connected in any way with the Tate Modern or the whole Brit Art crud …

    • David Coveney

      Not /entirely/ convinced that filling a wolf’s stomach with stones is still considered the best way to handle them.

      • tastemylogos

        better than being eaten yourself due to a wholly misplaced dumb and naive sense of ’empathy’. Donchathink?

        • First L

          Ah, but the poor wolf suffered from a broken childhood. It wasn’t his fault that he liked to eat Grandmothers.

          • La Fold

            Is obviously the grandmothers fault. Not only did she build her house on an illegal settlement, she obviously tried to force her matriarchal imperialistic, species-ists agenda and values upon the indigenous population of the wood. Its just a shame the wolf didnt eat her Colonialist oppressor lickspittle grand daughter as well.

    • Marie Louise Noonan

      Today’s adolescents? As opposed to ‘yesterday’s adolescents’? Perhaps the concept of ‘adolescence’ is the problem. ‘The American ‘teen’. Get them to take it back.

      • ADW

        I didn’t say “today’s adolescents” though I’m not sure the phrase is redundant as you seem to inter.

  • Kennybhoy

    Because the left-liberal consensus is an organized conspiracy to corrupt? Every totalitarian project understand that you have to catch em’ young…

    • Swanky

      Exactly. Publishing is a leftist bastion. So is education. Why look further?

    • Tom

      I think that is a fact understood by every ‘project’. And I don’t think that right wing organisations shy away from attempting to influence the young. How many children’s books are there about Christianity? Then of course you have ‘Bible Camps’. People and organisations from across the political spectrum and of varied beliefs tailor literature towards children, denouncing only one faction because you happen not to like its message is hardly reasonable.

      • RobertC

        Haven’t seen any of that on the BBC, so it can’t exist. :)

    • chxxlie

      yes, you’re right, it’s a conspiracy. Couldn’t be that the more liberal-minded are simply more attracted to writing childrens books and working in publishing, or that the demographic don’t find conservate moralism as appealing. Definitely a conspiracy.

      • Swanky

        Wrong, I’m afraid. Lots of classical liberals/conservatives want to publish all kinds of fiction. I know whereof I speak. We are legion. But it’s harder for us — in an already hard and overcrowded industry — to be heard, since the gatekeepers are mainly left-liberal, and usually radically so. Are you a literary agent by any chance?

        • chxxlie

          If the gatekeepers (meaning the publishers, I presume) are “mainly left-liberal” then I’m at least partly right! I don’t mean to imply that everyone in the business leans that way — of course they don’t — but I don’t think it’s wrong to suggest that one’s politics might affect their career choices (and even vice versa). Surely speculating that liberals make up the majority in the arts isn’t such an outlandish suggestion.

          Unfortunately I’m merely a pizza chef and occasional hack but I promise to read your manuscript if my “liberalism” ever fast-tracks me into the publishing biz!

          • tastemylogos

            > Surely speculating that liberals make up the majority in the arts isn’t such an outlandish suggestion

            unless you have read a quantitative study then yes, it is your prejudice that makes you believe it isn’t outlandish. Nothing more, nothing less.

            The fact you miss this point, says it all.

            Bigoted much?

            • AndrewS

              “unless you have read a quantitative study then yes, it is your prejudice that makes you believe it isn’t outlandish. Nothing more, nothing less.”

              Well done. You have applied an important skill of modern political debate very skilfully; namely, do not address the intended point, pick on some extraneous detail, react with indignation, then abuse and/or smear your debating opponent. If, however, You intend to ‘go large’ politically then I recommend that you adopt a far more effective, I might even say killer, method of commissioning your own pseudo-scientific “quantitive studies” to support your own prejudices (they are very easy to obtain provided you hold the correct political opinions). Believe me they are worth every penny as they close down debate quickly and will leave your opponent spitting in impotent fury.

              • tastemylogos

                For me to make a point, you have to offer one.

                Stating that conservatives do not feel the need to go into childrens literature is no more a point than saying the sky is green.

                Based on what, exactly? Mr Stupid.

                You can only come to both conclusions once your perspective is premised in prejudice.

                Offer a quantitive evidence or do stop being stupid.

                • Marie Louise Noonan

                  Some people view the world in a simplistic dichotomised way. This left-right thing is a God send for such people.

                  As a Catholic (lapsed) I would argue that it’s probably because they are a bunch of uneducated Prods. 😉

          • Swanky

            Gotcha — but one’s politics affects one’s prospects much more than one’s choices, in my experience. My hubby is a high school teacher and he has to keep very quiet about his own views, not being a Lefty.

            P. S. My fave pizza is mushroom, onions, and jalapenos, finished with pepperoni or achovies. Succulent, spicy, delicious!

            • chxxlie

              Fair point, and no doubt swings the other way in other industries. Shame about your husband as I think children should be exposed to a range of views. (Ed West clearly hasn’t read The Gruffalo, probably the most deservingly successful children’s book of recent years, which seems to analogise the advantage of military might and cunning!) I assume your husband works in a state school and wonder whether he’d have the same experience working in a public or faith school.

              It’s a difficult thing to debate without any data in front of me. I remember reading an article not so long ago about the conservative minority in the art world (which, unfortunately, I’m unable to find again) but those desiring and struggling to get a foot-in is, I suppose, a hard thing to measure.

              Re: Pizza: I generally consider mushroom to be the benchmark by which a new pizzeria should be measured. Though not necessarily the best, if the Pizza Funghi isn’t worth eating then, generally speaking, nothing else will be either!

              • Swanky

                : ) Thanks for the response. He teaches in a private school and always has done so — except for a brief stint in Harlem. It’s the same everywhere, at least in N. America.

                • chxxlie

                  By public school I meant private school! The British system is confusing like that. Anyway, I can’t really speak for either country’s.

                  I enjoyed the excerpts from your book, by the way.

                • Swanky

                  Ah, right. Be glad you’re not a teacher: I am!

                  Glad you like my writing in some way. One tends to worry about it!

                • Fergus Pickering

                  No Swanky. Be glad you are a teacher. You might have been something utterly vile, like a lawyer.or a banker.

            • Fergus Pickering

              I’m sure there are many teachers just like him. In fact I know there are.

              • Swanky

                Well, in this country at least, they’re outnumbered. Greatly. And as they retire, there are fewer every year. The species is going extinct!

                • Fergus Pickering

                  There have always been teachers who flouted the prevailing ethos. The Headmaster of my school tried for years to sack my English master but he died (the Head) and my man was still there, a giant among men who drank with Auden and with Dylan Thomas..

      • tastemylogos

        What utter nonsense. Do you honestly think ‘c’onservatives are incapable or less likely to feeling warmth towards children? Do ‘c’onservatives distatse literary endeavour, providing entertainment to the young, shaping their outlook, making them better people?

        What a bizarre and hate filled perception of ‘c’onservatism you have. Do grow up and engage in JUST A LITTLE critical thinking.

        Wow, the public sector or the arts and film industry did a job on you, didn;t they?

        • chxxlie

          Thanks for your civil response. I apologise for offering a couple of possible answers not far removed from West’s own speculations in critique of the ridiculous suggestion that this is all a carefully organised liberal conspiracy. I hadn’t meant to imply that 100% of all authors for children are left-wing, or anything even close to that number, merely in publishing and the arts, the majority might just lean that way.

          Unfortunately I am unable to comment on my supposedly hate-filled perception of conservatism as I was, up until this point, completely oblivious to it. I have been a regular reader of The Spectator for much of my life courtesy of a right-of-centre father who I remain very close to despite his complete lack of feeling towards me prior to the age of 16. I hadn’t, however, realised that that meant I had to agree with everything in it, for wich I am deeply sorry. Curse my complete lack of critical faculties.

          I commend you, Sir, for having been so accurate in your perception of me despite the near-complete absence of any evidence. Presumably you also think that liberals are conspiring to monopolise the thoughts of your offspring, and I would be inclined to agree with you now, having been swayed by such a precisely black-and-white view of the world.

          All the best,

          Your hateful, thick, infantile, art school dropout

          • tastemylogos


            and the offence continues. I’m thick? dunno, but you have serious behavioural issues.

            The hypocricy makes me giggle though:

            > having been swayed by such a precisely black-and-white view of the world.

            Isn’t a black and white world view precisely what eads you to believe that ‘c’onservatives are incapable of producing literature for children?!?!?!

            You are a MUPPET, mate. think about it for just a second.

            You have nothing to offer other than prejudice and hatred. stop projecting your difficult relationship with your father on others. Like to speak to someone? Never too late to fix these anger issues.

            • chxxlie

              wow… I’m genuinely astonished. You really didn’t get any of that at all. Do you just look at words and thread together the few you understand into whatever’ll make you sufficiently angry? Is that what you think reading is?

              • tastemylogos

                I’m not the one who spouts hate bile at strangers.

                Hsve you ever tried fixing your relationship wuth your old man. You might feel better and it could go a long way towards making sure you refrain from throwing emotional tosh at others whilst hiding behind your keyboard.

                Tough guy.

                • chxxlie

                  …riiiiiiiiight. What a tragic waste of sarcasm. Bye.

                • tastemylogos

                  you literally can’t help yourself but be offensive can you, tough guy? When you have no real argument that isn’t premised in prejudice and intellectual bigotry its what happens, I guess.

                  When you;ve fixed that relationship with your father, and get that Open University degree, we’ll chat.

                • chxxlie

                  You’re actually hilarious.

                • tastemylogos

                  nope. still quantitative citation as to how being liberal makes you more caring or more predisposed to childrens literature.

                  So persuasive are your ‘gut feelings’.

                  Nuff said. Another thicko destroyed with logic.

      • FrenchNewsonlin

        Yet if you go back to 30s, 40s and 50s and of course earlier, children’s books were full of moral tales and conservative (small c) ideals. So no its not that the ‘demographic don’t find conservate (sic) moralism as appealing’, its that the ‘demographic’ has likely been indoctrinated by the education system of the past 50 years and in turn are indoctrinating others.

        • Marie Louise Noonan

          From the Catholic Education resource centre:

          ‘Fairy tale and modern fantasy stories project fantastic other worlds; but they also pay close attention to real moral “laws” of character and virtue. By portraying wonderful and frightening worlds in which ugly beasts are transformed into princes and evil persons are turned to stones and good persons back to flesh, fairy tales remind us of moral truths whose ultimate claims to normativity and permanence we would not think of questioning.’

          These things are still in existence. I bought my niece a delightful collection of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales for Christmas.

          Nobody tried to stop me, arrest me, shoot me. I guess those ‘liberal social guardians’ were asleep at their posts.

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