When does bullying become totalitarianism?

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I’ve been complaining for a while about the kind of author bullying that comes from cancel culture. By now, everybody should know how this goes: An author, often a young person-of-color who isn’t well established, offers a novel, and a mob on Twitter piles on with charges of racism, insensitivity and cultural appropriation. The mob keeps screaming until the author or publisher pulls the book. It may be quietly released later on, but the campaign has damaged the marketing buzz and reduces the sales and acclaim for the book. This activity recently spread to publishing when a mob incited by romance author Courtney Milan attacked a small publisher and a free-lance editor. The tactic generally works better on fairly powerless nobodies, as well-established authors can just ignore the whole thing. The question has been hanging there about whether this is just a “mean girls” sort of action where little jealousies lead to pulling people down, or whether it’s actually about something bigger.

A couple or three things have hit the news recently that are making me think this is something bigger, in fact, a symptom of larger and more dangerous social trends. The first of these is a revolutionary strain of anarcho-communist ideology running through the summer “protests against systemic racism.” In case anyone is still in the dark about this movement, it is a type of utopian communism that calls for the abolition of the state, capitalism, wage labor and private property. Supposed to “free” people from laws and government control, its goal is actually totalitarianism, where the prescribed beliefs become entrenched and are enforced by members of society as a requirement. Because of its proscriptions against capitalism, wage labor and private property, this movement means to destroy the usual avenues of success in Western societies like education, opportunity and rewards for individual hard work. That means if you’re a young person who has written a promising book, you need to be bullied into withdrawing it to keep you a nobody, and if you have a budding editing or publishing business, you need to lose it if you don’t toe the line on ideology. In case anyone is wondering what totalitarianism is about, it’s a dictatorial society that requires complete subservience to a list of stated beliefs.

So, what other evidence on totalitarianism do I have this week? I’ve just run across a proposal from academic Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, most recently noted for the 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist, where his main thesis is that antiracists should “dismantle” racist systems. Since publishing the book, Kendi has proposed a Constitutional amendment in the US to establish and fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA). This department would be responsible for “preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate and be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.” This is a huge amount of power. It sounds like embedding cancel culture as an official government function. And the big question is, what is going to constitute “racism?”

And my last bit of troubling evidence: I’ve been noting for a while the results of SFF awards that seem to trend toward particular favored groups and strongly discriminate against others. This seems to be an unwritten rule about what’s acceptable to win, however the results are managed. You’d think from the huge outcry about racism in recent years that this would promote persons-of-color, but it doesn’t look to be doing that. Instead, it has shown to benefit mostly white women. Now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (a.k.a. the Oscars) has actually published their award requirements, setting quotas for minority inclusion and limits on theme, storyline and narrative for writers:

A3. Main storyline/subject matter
The main storyline(s), theme or narrative of the film is centered on an underrepresented group(s).
• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

At first glance this might not seem to be that much of a problem. More minorities are employed, yah! But the damage to intellectual freedom is something else. This is a movement toward dictating what’s acceptable for people to write about and what’s acceptable for official recognition. During the Cold War, we used roll our eyes at the USSR and Maoist ideology-controlled books and films. Do we really want to go there?

Review of Stories of the Raksura Volume 2 by Martha Wells

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This book includes two novellas, The Dead City and The Dark Earth Below, and several short stories based on the Raksura world. It was originally published in 2015 by Nightshade Books and runs 232 pages. The series remains a popular read and seems to have a dedicated fan base, compendiums, etc. In 2018 it received a Hugo nomination for Best Series. This review contains spoilers.

In The Dead City, Moon is fleeing the runs of Saraseil, a city where he’s had his first close contact with the Fell. He stops at a settlement by a lake and pays some of the coin he has from Saraseil at a caravanserai for a room overnight. While he’s there, the settlement is attacked by spider-like creatures called miners. Should Moon risk exposing himself to help the settlement?

In The Dark Earth Below, Jade is soon to deliver her first clutch. Moon is hovering, anxious that it go well, but problems are developing on the forest floor beneath the tree home of the Indigo Cloud Court. Member of the Kek tribe that live among the roots have disappeared, and they ask for the Raksura’s help in locating their loved ones. Does this signal an unknown threat to the colony? And more important, will Jade deliver her clutch safely?

These stories include Wells’ trademark well-developed characters and vivid backgrounds. Both the novellas present mysterious events that unravel gradually as Moon and the other Raksura investigate and make decisions on what to do. These provide extra, entertaining glimpses of life in the Three Worlds and some good action sequences.

On the less positive side, there was a big section of promotion at the beginning of this book that reduces the content. The stories lack the drama of some of the other Raksura works, so are only mildly engaging. In addition, I have my standard complaints about the fantastical beasts and lack of structure in the environment. Given how uncomfortable Jade was before childbirth, I was also a little surprised that she was ready to roll so quickly after delivery. A magical recovery?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Harbors of the Sun by Martha Wells

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This novel is volume 5 of the Books of the Raksura. It was originally published in 2017 by Nightshade Books and runs 416 pages. The series remains a popular read and seems to have a dedicated fan base, compendiums, etc. In 2018 it received a Hugo nomination for Best Series. This review contains spoilers.

The Raksura expedition to help the Kish investigate rumors of powerful weapons in an ancient city has been betrayed, and now it’s hard to know if they can trust anyone. Different factions seem to be working for their own agendas and the Raksura have lost control of the ancient weapon. Some of the Raksura are held hostage on the flying boat, and Moon and Stone, scouting for it, find they’re being followed by a Fell kethel. It has been sent by the Fell-born queen Consolation to look after them. This is annoying, but they can’t just kill it. Eventually they find the hostages and stop use of the weapon, but now the Fell are massed to invade the Reaches. Can the Raksura save their ancestral home?

This installment of the story continues directly from the previous book, and picks up where it leaves off. It’s not a page-turner, but there are great character interactions and moments of drama as the captives manage to outsmart their captors, and Moon and Stone are forced into recognizing the Fell kethel is not only endurable but also turning out to be an asset to their search. The Fell-born queen Consolation becomes instrumental in defeating the Fell invasion.

On the less positive side, this moves slowly, feeling padded the same way the last installment did. It’s also has lots of moving parts, so much so that the prime dramatic moment, when Jade has to choose between saving her consort Moon and saving the Reaches just gets lost. We skim over it; Jade assumes Moon is dead (oh, well) and then flies off to deal with other pressing issues. Wells could have played this out more with some soul searching and some anguished grief, at the very least. Also, I’m thinking maybe she got distracted about this time with a little Murderbot story, as this is the last novel in the series, and it’s left Consolation and her court hanging high and dry. There’s another dramatic story line waiting there.

Four stars.

Review of The Siren Depth by Martha Wells

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This novel is volume 3 of the Books of the Raksura. It was originally published in 2012 by Nightshade Books and runs 290 pages. The series remains a popular read and seems to have a dedicated fan base, compendiums, etc. In 2018 it received a Hugo nomination for Best Series. This review contains spoilers.

One consequence of the Indigo Cloud colony’s move back to the Reaches is that now they are in contact with other Raksura colonies. Consorts are an important resource for the colonies, and it’s not long before someone identifies Moon’s bloodlines. He is claimed by his mother, the powerful Queen Malachite of Opal Night, who declares his status as Jade’s consort void. He has to go to Opal Night, but Jade promises to follow and present her claim. Years ago Opal Night was attacked by the Fell and Moon lost. Malachite also lost a consort to the Fell, who produced half-Fell clutches in a planned breeding program. Malachite rescued the half-Fell children, but failed to find Moon. Now the Fell are moving forward with a plan to use the hybrid children to open keys to forerunner cities and capture the weapons hidden there. Can Opal Night stop the Fell? And why hasn’t Jade appeared to make her claim on Moon?

This installment of the story ups the ante with a nefarious plot from the Fell. Opal Night’s half-Fell children are gently raised and at risk from capture and mistreatment by the Fell. Plus, the Raksura can’t afford for the Fell to gain control of powerful weapons—they’re enough of a scourge already. The strong characters and entertaining byplays continue, with the addition of new family for Moon, both a hulking, powerful mother and various clutch-mate brothers and sisters. Plus, we have Moon’s uncertainty about his personal worth and his relationship with Jade.

On the less positive side, the lack of structure in this world continues. The Raksura are really solid, but every groundling we see seems to be from a different species and the animal populations must mutate constantly, as no one seems to recognize what they are or how to deal with them. A good story regardless.

Four stars.

Review of Cloud Roads by Martha Wells

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I’ve really enjoyed Wells’ Murderbot series, so I’m going back to review some of her older work. This novel is volume 1 of the Books of the Raksura. It was originally published in 2011 by Nightshade Books and runs 290 pages. This book was followed by four other novels and two collections of shorter works, plus various short stories. The series remains a popular read and seems to have a dedicated fan base, compendiums, etc. In 2018 it received a Hugo nomination for Best Series. This review contains spoilers.

Moon has memories of a winged mother and siblings, but they’re all dead now, and Moon is hiding the fact that he’s a winged shapeshifter, moving from village to village in the river valley where he lives in the Three Worlds. He’s betrayed and poisoned in the latest village, staked out to die, but he’s rescued by another shapeshifter like himself named Stone. Stone tells him he’s a Raksura, and that he will be welcomed by the Indigo Cloud colony, even though he’s a feral solitary. This turns out to be more complicated than it first seems. Indigo Cloud is struggling, under attack from the dangerous Fell, and Moon is a consort, meant to be mated with a Raksura queen. His presence is an unknown bloodline, and this might save the Indigo Cloud colony, or it could cause worse problems. Is there a way Moon can adapt to this new life? Or should he go back to being a solitary?

This features the usual great points with Wells’ work, including well-developed characters, an interesting setup and a strong plot. The Raksura are civilized predators with wings, fangs, claws, tails and a mane of spines, descended from a forerunner race that also produced the Fell. Raksura have apparently differentiated from the Fell by interbreeding with a different race and now produce Aeriat and Arbora forms. The Arbora are wingless, short and sturdy, and work as artisans, teachers, healers, mentors and hunters. The mentors tend to have minor magical talents and can produce light, warmth and augury. The Aeriat are tall and lean, winged, and include queens, consorts and warriors. The queens have powers to control and engage the community. All have shapeshifting ability and all but queens can shift to a groundling form that allows them to blend with ordinary people. Queens can shift to an Arbora form that can pass for a groundling if they hide their tail. The Aeriat tend to get larger and stronger with age, and are fierce fighters. They are viewed with suspicion by most groundlings, and often confused with Fell. The Fell are also shape-shifters and include queen-like progenitors, rulers, kethel and dakti. Presumably they also have some variety of consorts. The theme of the series seems to finding a place and contributing to a community, and there’s a commentary on sexism, as the consorts are normally heavily protected while queens are aggressive warriors.

On the less positive side, there are a couple of issues. The first is the lack of structure in the world-building. There seem to be a lot of ruins and thriving communities, but each community seems to house a different species of arbitrary, humanoid-type persons, and each region also seems to feature different technology. The animals also seem to be random, with fantastical beasts around every corner. This strikes me as unusual, both from an evolutionary and a practical standpoint. Typically residents would be descended from common ancestors that would produce distinct species over a particular region. That means a traveler shouldn’t be surprised by unknowns. The sentient, plant and animal species ought to be familiar and cataloged. In the same way, technology tends to evolve and be shared from place to place. It should be fairly uniform. The other issue is conservation of mass in the shapeshifting. This could all be due to magic, of course, but in the real world, physics rules. There is no way a massive flying creature with a hundred and something foot wing-span will shift into a reasonable-sized human-type body. Moon describes the sensation of shifting as having lighter bones, but that’s not enough to do it. Sorry. Won’t work.

Four stars.

More on Wealth and Power

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Most people who gain wealth and power have followed some kind of career path that gives them the skills to be successful in holding onto it. However, there’s an alternate path to wealth and power that involves behaviors we generally consider morally corrupt. It’s a scenario where the end always justifies the means, and favors are more important than qualifications and skill.

Looking again at the currently popular theme of killing people and taking over their wealth and power, it can be tricky to transfer these without documents, so what the authors are having the protagonists do is resort to fraud to carry it off. There’s a long tradition in fiction of romantic thieves who make their living through trickery and clever heists, but somehow this feels different. It’s as if the authors are advising readers to cut corners to get what they want. This signals a shift in moral standards.

Examples: In The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, the protagonist January kills her benefactor William Cornelius Locke and forges documents to take over his estate so she can live in comfort and have what she wants. In Network Effect by Martha Wells, ART’s crew is forging documents to dispute ownership of worlds and displace the corporate owners. Both these instances are presented as matter-of-fact and justified because of systemic bias, therefore the right thing to do. So, is moral corruption now the approved method to achieve our various causes?

Of course, corruption has always been there in human interactions. Moral corruption is the whole basis of organized crime, which uses violence, assault, murder, extortion, and fraud to build wealth and power. These tactics also have a bad tendency to creep into politics, where the stakes for wealth and power are similarly high. The US has laws against corruption, but various investigations and charges signal that it is fairly common and ongoing in politics. Somehow it is just there, strongly associated with people who achieve positions where they see the opportunities to capture or launder money and make deals to benefit their own personal interests.

So, is this one of the opportunities that women (or minorities) have been missing in their quest for wealth and power? Is that why authors are now pointing it out as a morally justified activity? It’s true that women have a complex association with corruption. Historically they have often attached to corrupt and powerful men to share in their spoils. Research shows that (at least in democracies) more women in business and politics tends to be associated with lower levels of corruption. Plus, women see the opportunities differently. For example, women tend to evaluate the risk of corrupt behaviors more carefully than men, and may take a bribe and not follow through on the deal. This makes them less trustworthy for anyone who is offering corruption, and turns out to mean that men are approached with more and better deals. However, when there are no penalties, everybody seems equally corrupt.

On the one hand, we’ve got a human tendency to corruption, and on the other an unspoken assumption that our society has rules against corruption, and that this is the moral high ground. The question is which we’re going to choose, and where we’re going to draw the line. Another consideration is how we justify morally corrupt behaviors to ourselves and whether this is actually exculpatory. Is it okay for someone to (allegedly) lie about sexual assault for monetary or political gain as Tara Reade and Christine Blasey Ford have been accused of doing? Is it okay for somebody to manufacture a racial hate crime like Jussie Smollett or racial profiling like Rev. Jerrod Moultrie? Is it okay for Sherita Dixon-Cole to lie that Officer Daniel Hubbard sexually assaulted her during a traffic stop because of the need for police reform? These charges are consonant with political causes, so does that justify lying to manufacture incidents? Is this now the best way to get the power for the changes we want? Or not?

Charlie Jane Anders checked in with her opinion earlier this year. In City in the Middle of the Night, all the grand causes fail because corruption degrades the new order the same as the old. Would choosing a different path to wealth and power make a difference in the results?

Review of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

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This fantasy novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 19 February 2019 and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youssef of the Ministry of Alchemy in 1912 Cairo are called into action to investigate reports of a ghost on Tram Car 015 that is attacking women. After investigating, they decide the car is possessed by a djinn instead of a ghost. The fee for a consultant is high, so they decide to try a Soudanese woman, Sheikha Nadiyaa, who has a reputation for successfully dealing with recalcitrant djinn. She is involved with the suffrage movement in Cairo, where the women are organizing to win the right to vote. Nadiyaa agrees to try to contact the spirit, but when she does, it attacks her. She identifies it as a Turkish spirit, and further investigation reveals a smuggling plot gone wrong. Is there any way the agents can get rid of the spirit?

This story returns to the busy fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” and the cross-dressing Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of that work makes a cameo appearance in this book’s epilogue. The narrative features an #OwnVoices authenticity and is based on historic, early 20th century Cairo. This universe also has steampunk elements, as we encounter machine persons called boilerplate eunuchs, along with the djinn-driven tramcars. We also get a look at a movement determined to obtain voting rights for women, actually written into the Egyptian constitution by 1956.

On the less positive side, these characters don’t really come alive for me, and the slight tongue-in-cheek humor of the narrative reduces the importance of what they’re trying to do. The way the suffrage movement is featured seems forced, as it’s not really integral to the story. I was also slightly offended that Hamed and Onsi try to undercut the usual djinn consultant by going to an (unlicensed?) woman. Gratifyingly, she did send them a big bill.

Three stars.

Who’s a Racist/Sexist/Homephobe? (Part 1 of 2)

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Following up on Klaudia Amenabar’s charges about sexism in Star Wars and a recent story by N.K. Jemisin on race, this seems like a good time to offer a discussion on relativism as it relates to racism, sexism and homophobia. In recent years, we’ve had several heated discussions in the SFF community provoked by statements from minority writers that look/feel like racism or sexism but aren’t defined that way. This is because of relativism in the way we define racism, sexism and homophobia. The current progressive paradigm is that racism, for example, is about oppression, so only members of an oppressing group can be considered racist. This means we should define comments about race (or gender/sex/sexual orientation) from oppressed minority persons as activism or protest, when the same statement, made by a white male (considered an oppressing group), would be considered damningly racist. This also means that minority writers have a free pass to say whatever they want about race, sex, gender and sexual orientation without repercussions, while white writers (the oppressor group) have to be careful of what they say.

This system provokes some interesting questions. If racism is relative, then should it be defined differently by locale and by who feels oppressed? If a school is majority black, for example, and has a black administration, should white students be considered a minority and given a free pass to say whatever they want? The city of Atlanta is majority black and has a black head of government. Are white supremacist statements made in Atlanta a form of protest, or are they considered racist because Atlanta is part of the larger US system? Ok, so then what about Zimbabwe? Not only is the country overwhelmingly black, but the government has a history of human rights violations against white residents. Are white supremacist statements made in Zimbabwe still to be considered racist, or are they protest? And last, what happens when whites become a minority in the US within about the next 20 years. Younger age groups (currently in elementary school) are already experiencing this issue, and it will become nation-wide as older residents die off. Will the definition of racism suddenly shift at that point?

We’re given to knee-jerk assumptions about racism, but the whole thing is pretty confusing when you start looking at the details. I’ll try to sort it out. First, should we rate oppressor status by population majority? Asians, it turns out, are the largest world demographic group with ~60% of the world population; whites and blacks are roughly even at about ~15%. The sex ratio is currently skewed slightly to male, maybe because of cultural issues in China and India, but remains roughly 50/50. Definitely white men don’t hold majority status world-wide, so majority/minority won’t work very well as a measure of white oppression of other races on a global scale.

Minority pie

Source

So, should we maybe equate oppressor status with wealth instead? When it comes to that, then we do see a worldwide distribution that skews heavily to white and male. About 55% of the world’s billionaires are white, 30% are Asian, and less than 1% are black. About 11% of the world’s billionaires are female. About 1% of the world’s population owns half the wealth, and the distribution of wealth leans heavily to the US and Western Europe.

Wealth Table

Source

So, if you equate wealth with oppression, then definitely white men are going to be the powerful oppressors both world-wide and in the US/UK. But, is this a statement that can be generalized to mean all white men are wealthy oppressors?

Let’s look at wealth demographics of the US population. By race, Asians tend to have the highest household incomes, then whites, Hispanics and blacks. About 10% of whites fall below the poverty line, and 20% fall into the upper socioeconomic class. That leaves 70% of households that fall into the middle and working socioeconomic classes with annual incomes somewhere between $10,000 and $100,000. So if we’re equating wealth with oppressor status, should the 80% of poor, middle and working class whites be lumped in with the upper 20% as racist oppressors? And what about the lowest 10% of whites that fall below the poverty line? Should apparently racist statements about this group by minorities be considered differently?

“The Ten Things She Said While Dying: An Annotation” by Adam-Troy Castro

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 World Fantasy Award. It was published by Nightmare Magazine in July of 2019. This review contains major spoilers.

Dr. Emmanuel Eggard, a brilliant scientist with personal hygiene problems, has been working on a matter transmission device, but while testing it, he accidently opens a portal into another plane. A demonic creature emerges from below his lung, splattering Eggard on the walls and fatally injuring Robyn Howlett, the clerical employee he has been pressuring for sex. The demonic creature waits to hear what Howlett has to say before making a decision on whether to offer her a deal for salvation.

This is written from the demon’s point of view and the annotations reveal its interpretation of Robyn’s words. She is understandably in desperate straits, but her situation, her personality and her character are revealed in the annotations. This isn’t very long, but it is fairly riveting, as the demon gives us plenty of information about itself, its reality and how limited humans really are in the grand scheme of things. The people who need to get a comeuppance then get it.

On the more negative side, this is definitely limited by its length. I think the idea could have easily been extended to novella length. This would give us some more extensive world-building and greater character development for everybody—something that’s just sketched in at this point. Castro has done just the minimum and depended on the comeuppance to carry the story.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Someday by David Levithan

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This is young adult fantasy romance novel published by Knopf and runs 392 pages. It follows Every Day and Another Day, novels with the same characters, a prequel “Six Earlier Days” and the short story “Day 3196.” The novel Every Day was a New York Times Bestseller and nominated for a Lambda Award. It was recently made into a motion picture which is also available for rent/purchase. This review contains major spoilers.

This novel picks up where Every Day leaves off. The protagonist, who calls themself A, is a non-binary consciousness that wakes in a different body each day. They fall in love with the girl Rhiannon, and as a result, reveal too much of themself. This leads to wild accounts of demon possession and the arrival of the fundamentalist Reverend Poole, who turns out to be an evil version of A. Scared by all this, A goes on the run. A means to leave everything behind. They delete their email address and flee the Northeast for the Denver area. But A is starved for affection, and when they find a message to them on Rhiannon’s Facebook page, they are drawn back to her like a moth to a flame. Once in contact, they find the evil and dangerous Poole (also known as X) is holding their friends hostage as a way to get to A. What can they do?

I was really taken by Every Day, which develops a lot of suspense at the end very suddenly, so I’ve been waiting a while for this sequel. It continues a lot of the strong points of Every Day. It’s clear Levithan is interested in the worth of every individual, and a lot of this is about respecting others and treating them well, regardless of who they are. A’s existence is dependent on stealing bodies, but they maintain very strict rules about respecting their hosts and trying to do their best not to make anyone’s life worse during the one-day possession. This novel develops that theme further, including an equality march on Washington D.C. where a lot of the action takes place. Definitely Levithan’s strongest point in this series is how he presents the lives of A’s hosts, a one-day glimpse of each, with all their joys and problems.

On the not so positive side, this doesn’t develop much angst, conflict, drama or suspense. Early in the book A goes through some tough hosts, but this issue clears up once they are back in the Northeast and reunited with Rhiannon. It’s clear that A has to do something about X, and A does come through at the end, but there’s no buildup in the action line to this point. There is a suggestion in the text that A might go over to the dark side, but events don’t support this or provide any discussion of the morality involved. Instead, the book continues to concentrate on the “everybody’s okay” equality theme to the point that it’s intrusive. As a result, Levithan can’t resist making X a sympathetic character. Someone has apparently told Levithan A needs to use the pronoun “they,” too, which leads to the usual grammatical muddle. And last, all these people eventually started to sound the same, which means the author gave up characterization to use his own voice instead.

This isn’t the thriller sequel I’d hoped for, but it is still a valuable book for kids struggling to deal with difference.

Three and a half stars.

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