The Day of the Pelican

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2013 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award

Meli Lleshi is positive that her drawing of her teacher with his pelican nose started it all. The Lleshis are Albanians living in Kosovo, a country trying to fight off Serbian oppressors, and suddenly they are homeless refugees. Old and young alike, they find their courage tested by hunger, illness, the long, arduous journey, and danger on every side. Then, unexpectedly, they are brought to America by a church group and begin a new life in a ...

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The Day of the Pelican

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2013 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award

Meli Lleshi is positive that her drawing of her teacher with his pelican nose started it all. The Lleshis are Albanians living in Kosovo, a country trying to fight off Serbian oppressors, and suddenly they are homeless refugees. Old and young alike, they find their courage tested by hunger, illness, the long, arduous journey, and danger on every side. Then, unexpectedly, they are brought to America by a church group and begin a new life in a small Vermont town. The events of 9/11 bring more challenges for this Muslim family—but this country is their home now and there can be no turning back.A compassionate, powerful novel by a master storyteller.

2009 Parents' Choice Gold Award winner

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this powerful, finely crafted novel, Paterson unveils the experience of Muslim Albanians in the Kosovo war through her memorable heroine, Meli, who turns 11 just as her family flees genocide. Through Meli's gaze, Paterson skillfully defines the culture of Kosovo, including the strictly defined gender roles, large extended families and social hierarchy that pits Serb against Albanian and looks down on families, like Meli's, from the countryside. News of the murder of 70 members of an Albanian family and the brief disappearance of Meli's 13-year-old brother, Mehmet, drive her family into exile: first in a mountain camp, then as refugees in Macedonia (“They might die, but they would at least die together,” thinks Meli as her family is crammed into a crowded train) and finally to the United States. Lest readers feel distanced from the prejudice at the heart of this story, after 9/11, Meli and Mehmet endure taunting based on their heritage. Spanning vast distances and several years, Paterson offers a realistic and provocative account of these refugees' plight, balanced by the hope of new beginnings and the resilience of the human spirit. Ages 10–up. (Oct.)
Children's Literature - Cynthia Levinson
Meli Lleshi, who is eleven when this book by the author of Bridge to Terabithia opens in 1997, knows that her Albanian family is in danger in Kosovo. Serbians and their leader Milosevic are threatening them, and neighbors have disappeared or been killed. Then, Meli makes things even worse. She draws a caricature of her teacher in the form of a pelican and is required to stay after school rather than walk home with her thirteen-year-old brother Mehmet. He leaves alone—and is kidnapped, beaten, and left for dead. By the tine he returns, he has become embittered and spiteful. The Lleshis soon flee, successively joining other refugees in a camp town in a forest, moving in with relatives, walking hundreds of miles toward Macedonia, which refuses them entry, and then to a refugee camp. Throughout, they face starvation, bombings, and homelessness but always "hold onto each other." Their lowest point, among many on this emotional journey, may be the day their car, laden with their belongings, is stolen and their house burned. Ultimately, after leaving behind Granny, they arrive in America where Meli, Mehmet, and the rest of the family must manage a new language, culture, school, work, and friendships. A final blow lands on September 11, 2001. Nominally Muslim, Meli and Mehmet are blamed by their soccer teammates for terrorist attack. Fortunately, their coaches rectify the misunderstanding, and even Mehmet, who is trying to overcome his bitterness, agrees to be a team player. The story is informative not only about history and politics but also about the daily lives of Kosovars; at times, however, it wears its facts too overtly. Meli is an appealing character who carries the tale ofrefugees to America, although she does not age convincingly as the book's 140 pages leapfrog four years. Reviewer: Cynthia Levinson
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—The war in Kosovo in the 1990s is brought to life in Katherine Paterson's novel (Clarion, 2009). The story follows Meli Lleshi, a 12-year-old Albanian girl, and her family as they begin to see violence escalating in their small town. The Serbians are the dominant force in the country and, under the leadership of war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, their brutality against the minority groups knows no boundaries. When the Lleshis and their extended family see the handwriting on the wall, they escape just as the violence reaches their doorstep. The trek to safety in Macedonia is a struggle, but they finally arrive at a refugee camp. When NATO effectively ends the war, Meli's family decides to move to America where new struggles and hurdles await them. The story provides insight into the Albanian culture, the war in Kosovo, and what it feels like to be an immigrant in a new land. It also offers a glimpse into the role of women in these cultures. Narrator Tavia Gilbert does a marvelous job of representing the family's accents when necessary but, for the most part, her narration is unaccented. She perfectly voices the emotional struggles of Meli and her family as they attempt to survive. A welcome addition to historical fiction and multicultural collections.—Joan Kindig, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA
Kirkus Reviews
A realistically harsh yet hopeful account of an Albanian Kosovar family's flight from the violence ravaging their beloved home. When, for no apparent reason, Meli's brother Mehmet is nabbed, held in a Serbian prison and beaten before making it back home, Baba decides they must flee. They first go to Uncle Fadil's farm, but the violence eventually follows them there; Serbian soldiers take all of their possessions, then torch the house. The family hikes to a refugee camp on the Macedonian border, where they live until immigrating to America. Although the adults struggle to learn English and face difficulty finding suitable work, the family settles in fairly well. The children, too, ultimately face challenges, including mistreatment by their classmates following 9/11. Although Meli and Mehmet are interesting, dynamic characters, Paterson is so intent on covering, however briefly, all the issues that a family like Meli's would face that she fails to work her typical spellbinding magic. Nonetheless, a solid addition to the scant offerings on this subject. (historical note) (Historical fiction. 10 & up)
From the Publisher
“[A] powerful, finely crafted novel.”—Publishers Weekly

“Paterson exposes the complexities of a war halfway around the globe and how its scars reach across an ocean. Young readers who did not know where Kosovo was before will not forget it after reading the Lleshis's remarkable story.”—Shelf Awareness

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781441802064
  • Publisher: Brilliance Audio
  • Publication date: 10/19/2009
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Age range: 10 - 13 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Katherine Paterson’s international fame rests not only on her widely acclaimed novels but also on her efforts to promote literacy in the U.S. and abroad. A two-time winner of the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award (The Great Gilly Hopkins and The Master Puppeteer), she was the 1998 recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal and was given the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts by her home state of Vermont. She lives in Barre. Her most recent novel for Clarion was Bread and Roses, Too. She is also the recipient of the 2006 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, which celebrates her life’s work. In 2010, Katherine succeeded Jon Scieszka as the national ambassador for young people's literature today, a joint appointment by the Library of Congress's Center for the Book and Every Child a Reader, a nonprofit group affiliated with the Children's Book Council.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
The Lleshis of Kosovo

Terrible things should never happen in springtime, and it was almost spring. March had arrived on the Plain of Dukagjin, and even though most days were still bitter with the raw dampness of late winter, they were getting longer. Today had been one of those rare, bright days promising that spring would eventually come. The afternoon sun fell warm on Meli’s hands as she took in the wash Mama had hung out this morning. In the light breeze the multicolored plastic clothespins danced like little people atop the line. She should remember that thought—put it into a poem, or at least tell Zana at school the next day. They shared silly thoughts, she and Zana. That’s why they were best friends—that and the fact that both their fathers had come from farm villages and so weren’t proper “citizens” in the eyes of their classmates whose families had long lived in town. They weren’t looked down on like Gypsies or hated like Serbs, but still, there was a difference, and she and Zana knew it and shared it.
Meli dropped Baba’s best shirt into the basket at her feet and took a deep breath. Was there a smell of spring in the air? She longed for spring, when the two cherry trees in the back corner of the garden would bloom and the storks would return from their winter vacation in Africa. She tried to imagine the great birds flying over that immense continent, across Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Or did they choose a more daring flight over the Mediterranean Sea to come home to Kosovo? She’d have to ask Mr. Uka. Their teacher liked to be asked  unusual questions. It gave him a chance to show off a bit, tell them about his trip years ago to the shore of the Adriatic Sea.
Meli had never seen any sea. She had never been anywhere, really. But she had seen pictures on  television of oceans larger than the Mediterranean. Mr. Uka had said that there were birds that crossed those oceans in their migrations—tiny birds, far smaller than the white storks. How brave that seemed. The thought of traveling as far as Prishtina made her stomach flutter.
Meli finished taking in the first line of clothes and started on the second. Beyond the bounds of the town she could see green patches of winter wheat and, in the distant west, the snowcapped Albanian Alps—the “Cursed Mountains,” people called them, but no one seemed to know quite why. To the south was the Sharr range, where, she had been told, wild horses ran free. She had seen them only in her imagination, but that didn’t make them less real, their manes streaming in the wind as they raced about joyfully, unseen, unheard, unthreatened by the petty hatreds of humankind.
It would be a long time before spring came to those heights, but the snow was already beginning to melt on the hillsides. The gold cross and red-tiled roof of an old Serbian Christian church stood out starkly against the grays and browns of late winter. Why do the Serbs hate us so? Though, to be honest, most Albanians hated the Serbs just as fiercely. Some of the girls at school could, and would, recite terrible poems against the Serbs. She could never understand hate like that. Baba had always taught them to respect, not to hate. But he was not like other people. Even now, just a few feet away, her two little brothers were playing war.Was that fun? It must be. They played it every day, although they knew Baba disapproved. She tried to think of spring and blossoms and the return of birdsong to the garden.
Adil’s yell broke her reverie. “Meli! Tell Isuf I’m the KLA man!”
“No,” Isuf said with the practiced authority of the older brother. “You’re a Serb. I’m the KLA soldier.”
“Meli!” Adil begged. “Isuf always makes me be a Serb policeman. Tell him to let me be the KLA man. It’s my turn.”
Meli sighed, keeping her eyes on Vlora’s frilly new dress as she took it off the line. She wouldn’t want to drop it; the ground was still muddy. “Stop fighting, boys. If you can’t take turns, find some other game to play.”
It was Mehmet’s fault. Their older brother was convinced that the Kosovo Liberation Army would soon save the Albanians. No matter what Baba said, Mehmet worshiped the KLA. Baba said they were more legend than fact, but Mehmet was convinced they were simply biding their time, waiting for a chance to free Kosovo from Serbian domination. Even Mr. Uka, pointing to the picture on their classroom wall of Skanderbeg, the Kosovars’ fifteenth-century hero, predicted that out of the KLA would arise a new Skanderbeg who would liberate Kosovo.
She must have heard the familiar rattle and roar without realizing it: Uncle Fadil’s ancient Lada Niva. Baba, as elder brother of the Lleshi family, had tried to convince him to sell it and buy a new tractor, but Uncle Fadil had refused. The Lada suited him. He had taken out the back seat so he could load the car for market. Ten years of carrying vegetables, chickens, and the occasional goat had not dealt kindly with the old Russian made vehicle. It was something of a family joke. “Well,”Mehmet would say, “you can always tell when Uncle Fadil is arriving—if not by the noise, then certainly by the smell.” But the truth was, Meli was distracted, and she wasn’t aware that the car had driven up until the brakes squawked and it pulled to a stop on the street in front of the store.
She dodged under the clothesline and ran around the edge of the building to see. Yes, it was Uncle Fadil’s car, but what was it doing here in the late afternoon? He should be home milking his cow and goats at this time of day.
“Isuf, Adil, run into the store and tell Baba that Uncle Fadil is here,” Meli said.
“I don’t want to go in. It’s my turn to be the KLA man.”
Just then the driver’s door opened. It took Uncle Fadil three tries to get it slammed shut again. Meanwhile, the passenger door opened, and his wife stepped out onto the curb. Why had Auntie Burbuqe come and left Granny alone on the farm? She never did that.
“Come on, Adil, let’s get Baba.” Isuf’s eyes were wide with fear. Even at eight he was old enough to realize that something was dreadfully wrong if both his aunt and uncle arrived unannounced.

A chill went through Meli. She called out to her uncle, “Is Granny all right?”
Uncle Fadil looked up, startled. “Granny? Yes, yes, of course.”
So it was something else. “I’ll—I’ll tell Mama you’re here,” Meli said, and raced around the building and up the outside stairs to the apartment above the store before slipping off her shoes at the door.
Before long, the whole family was assembled in the parlor: Uncle Fadil and Auntie Burbuqe took the two upholstered chairs, while Baba, Mama with Vlora on her lap, and Mehmet sat on the couch. Adil and Isuf propped themselves against their father’s knees. There was no place for Meli to sit except for the tiny stool in front of the television set, so she chose instead to lean against the frame of the kitchen door. Everyone was still, waiting. Even her long-dead grandfather and grandmother seemed to be staring out of their black-and-white photograph atop the television set, watching Uncle Fadil as he nervously rubbed his large black mustache.
At last he put his hand in his lap and cleared his throat. He half nodded toward the two little boys and Vlora, as though signaling to his brother, and jerked his head toward Meli.
Mama looked puzzled; then she caught Baba’s eye and said, “Meli, take the little ones into the kitchen. If there’s no mineral water in the cabinet, send one of the boys down to get some. Your aunt and uncle must be thirsty after their trip.” She paused, looked at both men, and then added, “Oh, and while you’re out there, make some coffee. We’d all enjoy a cup, I think.”
Uncle Fadil nodded, obviously relieved that he had been understood. Baba gave the little boys a gentle shove, and Mama put Vlora down from her lap.Meli took Vlora’s hand and started for the kitchen, but not before she saw the smug expression on her older brother’s face. Mehmet was only thirteen, less than a year and a half older than she was.Why could he stay for the grownups’ talk and not she?
“Come on, Isuf, Adil,” she said, and pulled a reluctant Vlora behind her.
“I want to stay,” said Isuf. “I want to know—”
“Come on,” Meli said gruffly.

“And shut the door after you,” Mama called out.

Meli left the door open a tiny crack. She couldn’t help it. She had to find out what was going on. There was a bottle of mineral water in the cabinet, but even before she poured out two glasses, Mehmet got up and pulled the door completely closed.
Why was Mehmet a grownup all of a sudden? It wasn’t fair. She was nearly as tall as he was and every bit as responsible. But then, her mother had asked her to make coffee—a job Mama usually reserved for herself.
The boys were huddled against the kitchen door. “Come away from the door, Isuf, Adil,” she said as she ground the beans to a fine powder. “You mustn’t eavesdrop.”

“Why not?” Adil asked. Isuf ignored her and kept his ear pasted to the wood.
 “It’s grown-up business.” She put the coffee and sugar into water and started the flame under the pot. “Isuf! You heard me. Come away from that door.”
But Isuf kept his ear to the door, wanting desperately to hear the muffled conversation from the parlor. Meli tried not to worry—to concentrate on her task. She stretched on tiptoe to get four coffee cups off the top shelf. Mehmet might be there, pretending to be an adult, but she certainly wasn’t going to serve him a cup of the best coffee Baba sold in the shop.

“Isuf,” she said again, “I told you to come away from the door.”

Isuf did turn toward her, but his face was ashen, his eyes full of terror. “Meli,” he whispered. “Something terrible’s happened. Somebody’s dead.”

“Who’s dead?”

“Somebody named Adem. They killed him. Uncle Fadil said so. They killed him and all his family. Even the children.”
Before Meli could think who this Adem person might be, Isuf pushed the door open, and both boys ran into the parlor and flung themselves against their father. Vlora was right behind; even at four she knew to be frightened. She ran for the safety of  her mother’s lap and buried her face in Mama’s apron. Mama picked her up and held her close. The other adults sat in stunned silence. Baba began to rub the little boys’ backs with his big hands.

“Seventy people.” It was Mehmet who broke the silence. “Adem Jashari and his family. Those Serb butchers just went in and slaughtered them all.”

Uncle Fadil’s head was down, and Meli could hardly hear him. “It is said that one child escaped—one of the little girls.”

“They said he was part of the KLA—that he was threatening violence,” said Mehmet. “How dare they accuse us of violence?”

“Meli,” Mama said softly, “the mineral water? And it smells as though the coffee is ready.”

Meli put the coffee cups on the tray with the glasses. Her hands shook as she poured out the strong, sweet liquid. They aren’t just killing a few men here and there. They’re slaughtering whole families.What does it mean? She tried to steady herself, but the cups rattled in their saucers as she brought the tray in and passed the mineral water and coffee to her aunt and uncle and the coffee to her parents. “Fix a cup for Mehmet,” Mama said as she took her cup, “and one for yourself, too. You will have to be grown-ups now.”

“Me, too,” said Isuf. “I’m almost nine.”

“You may have a sip of mine,” Baba said. “And you, too, Adil.”

“Does it have lots of sugar?”

“Yes, of course,” Baba said, rubbing Adil’s hair. “Meli made it just right.”

Meli poured coffee for Mehmet and herself in the everyday cups and then sat down on the low stool in front of the TV set. They sat in silence for a long time. Even the youngest were quiet. What would her grandparents think of this, she wondered. But they just stared out grimly from their silver frame,
saying nothing.

Uncle Fadil took a noisy slurp, smoothed his mustache, and cleared his throat. “We came,” he said, “we came because we want you to come home. No place is safe, but if things go—go badly, at least we will have each other.”

But the house in the country isn’t home. This apartment is my home. How can I leave here? Leave school and Zana? Meli couldn’t bear the thought. Besides, she reasoned, if no place was safe, why not stay right where they were? It’s true that the Serb family next door no longer shops in Baba’s store, and they never speak if you see them on the street. But they have been our neighbors for my whole life. Why, just four years ago, when Vlora was born, Mrs. Jokic brought over a huge cake. Surely they would never harm us. The police are annoying, but we know better than to provoke them, and they’ve never seriously threatened us. Still, this Adem Jashari person and all of his large extended family were dead. What does that mean for us? For any Albanian in Kosovo? But to leave our home . . . ?
Everyone was looking at Baba. It was he who must decide. He took a long sip of his coffee and gave a taste to each of the little boys before he looked directly at his younger brother and answered. “Thank you, brother. You are always kind, but how can I leave my apartment and my store? My children have never known another home, and every Albanian in the neighborhood depends on me, on our store, for food.What would we do in the country? I don’t even know what kind of school there is in the village.” He shook his head. “On the farm we would only be a burden. Here we are among friends. Here we are needed.”

“I am not being kind,” Uncle Fadil said, his voice rising. “The farm is your home, brother. It is your home I’m talking about. It belongs to you as much as to me. You know that!”

Auntie Burbuqe half rose to her feet. “Come on! I swear to God. Are we family or not?”

Meli was startled. She’d never seen Auntie so agitated.

“You are right, Burbuqe,” said Baba. “We are family, and family is more important than anything. But”—he gave a little laugh—“I grew up in that house. I know how small it is. And look at us. After those long years of waiting, Sevdie and I now find ourselves blessed with all these children. Besides, you must think of your own Nexima. With Hamza’s people dead, they have no family home to go to except ours. Suppose they decide to come back from Prishtina. They have three children. That little house would burst like an overripe pumpkin.”

Uncle Fadil shook his head. For a moment Meli thought he might argue, but he just stood up. “We must get back. Mother is alone. And the milking . . .” He looked about for a place to set down his empty cup and saucer, so Meli quickly fetched the tray for him. “If you change your mind, my brother, there is always room for you.”

“Yes,” said Auntie Burbuqe. “Please know we want you with us. All of you.”

As soon as the car pulled away from in front of the store, Meli ran down to the garden to finish bringing in the clean wash. Maybe if she did something ordinary, the day would untwist itself and life would seem normal again.

The cherry trees put out their pale pink blossoms against the brilliant blue of the spring sky. House martins built a new nest under the eaves. The storks made their long journey home. School went on much as usual, though everyone seemed to have a touch of spring fever. Meli was sure her father had been right to stay. Oh, in town there had been some anti-Serb graffiti sprayed on the front of the town hall (“a schoolboy prank,” Baba had said), and some hand grenades had exploded in a nearby village, but on the whole everything was quiet. Too quiet, perhaps. They all began to believe that the worst was over. After all, what could be worse than the massacre of the seventy members of the Jashari family?
The warmth of spring turned too early into the heat of summer. The ubiquitous crows were squawking over territory and bits of food like old women squabbling in the marketplace. Even with all the windows open, the classroom on that last day of May was stifling. All Meli wanted was to be outdoors—not crowded with fifty other upper-grade children into a room of the house the Albanians used for a school. All the regular schools now belonged to the Serbs.
It was so hot that Meli found herself nodding as Mr. Uka droned on and on. To keep awake, she began to study the teacher’s nose. It was so big. It occurred to her that Mr. Uka reminded her of a pelican. He was so patriotic that he should have looked like a proper Kosovar stork, but his nose was bulbous, not long and patrician. Alas, much closer kin to the pelicans she’d seen in books than to a stork. In her boredom, she drew a picture of a pelican that looked surprisingly like Mr. Uka. Zana, who shared her desk, peered over Meli’s arm. She began to
giggle. It was contagious. Meli couldn’t help herself.
“Zana, Meli, come to the front,” Mr. Uka ordered.
Meli tried to slip the picture into her pocket, but it was too late. Mr. Uka held out his hand. He studied the picture for a minute. Don’t let him see the resemblance. “Very clever,” he said. “But what do pelicans have to do with the history of Kosovo?”

“Nothing, sir,” Meli mumbled. Even with her back to Mehmet, she could feel his disapproval. She didn’t dare look. She knew how angry her brother must be.

“Then we will keep the pelican for science class,” the teacher said. “And I would like the two of you to stay after
school to catch up on history.”
When Mr. Uka finally dismissed the girls, Mehmet was nowhere to be seen. He ran home to tattle on me, Meli thought. It wasn’t fair. Baba would want an explanation as to why Mehmet hadn’t waited—why he was letting the girls walk home alone. Baba had told him months ago that he was to look out for them. Their father would be angry with them both.
As always, the girls had to pass the police station on their way. A Serb policeman was loitering outside. “Where are you girls headed?” he asked. He spoke, of course, in Serbian, and Meli had sense enough to answer in the same language. “Just home,” she said. The man shrugged. Out of sight of the station the girls walked faster, and once she had left Zana at her house, Meli broke into a run. She was very late.
Yes, there was Baba waiting outside the store. “Meli,” he said. “Praise God, you’re home. But where is Mehmet?”

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 15, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Reviewed by Marta Morrison for

    What if you suddenly found yourself homeless and not wanted in your country of birth? What if you had to leave all that you know and love and flee with just the clothes on your back?

    This is what happens to Meli, who lived in Kosovo during the 1990's. The Serbians in Kosovo wanted all of the Albanians living there to be gone. First Meli and her family flee to a mountain camp, and finally to a refugee camp.

    This is a very sad story but it does have a happy ending. When I was reading this, I kind of remembered what happened during that time period but had to Google it to really discover what had occurred. (I was raising children during that time and had forgotten.) It makes me sad that even to this day we still have people who hate others and want to extinguish their race.

    I picked up THE DAY OF THE PELICAN because I love all of Katherine Paterson's books. Thank you, Ms. Paterson, for another fine story. I challenge you to read about this subject and not want to do something about it, even if it is only to be aware of other cultures and give them your respect.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2012


    Thsi book sounds really goo even though it is a sad story!!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 7, 2012



    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2013

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    Posted February 6, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2011

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