PWID 2016 Scholarship winner – Nabeeh Bilal

Nabeeh_Bilal-photo You never know how the things you experience today can prepare you for an opportunity tomorrow. Likewise, you also never know how a person you met yesterday can influence your five year outlook. Let’s just say life is a puzzle and it’s up to notice the pieces and put them together.

I vividly remember the day I was finally accepted — after initially being rejected — into the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Duke was, and still is, a vibrant arts magnate high school in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC. The school had visual artists, dancers, actors, musicians, singers, writers, and everything in-between. Duke was truly a different world, the kind of place you go to if you want to embark on a journey into the arts, a place that bleeds talent and cultivates success.

Coming out of the 8th grade, I really had no idea what or who I wanted to be when I grew up, but somehow I saw Duke as an essential piece to my puzzle. The fact that my sister had been accepted a year earlier gave me confidence that I’d somehow be a shoe-in.

Unfortunately, I broke my drawing hand a week before my audition which meant that I went into my audition having to draw with my left hand. Add that to the fact that I wasn’t very focused on academics at the time, and you may understand why I received a big fat rejection letter from the school. Needless to say, I was crushed. How could I ever piece together my life’s puzzle without the center piece?

I knew that had enough grit to survive in an environment like Duke, I just needed a shot. Luckily for me I had a father who was very determined to help his children achieve success. Somehow, my dad got me accepted into Duke on a probationary status. It meant that I had to attend summer school prior to the start of 9th grade, but most importantly, it meant that I could take the next great step in my life toward and eventually make a success of myself. The center piece of my puzzle was intact.

Fast forward 16 years later and I’d have to say that Duke was an essential experience for me. The people I met there inspired me to do better and be better. In fact, the people I met at Duke are the reason why I’m even in a position to attend the PWID.

Three years ago, I saw a play called “Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale”. The play was about a greedy young boy named Winston who eats all of his aunt’s Callaloo and is magically transported to the island of Tobago to learn a lesson. Months after seeing the play, I was inspired to approach the playwright to find out if she had bigger plans for her play. It just so happened that the playwright, Marjuan Canady, and I attended and graduated from Duke Ellington together (class of ’04).

I gained a lot of experience animating, designing, and illustrating for people in the years prior to seeing that play, but I now wanted to do something for myself, I wanted to do something that would have a lasting impact; something that would make me happy. Callaloo felt like the next piece to my puzzle, yet, a puzzle within itself.

Initially, I approached Marjuan about doing an animation of Callaloo, but animation is very tedious and time-consuming — especially if you’re the only one doing it — so we opted to start with a book. When we began our partnership, neither of us had ever written or illustrated a book of any kind before, but After nine months of drafts and revisions, countless sketches, character revisions, and skype meetings, we self-published “Callaloo: A Jazz Folktale” in January 2014.

Since publishing our first book, Callaloo ( has taken on a life of its own. It features a book series, unique characters, a web series, live performance, and an arts educational program. I love to illustrate, but I love being involved in the entire creative process of building things even more.

My partner referred me to the PWID conference and its scholarship, and honestly, I did not think I would be awarded the scholarship to attend because there are so many people more talented and just as deserving as I am, but I’m fortunate that this came together. I don’t know what to expect, but I’m excited to be at the 2016 PWID because I know it will be a great experience to connect with so many other talented and ambitious people doing the same things I’m doing and trying to figure out how best to connect the pieces of their own puzzles. You never know how the things you experience today can prepare you for an opportunity tomorrow.

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PWID 2016 Diversity Scholarship Winner Khannie Dastgah

khannieAs I sit here thinking about how I am going to explain what this opportunity means to me, I get flooded with emotions and I feel my heart start beating a little faster. I have always believed that I have to trust my instincts and intuition, and that things will work out the way they should in the end.

I am well versed on the seasons of life and do believe that there is a ying/yang-good periods/difficult periods that is a part of everyone’s story and journey. The past couple months of my life have been one of my most challenging periods. Extreme highs and lows, with major life-changing occurrences. It makes you wonder why is it that with the good there always seems to have to be the “payback” bad hard times? I always remind myself to focus back on the positives, and I know that I am blessed and lucky to have such a wonderful life.

A friend sent me the information about this conference and scholarship opportunity and I jumped on the chance to apply. I had never heard about this event but it immediately sparked my interest when I learned that illustrators, publishers, and even agents would be in attendance. I was leaving town for a week and the deadline for the scholarship was coming up, but I told myself that I had to find the time to apply. I kept thinking to myself that maybe this was the world’s way of telling me to take the chance and make the next step happen. I can’t afford to hire an agent to mentor me and shop my books around, so I’ve had to do everything on my own.

After 10 years and countless meetings with published authors, illustrators, potential publishers, and a failed “Kickstarter” Campaign, I came to the realization that I would have to do my books on my own. During the Campaign I was contacted by a few people and it was exciting to see that there was interest in my idea. But it’s been daunting to think of the amount of money people are telling me that I would need to pay for the illustrations alone.  That doesn’t even include the printing, marketing and distribution costs. As an employee in campus recreation and a swim coach for a wide range of ages and skill levels, I am blessed that I love my career.

However, it absolutely does suck that I have to work 4 jobs to make a salary that most people have the luxury of making with one position. I know I’m lucky because I love my job and feel like I am giving back to others every day. That being said, we still seem to live paycheck to paycheck and I look forward to the day where I don’t have to stress about how I am going to pay the bills each month, and raise more than $20,000 to finish my first 3 books.

This conference could be the day where everything changes. This is my chance to see if there is anyone in the industry interested in helping me make my book series a reality. I know it’s a long shot, but I believe so strongly that my books can make a tremendous impact on so many people’s lives that I have to try and that it IS a possibility.  And if it wasn’t for this scholarship, my friend would have never passed this information to me, and that possibility wouldn’t exist.  Things happen for a reason, and I’m excited to attend and learn as much as I can and then decide what my next step will be.

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A New Challenge – Jill Kuangfung

Not too long ago, I found myself in a well-known, independent feminist bookstore wondering where all the characters of color were. This was a while into my time working there as a bookseller, but I often thought back to the first day I stepped into this particular shop–how magical it was (especially compared to Barnes & Noble), how innovative and progressive. Eventually the magical book dust settled, and I got to know the shelves, especially in the children’s section. I became familiar with who was featured. And, although I am a fan of many of the works in the growing collection of “feminist princess books,” these young heroines were often white. I was hard-pressed to find children’s books with protagonist of color.


My name is Jill, and I am a twenty-seven-year-old, queer, mixed-race artist of color. It wasn’t until I worked at this bookstore that I found the first books to ever reflect my identity (in a racial sense), and there are still only a few. When I read these books, my soul was fed. So a couple of years ago, I decided to write one of my own for the younger versions of me, so that maybe they wouldn’t have to wait until age twenty-seven, would not have to become booksellers to experience the satisfaction of looking into the mirror of a book. The book I am writing and illustrating is my first. It is based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood, except Red has a different name and is a little mixed-race girl, and the wolf is preying on her family’s identity and history. There is no woodsman to help Red; it is she, along with her memories of her ancestors, who must save the day.

I am not a published writer, and my paintings have never hung in a gallery, but when I heard about the scholarship to attend PWID, I believed my work was important, I believed in the possibility that it might go somewhere, that I might learn something, and that someone might be reached through my art. So I took the shot. I am thrilled to be invited to the conference, I am thrilled to meet other people who write and illustrate. I am nervous and excited to hear what publishers are looking for, and ready to equip myself for the challenges and vulnerability I will face by sharing my work with the world. I have so much gratitude for this opportunity; I’m counting down the days until November!

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Diverse authors/illustrators at the Illinois SCBWI conference

Fellow African American children’s author, Urania Smith, teamed with me, B A Binns, to sponsor three diverse authors to attend the 2016 Illinois SCBWI conference, Prairie Writers and Illustrators Day (PWID) coming up on Saturday, November 5 at Harper College in Palatine, Ill. Urania and I both want to see ways to see more authors from marginalized groups succeed in the children’s book industry. As always, I believe education is an important key to success, and I know many marginalized authors and illustrators have difficulty funding education efforts. That’s why I chose to seek out future #ownvoices to attend this important conference and education opportunity.

In preparation for the conference, I am letting the contest winners share their feeling about the event. First up will be Jill Kaunfung from Illinois. In her post coming up on Thursday (10-27) she will talk about her draft manuscript, Freely & the Wolf, a mixed-race retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where a red-cloaked girl of color relies on strength from her ancestors to stand up to the white wolf who threatens to erase her history.

I already want to read that story.

Don’t forget, there’s still time to register to attend PWIDPWID_2016Registration closes on October 29, 2016.

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Using Diverse Books in Library Programs – ILA 2016

B A Binns & Nancy Goodfellow

B A Binns & Nancy Goodfellow

The Illinois Library Association, ILA, held it’s annual conference in Rosemont, Il on October 19 and 20.  On Wednesday, Oct 19, I spoke at a session titled Using Diverse Books in Library Programs. Along with my co-presenter, Nancy Goodfellow, a member of the National Association for Down Syndrome, the talk focused on three areas:



Diversity – Moving past just being tolerant and actually embracing and celebrating the richness of each individual

Empathy – about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Our ability to empathize as a way to making the world a better place

#ownvoices – the hashtag was created in 2015 for authors and illustrators who create books with diverse characters who share their identities. This firsthand knowledge and shared experience enables ownvoices to craft stories from a unique and authentic point of view with an extra degree of nuance and authority.

Preschool thru 2nd grade.
The common narrative about kids from marginalized groups tends to focus on deficits and problems. We focused on works and speakers that serve as a counter-narrative to challenge negative assumptions and stereotypes.

With these younger children,  I suggest programs that revolve around kids playing and interacting with those different from themselves as a normal thing. We also looked at books that help expose kids in this age range identity and social justice. The more kids see ‘the other’ represented in stories, the more ‘other’ is removed from their thinking. The goal is for children to read books because they are good books, without taking notice that they are about someone who is a different color or gender or cultural background.

3rd grade through middle school
The discussion began with Booktalks and the pros and cons of focusing on the diversity factor while talking about books to program participants. I usually tell the diversity characteristic during booktalks, but as an aside, a “something you should know,” not as a defining feature. Even when I don’t mention how a character is diverse, people who know me know most of the books I discuss are going to feature characters from multiple cultures. And everything I write centers around stories of kids who are different from each other finding ways to come together.

Other programs for this age range discussed include

  • Having participants review book covers to see how their library compares to the following 2015 infographic of statistics on diversity in children’s books collected by the CCBC – Cooperative Children’ Book Council at the University of Wisconsin by reviewing some shelves and recording and discussing their results.

(Created by David Huyck under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.)

  • Having participants “cast the movie” for a book they have read, and reviewing their internal def aults about these characters.
  • Using popular books such as the Harry Potter series to introduce the topic of hurtful words, including quizzing the kids about a word in the books that is comparable to the R-word because books don’t have to be categorized as diverse to provide opportunities for discussions about diverse topics.

7th grade through adults
To compete with the wide variety of choices people of this age have for their time and energy, librarians and teachers have to offer choice. That includes the kind of reading and programming that will actively involve kids and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. We also have to do more to let them know what choices are available. This includes graphic novels for older students, and using programs designed to introduce students to diverse books such as Blind Date with a diverse book, Speed Dating diverse books. We also covered social justice programs that help kids see and write about ways they are alike and substituting several diverse books for classics in some programs and/or class situations such as discussions on bullying or social class.

All ages
Final discussion focused on ownvoices and independently published books such as I’m A Brilliant Little Black Boy, and Large Fears. These books help show kids that they do belong.  We also talked about the organization, Sit Stay Read, which helps train adults who want to volunteer to do programs for their schools or libraries.

Kids need the opportunity to talk about differences in a safe environment. It is especially important to be matter-of-fact about differences and have open, honest conversations about them. If you make something taboo, it will be taboo. If you make diversity part of everyday life, kids will accept it as normal and unremarkable.


Following the session I joined other Illinois authors at the Illinois Author Showcase on the exhibit floor.  A number of librarians who attended the presentation stopped by and asked additional questions.  I was also able to mentor a self-published author.


A pdf of the handout given to participants can be downloaded here

A pdf of the books discussed during the presentation can be downloaded here.

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What if you gave a contest and nobody came?

For the record, the title of this blog is meant to be a hook. Authors know what I mean, that thing good novels use to capture a reader’s attention. In reality, the contest I am going to tell you about had lots of entries. Entries that shared more than a few things in common.

Last month I announced a contest on my website, It was sponsored by my publishing company, AllTheColorsOfLove Press (aka ME) and offered free tuition to Prairie Writers and Illustrators Day, PWID. PWID is an Illinois SCBWI conference held in Palatine, Illinois on the campus of Harper College in November.  The contest goal was to find a worthy author or illustrator outside the mainstream and pay his/her tuition.

What do I mean by mainstream? In the United States at least, the vast majority of children’s book writers, illustrators, editors and reviewers are white, middle class, and female. Year after year this has been the predominant crowd at PWID and other conferences I attend, including the national conference in New York (I have never been to the Los Angeles conference, but something tells me things would not be that different there.) I’m not sure about LGBTQ+ attendees, or people of religious backgrounds outside the mainstream, I can only guess.  As a black female children’s author, I’ve had to accept being being one of three, or two, or sometimes no other black faces at writing events, along with a smattering of Hispanics and Asians. I am never sure how many other attendees notice the lack of crowd diversity, but I always do. It’s hard to miss when you are “the only one of your kind” in a standing room only crowd.

2016 marked a change for PWID. A portion of the  faculty includes individuals outside the mainstream. After I saw the lineup I had to take a few minutes to pick my beating heart up from the floor. Kids are not the only students who need mirrors.

I then came to a decision. I wanted more. A diverse faculty should be accompanied by a more diverse audience. With that thought came the decision for concrete action along with the realization that I should be willing to put my money where my mouth was. So my contest was born.

I launched the scholarship, full tuition for a diverse attendee. Entry was simple, people had to write a few paragraphs about why they needed to attend, what they thought the benefit would be to their career. And they needed to explain what made them diverse in their own words.

That second requirement actually caused one problem. I had one white author try to explain that the definition of diversity was “fluid” and that she should be included because of the characters she wrote. I had to disqualify her and tell her sorry, but I was really looking for #ownvoices, diverse authors or illustrators who write these characters from a position of knowledge.

Contrary to the title, people came. I had entries from all over the US. Literally, from Washington, D C to Hawaii. Most described themselves as people of color, mixed race, and LGBT.  More importantly, another author of color and SCBWI member, Urania Smith, gets a special shout out. She offered to join me and pay for the tuition of a second candidate.  In the end, I could not chose only two. So I opened my purse a little wider and funded two attended, and Urania a third.

My career has been good, even if  SCBWI only recognizes one of my books as being PAL-worthy.  Per the official SCBWI website – P.A.L. stands for “Published and Listed.” This level of membership is open to those whose “books, articles, poems, stories, illustrations, photographs, films, television or electronic media for children have been commercially published by one of the organizations listed in the SCBWI Market Surveys.”

In other words, traditional publishing serves as the gatekeeper for entry into PAL. But that’s another story about the difficulty minority authors and illustrators have in finding a home with one of those favored publishers and how that effects their status in the organization.

Or maybe it’s really part of the same story.

Almost none of the people who entered were members of SCBWI. In fact, most were not aware that the organization even existed. While I heard about it years ago, and even joined (I am a natural joiner) I know many writers of color do not know and cannot afford to join even if they do know. And, as a member, I know there are times when I question my place in the group as a minority author. Like many others, I write stories that kids of color buy and love. But those books are unable to rouse much interest among major publishers and are shut out of some of the organizations benefits.

Brief disclaimer, my first YA novel, Pull, is a recognized PAL book, having been published by Westside Books, a small press. In addition, I recently sold a MG novel, Courage, that will be published by Harper Collins in 2018. But there are many years between them, years where even with an agent I could not get a publisher interested in my stories featuring black and gay teens. Two of those went on to become successful self-published books. So I have seen both sides of the story. My two self-published books that children of color benefit from, were stories that publishers said they could not relate to the characters. So they are forever neligible for the benefits of PAL status. They get no promotion or even mention in displays at events Illinois SCBWI  attends at school and library associations because they, like some other #ownvoices books, have difficulty getting past the publishing house gatekeepers.

Many authors from marginalized groups are electing to go the independent publishing route in an effort to get their books into kid’s hands. I did that with two books, Minority of One about a gay black youth and Being God whose hero was not only the villain of Pull in search of redemption, but a boy trying to fight the pull of a gang.  I talk about them last year at the Illinois School Library Media Association and the Ohio Educational Library Media Association, and will do so again when I speak to the Illinois Library Association in October. But those have been my solo efforts. SCBWI has never deemed them worthy of even being included in their display at any of these meetings.

This year there will be three new faces at PWID.  I hope to have them speak more about themselves in the next few weeks. Presenting my contest winners:

Jill Jill Kaunfung from Illinois –

Jill describes herself as a mixed-race, queer girl of color. She has drafted a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where a red-cloaked girl of color relies on strength from her ancestors to stand up to the white wolf.


khannieKhannie Dastgah from Missouri –

Khannie immigrated from Iran in 1979 at the age of four. Her books were created to help diverse groups feel connected to swimming. She wants every kid to be able to connect and relate to at least one of the characters in her books.

Nabeeh_Bilal-photoPicture book author and puppeteer, Nabeeh Bilal from DC –

Nabeeh has a self-published series. He stated the hope that being in a “roomful of people who excel at what I aspire to do” would help inspire him to create his best book yet.

In the past he has felt excluded from society as African-American man trying to find a place at “the table.”  One line in his entry form that helped tip the balance in his favor: Diversity is not only about race, but about religion, about autism acceptance, about the right to be who you want to be.

All three will be heading for palatine, Illinois on November 5 for the PWID conference. Their tuition is paid for. Anyone interested can sign up, registration is open and you do not have to be an SCBWI member.  But if you are interested, move fast. Some of the breakout sessions are already full. For more information, and to register, click here

Lots of good people entered my contest. Urania Smith and I were both pleased. My now empty wallet and I hope the conference will be enriched by their presence just as they are enriched by the information they receive and their future careers jump started.  If we really want more diversity in children’s books then we need to do outreach to the many talented #ownvoices who feel shut out.  Just unlocking the doors is not enough. Too many have felt unwanted for their entire careers, and still lack the financial wherewithal to both find out about opportunities and to join. That leaves publishers free to say they can’t find these authors. And that perpetuates the cycle of exclusion.

P. S. Even authors and illustrators who were not selected were provided with information about SCBWI, especially their own state chapters. I hope they feel they got a benefit from applying, even if the answer could not be yes to all.

Posted in A writer's life, Conference, Contest, diversity, PWID 2016 | Comments Off on What if you gave a contest and nobody came?

2016 Prairie Writers results


Presenting the winners of my contest to provide free tuition for diverse children’s authors and illustrators to attend Illinois SCBWI’s 2016 conference – Prairie Writers and Illustrators Day – PWID
Contest Results…
PWID 2016 Faculty…PWID 2016 Faculty…
The three winners who will be my guests at the conference are:

Jill Kaunfung –




Nabeeh Bilal –






Khannie Dastgah, St. Louis, Missouri –


For 2016, the Illinois SCBWI conference committee selected a stellar faculty. details about faculty members can be found at




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Contest winners

Here are the winners of my contest, two fresh author/illustrator faces who won free tuition for the Illinois SCBWI conference, Prairie Writers and Illustrators Day,  Nabeeh Bilal and Jill Kuanfung.


Both will be my guests at this year’s conference.


Congratulations to everyone who entered.

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Sharing or Things that should be learned in kindergarten

I’m an outlier, a black female who swims. There are a few of us, you know. I grew up on the south side of Chicago. There were no public pools back then, but out school found a way. We were required to take swimming, and being on your period was an excuse that went only so far. I did not become proficient then.  I just have the most vivid memory of jumping in the deep end my senior year and holding onto the edge of the pool wall for dear life.  I was one of the few who actually went into the deep end. I remember feeling slightly suicidal that day.  But I didn’t drown.

On to the University of Wisconsin.  There I not only actually learned to swim, I learned to like swimming. Crawl, backstroke, sidestroke (not a competitive stroke, but I swear it’s a lifesaver, one I can do even if exhausted). I only regret I never learned  the dolphin kick or butterfly. At college, I was not only one of the few black people in the swimming class, I was still one of the few on the entire campus. We always spoke when we met each other. You had to, it was such a rarity.  I also learned to dive. To prove how active my suicidal thoughts were, I actually dived off the platform. After watching a kid, probably a faculty members child, climb that ladder and jump off, repeatedly.  Me, college student, decided if a skinny kid could, so could I. I joined the line waiting for their turn, climbed to the platform, looked over the side, and bam, heart attack city. (Did I mention I am terrified of heights)

I was too big a coward to  go to the line of people on the ladder and ask them to move aside to let me climb back down.  Especially because the kid was right there on the ladder waiting for her turn to go again. So, with one final prayer to the Almighty,  I dove off the end. And then I hit the water, and I was still alive. And it had all been…fun.

That was almost forty years ago. I no longer do much diving, but I still like to swim.

Which brings me back to the point.

These days I’m no longer seeking out a public swimming pool in Chicago’s south side, or walking into ice cold Lake Michigan water. I live in a predominantly white suburb and pay monthly dues to a club with a pool. Actually, two pools, one with five lanes for lap swimming, another warm water pool for therapy and exercises.  Plus a sauna.


It’s the kind of club I didn’t even dream of belonging to when I was a kid.   My monthly dues means I should have no trouble swimming year round.  When there are swimmers, we double up.  Two people two a lane. In extremely busy times there may be three people “circle swimming”. I hate that one, I was never a fast swimmer, and over the years my speed has declined.  Inevitably I end up with two speed demons.

Equally inevitably, I am the only black person I have ever encountered in the pool.  And I do draw stares. Some obvious, most covert.

But today there was only one person in each lane. So I climbed in to lane number one and waited for a swimmer who was just as slow to arrive so I could tell her I would be sharing the lane with her. I didn’t have to sat anything, but it felt like common courtesy.

No, she informed me. She didn’t share. I needed to go to a different lane.


Or I could wait. She claimed she only needed five more minutes of swimming. Alone.

I’m not going to say this was racial. She might have done this to anyone. Doesn’t matter, she would still have been wrong.

One of the lessons we should get out of Kindergarten is how to play well with others. How to share. The fact that this woman did not get the message changes nothing. I was not going to stand around and wait because my time was valuable too. and I was not about to move to another lane because I saw no need to. Her presence did not bother me. If she did not want to share, she knew what she could do.   In the meantime, I started swimming, carefully keeping myself to half the lane.

When I completed the lap, I stopped, stood, and looked back. She was still standing there. Thanks to being nearsighted, I could not see her expression. I did a second lap, stood, and saw her climbing from the pool.

I guess her five minutes were up.

There are lessons we all need to learn.  One big one is that you can’t always get what you want. You can’t just push other people aside because it’s convenient for you. You can’t expect people who have the same right as you to let you dominate them.

As for me, my lesson was that I have my rights, and I get to voice them. Ten years ago, even five, I would have stepped back. Fumed in silence.  Allowed her to have her way.

Now I have swimming to do. Anytime I want.

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A second Illinois SCBWI member has stepped up to join in the effort to help diverse authors and illustrators attend the annual conference on Nov 5. Children’s book author Urania Smith has also stepped up to sponsor an attendee.  We have a wide definition of diverse author/illustrator.

Diversity mapSo if you are in or near the Chicago area, or can arrange transportation to Harper College in Palatine Illinois on Nov 5, 2016, consider applying for the scholarship. We are actively seeking applicants interested in creating children’s literature.

Just check out the information on the scholarship and fill in the application form by clicking here: Scholarship information page

Winners will be notified August 30, in time to register for the conference.

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