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Street Gang [Hardcover]

Michael Davis
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Dec 30 2008

The story of one of the most important and beloved shows on television--how it got started, nearly failed, and was saved by Elmo

When the first episode aired on November 10, 1969, Sesame Street revolutionized the way education was presented to children on television. It has since become the longest-running children's show in history, and today reaches 8 million preschoolers on 350 PBS stations and airs in 120 countries.

Street Gang is the compelling and often comical story of the creation and history of this media masterpiece and pop culture landmark, told with the cooperation of one of the show's cofounders, Joan Ganz Cooney. Sesame Street was born as the result of a discussion at a dinner party at Cooney's home about the poor quality of children's programming and hit the air as a big bang of creative fusion from Jim Henson and company, quickly rocketing to success.

Street Gang traces the evolution of the show from its inspiration in the civil rights movement through its many ups and downs--from Nixon's trying to cut off its funding to the rise of Elmo--via the remarkable personalities who have contributed to it. Davis reveals how Sesame Street has taught millions of children not only their letters and numbers, but also cooperation and fair play, tolerance and self-respect, conflict resolution, and the importance of listening. This is the unforgettable story of five decades of social and cultural change and the miraculous creative efforts, passion, and commitment of the writers, producers, directors, animators, and puppeteers who created one of the most influential programs in the history of television.


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Review

“Davis spins an evocative, insidery tale out of the wildly creative personalities and political ups and downs of the cozily delivered show.”—Washington Post



“Davis tracks down every Sesame anecdote and every Sesame personality in his book…Finally, we get to touch Big Bird’s feathers.”—James Panero, New York Times Book Review



“Davis culls insights from the show’s creators and cast to serve up this painstakingly detailed history of television’s most famous address.”—Time.com



“The author’s swift narrative—the product of hundreds of interviews—is essentially a Dumpster dive into Oscar’s trash can of cast stories…a sensitive, honest account that could jog fond memories even from the amnesiac Street denizen Forgetful Jones.”—Drew Toal, Time Out New York



“Well-researched details and an unflinching eye make Davis’s book continuously fascinating.”—Publishers Weekly



“Anyone who has ever seen Sesame Street as parent or child – or both – will love the detail and exuberance of this book.”—Booklist



“[Michael] Davis’s chronicle is as joyfully compelling as Sesame Street itself.”—People Magazine, Caroline Leavitt



“Davis is a sensitive and subtly brilliant writer who conveys the soul of the program that has earned more Emmys than any other in history while managing to stay true to its founders' idealistic vision: ‘All children deserve a chance to learn and grow. To be prepared for school. To better understand the world and each other. To think, dream and discover. To reach their highest potential.’”—The Philadelphia Inquirer, Judith Fitzgerald

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Michael Davis was a Senior Editor and family TV Columnist for TV Guide from 1998-2007. A Neiman fellow, he has also worked for the Baltimore Sun and Chicago Sun-Times.


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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
This review is brought to you by the letter J and the numbers 1, 6, and 9. Most of the important movers and shakers involved in the early days of Sesame Street had first names that started with J. In addition, the first episode aired in 1969.

If you've every enjoyed an episode of Sesame Street and wondered how the show got to where it is, this book will fill you in on the behind-the-scenes decisions and conflicts that led to what you enjoyed. As such, this book is more of a thumbnail view of the key players in Sesame Street along with brief descriptions of critical decisions than it is "The Complete History of Sesame Street" as the subtitle claims.

The story is a little different from the impression I had. In the early days, Sesame Street was so high profile that virtually every aspect of its origins and development was front page news in our community. Over time, Sesame Street grew to resemble more of an iceberg where the bulk of what was going on was submerged beneath the output of the many hundreds of episodes.

In Street Gang, former TV Guide editor and columnist (and Nieman fellow) Michael Davis wisely concentrates on the events between the fateful conversation between Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett and the untimely death of beloved genius Jim Henson. You'll get more of the events after Henson's death, but everything is much telescoped. If you don't know what Elmo's World is, this book won't advance your knowledge very much.

Michael Davis shows the warts . . . on the people . . . and there were plenty. But he does so in a respectful and balanced way.

If you are like I was, you don't realize that the creative people who brought Sesame Street to life often had serious illnesses, untimely deaths, and troubled personal lives.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Despite its incompleteness, still a good read Sept. 10 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I am a huge Sesame Street fan, and I am extremely grateful to its contributions in my development as a child in the late 1970s and early 1980s, helping me on the road (or street) to the person I am today. Reading this book, I was interested in the first half, then thoroughly enjoyed a chapter or two, and then found it fell flat. The 1960s pre-development of the show is detailed in great... well, detail... and its founding creators are profiled very thoroughly. However, the cover of the book says, "The Complete History of Sesame Street". Having the word "Complete" there is very disingenuous. For example, how could a "Complete History" make no mention of "Big Bird In China" or "Follow That Bird"? Most egregious is the fact that Roscoe Orman is only mentioned once, in passing, as the actor who happened to be portraying Gordon in the episode dealing with the death of Mr. Hooper. Orman was the actor portraying the show's most central character for decades on the program (even though the book points out that no one cast member was ever to be considered a lead actor, by design, regardless of Gordon being the landlord of 123 Sesame Street and father figure to the menagerie of Muppets around him)! Criticisms aside, the content that is here in the book is worth reading for fans of the program. For example, the parts describing the births of cornerstone Muppet characters like Grover are easily my favourites. The book's title, however, should not include the wording, "The Complete History of Sesame Street". More appropriate would be "The Founding and Evolution of Sesame Street and Its Place In Children's Television History".
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, comprehensive and moving. Nov. 13 2012
By Brock
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A great book for anyone interested in the history of the Street. Very comprehensive story of how the Street came into being and evolved to what it is today. Very moving and informative. I've now acquired the audio book version to complement this book. The audio version is edited, so if you want a complete collection be sure to get both.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A sentimental journey with an edge July 15 2009
Format:Hardcover
Street Gang caught my eye at the local library, and being a child of the late '70s I couldn't resist learning more about the making of my favourite childhood tv show.

A well-presented history that touches on all aspects of the show's creation, from puppeteers to musicians to on-screen talent to the brains that created this incredible show.

I would recommend this to anyone interested in the history of television, child development theory, and most importantly, anyone who has a soft spot for any number of those lovable creatures that populated our favourite street.
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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  74 reviews
56 of 64 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hitting the pavement running Dec 28 2008
By E. R. Bird - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The television show that can appeal to children and make parents feel like they are good parents and upright citizens for showing it to their kids, that is where the money lies, my friends. Growing up I was not a discerning television viewer. I watched Mr. Rogers, Reading Rainbow, Pinwheel, Today's Special, and a whole host of bad cartoons ranging from Space Ghost to that bizarre time traveling one that was basically just a half hour commercial for Laser Tag. There was maybe only one show amongst the batch that some part of my small reptilian brain recognized as better than the rest. I was an avid Sesame Street fan. I loved the show, the movies, the awful books they churned out (The Monster at the End of this Book excepted). Oddly, this love didn't fade as I grew up. I still have a strange fascination with the world it created and years ago I purchased Sesame Street Unpaved to sate some of my curiosity. Who were these people who created my mental childhood home? Who were the actors? The puppeteers? The writers? Unpaved didn't do much to answer any of that, aside from giving me choice nuggets like the fact that Bob was a teen singing sensation in Japan. So the time seems just about right for Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. Pulling in at a cool 406 pages, author Michael Davis has gone above and beyond the call of duty. And while I might have removed a chunk or two for the sake of svelting down the book as a whole, you will not and can not find a book that will better answer your questions about the birth of this most impressive of children's television shows.

It began at a dinner party where a man launched into a speech about the vast unfulfilled potential of television. It began with a sentence from a psychologist: "Do you think television could be used to teach small children?" There wasn't any answer to either of these points at the time, until Sesame Street formed. Sesame Street, the greatest educational television show for young children ever created, was the product of a lot of sweat, tears, and psychological blood. Under the care of Joan Ganz Cooney it found its legs. Performers like Jim Henson were brought on board. Actors and teachers, corporations and people who worked the streets of Harlem... there were people involved in its birth that would have no idea of its future impact. With a practiced eye author Michael Davis dives into Sesame Street's world, bringing up everything from previous children's programming to musical geniuses to the death of Jim Henson and beyond. An exhaustive, almost entirely complete, examination of the forces behind Oscar, Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and even Elmo.

Picking up the book I admit that at first I did not much care about the people behind the scenes. In fact, if you are reading this book solely for the purpose of finding out more about Carol Spinney and Sonya Manzano, you may just want to start reading at Chapter Fifteen and not look back. I'd encourage you to reconsider, though, because when you get right down to it Sesame Street owed its very existence to the people involved in everything from Howdy Doody to Captain Kangaroo. From Ding Dong School to Tinker's Workshop, from Kukla Fran and Ollie to Laugh-In (it makes sense when you think about it), all these shows played some small role in Sesame Street's creation. And then you start to become involved with these characters pulling the strings. Joan Ganz Cooney wasn't just the show's mother; she was and is a truly fascinating woman in her own right. The kind of person who was, for example, Vin Scully's date the night the Dodger's won the World Series in 1955. Every person involved has stories like this one in their histories. And Michael Davis has done his best to sniff them all out.

Of course, if all you want is to know about is information on the performers, there's plenty of that to go around as well. This book delves into the nitty gritty of everything from Northern Calloway's (David's) mental instability (and the real reason he died) to the Belgian born jazzman who plays during the show's musical opening. You can find out how every guy on the show essentially thought that Maria (Sonya Manzano) was way hot. Or the fact that Bob really really WAS a Japanese pop star for a while there. There is an odd blip when it comes to talking about the third Gordon on Sesame Street, Roscoe Orman. Davis chooses not to talk about this major player in spite of the fact that he is the Gordon most children watching from Season Six onward think of when his name is said. As one of the early major players, his absence is an odd glitch in an otherwise complete collection.

A significant portion of the book is dedicated to the seemingly dull but strangely fascinating topic of basic funding for an untested hypothesis: Can television teach? Our new millennium renders such a question almost laughable. Duh, of course it can teach. But it wasn't so evident pre-Sesame Street. So it is that for me, a child of the 80s, the book provides some background to those mysterious names that would appears before and after each episode of the show. Things like The Children's Television Workshop, The Carnegie Corporation, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and (altogether now) viewers like you! Children of the 60s may have memorized commercial jingles but children of the 80s memorized funding contributors.

If this history does anything it may make you shake your head in wonder over the fact that so many different concerns (money vs. education) could successfully come together to create something as cohesive as Sesame Street. It reminds me of the creation of Casablanca. Now there was a script that went through so many hands, revisions, changes, and writers that it should have ended up some kind of unholy mess. Instead it's one of the greatest movies today. Likewise Sesame Street had to run the gamut between corporations, funding entities, educational critics, artists (who would contend that all creative products had to avoid objective scrutiny) not to mention feminists, blacks, Hispanics, and other people who wanted a show to reflect an all inclusiveness never before seen on the airwaves. And credit where credit's due, the show really didn't become all that inclusive until people like women and Hispanics started to complain about their exclusion. So it is that Sesame Street stands as the last true legacy of the 60s. At least, until recently.

Because maybe one of the things the book does most perfectly is to provide a step-by-step explanation of why Sesame Street sucks today. For many members of my generation, a long lingering look at today's incarnation of Sesame Street can be a painful experience. We see the princess fairy Muppet and cringe. We watch a little bit of Elmo's World and experience sugar shock. I read through this book and I discover that in the past there was a team of in-house researchers who would regularly consult with the writers on what to produce for the kids. That prior to each broadcast the content was tested in daycare centers or Head Start classrooms for the children. And that after the shows the researchers evaluated the programs to see how effective they were to meet the shows "education goals". Davis says that Sesame Street was "the first children's television series with a bona fide curriculum and evaluation mechanism." Is this still the case? When we consider a show that could combine the educational with the truly emotional, everything that happens on the current incarnation rings strangely false. I can't imagine any writer talking about today's Sesame Street saying: "There was birth and death, love and loss, courtship and calamity, pleasure and pain, all from a little show whose aims at first were simply to test television's ability to stimulate the brain."

Truth be told, Davis spends surprisingly little time considering the show in its later years. We know the changes it went through had something to do with Franklin Getchell. Something to do with the rise of Elmo. Something to do with the Tickle Me Elmo craze... actually a LOT to do with that. I was pleased as punch to read about the rise and fall of that brief attempt to expand the neighborhood with elements like a hotel and other places around the corner from "the street". However, I was utterly unprepared for the revelation that Abby Cadabby, the Ally McBeal of the Sesame Street universe, was the direct brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney herself. That hurt. Now we have a show that is profitable, that can compete with Nick Toons, the Disney Channel, and other major competitors, but that somehow lost its way in the process. It met Barney head-on and then proceeded to emulate that horrid purple dinosaur. Not the happy ending one might have hoped for.

And none of this even touches on the millions of tiny details Davis has fearlessly worked into his book as well. Were you aware that Maurice Sendak sat in on some of the early Sesame Street planning seminars (and was bored to death by them)? Or that Mo Willems was the guy responsible for the look of Elmo's World? Or there's the fact that Cooney mistook Jim Henson for one of the Weathermen the first time she saw him. Or the fact that Frank Oz was able to turn Bert into "everyone's idea of a blind date." Or that Mississippi originally refused to run the show because it was "not yet ready" for a program where kids of different races played together. Or that Linda, who was deaf, really did have a library science degree just like her character. I could go on, really. But best that you find out some of this stuff for yourself.

In terms of the writing itself, as an author Davis plays with time and continuity like a child with a bouncy bauble. One minute you're in the 1950s, then you suddenly leap forward to the 70s, and then back again to where you were when you started. One such example is when he mentions the Children Television Workshop on page 121 (I'm working off of a galley, so my page numbers may not match up to the final copy) and then doesn't go about explaining what it is until page 127. The result is that you're left with the impression that you must have missed something along the way. It also means that as an author Davis has decided to be consistent about names, which adds its own confusion. For example, Joan Ganz Cooney is always referred to as Cooney (her married name) even when we hear about her pre-married life, while Sesame Street is always called by that name rather than a generic "the show", which makes the whole how-it-got-its-name section seem almost redundant (not to say, confusing).

Davis also has a penchant for a pretty bizarre turn of phrase. When discussing the hanky panky that went on behind the scenes he says with a straight face, "Philandering tends to rub the topcoat off a man's soul. All it took was a look at the reflection in the shaving mirror to see the painful loss of luster. " Hoo boy. Or how about the night Sesame Street was thought of, which involved some people having a dinner from a recipe in a Julia Child book. "Let history note, then, that Julia Child, public television's grand dame, provided the savory sauce poured on the night Sesame Street was conceived." But you can get used to it. Once you get into Davis's style the words become enjoyable. Like describing Jon Stone's attempts to sidestep "a water bug the size of a Sunsweet prune."

Of course, the book is long. Too long, one might think. For a Sesame Street fanatic like myself, this is not a problem. I love diving into the minute details and the millions of tiny backstories. Others who simply want a comprehensive look at the show itself, however, may find themselves wading through a lot of information before they find what they want. So while I enjoyed every page in my own way, I concede that some judicious pruning would probably be in order.

In the end, the book makes for a perfect complement to the Sesame Street Old School: Vol. 1 DVD released a year or two ago. The information gathered in the book spills over nicely into the DVD. Now before picking this title up, I suggest that you figure out what kind of Sesame Street fan you are. If you've only a passing interest in the show, you may wish to skim this book. If you are a rabid fan, it will answer your every need. And if you fall somewhere in the middle you will find a book that answers your questions, raises even more, and though a bit long is a fun and satisfying look at a world that has passed. A world that did a lot of good in its day, and that will continue to charm in one way or another.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A slog through early Sesame Street history April 8 2009
By Bonnie Svitavsky - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
When I was in grad school, I signed up for a class called Death and Literature. The description sounded awesome and I was being a bit morbid. What it turned out to be was a philosophy class in literature class clothing, which resulted in me reading Heidegger for weeks at a time, only occasionally broken up by "She" or "Dracula." The few moments of awesomeness did not make up for the fact that I was dragged through "Being and Time." And that's what reading "Street Gang" is like.

This is not a complete history of Sesame Street. This is a slog through the personal histories of several of the key players who created Sesame Street: Joan Ganz Cooney, Jon Stone, David Connell, Sam Gibbon, and Jim Henson. And when I saw histories, I mean you learn about their parents' upbringing, their upbringing, schooling, weird relationships, everything! This book is hyper-detailed, bogging it down. What isn't about family history is about how the show got funded, which has the potential to be interesting if we weren't forced to walk through every step of the process. And, of course, we do. You finally get to the genesis of the show and its characters and stories in Chapter 12... so if you want just that, skip to page 166.

To finish my complaint on the book's completeness, it skims a fair amount of the 1980s (compared to the detail of earlier chapters) and gives very little info on the mid-1990s and beyond. This is probably because management changed at the CTW and Davis does not fawn over these people. Elmo is the most-covered subject during this time period.

I'd also have to say that the writing structure is incredibly awkward. Readers are flung forward and backward and forward again in time within the span of a few paragraphs, all usually to tell a story that usually doesn't need telling. Like did I need to know that Cooney's personal assistant attended her abusive ex-husband's funeral for her, so she could report back to her boss on how it went? Or should the moment Jane Henson steps forward to speak and Jim Henson's funeral really be the time Davis first brings up that they had had marital problems?

That's not to say that there aren't fascinating stories about Sesame Street, its creation, and its creators. The book is full of them, but you have to be patient and dig around to get them, and I'm not sure it's really worth your time. You do gain an appreciation for how ground-breaking this series was and still is. You also wonder if maybe it was a requirement that you have a terminal illness in your future, as much of the end of the book is dedicated to all the contributors to the show who died of cancer, AIDs, or other diseases. It's kind of frightening how many people involved in the show have died.

I can't say that I really recommend this book. Mostly, I recommend the middle of this book. Unless you're looking for a history and finances lesson, with some Muppets thrown in for good measure.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Chronicle of (some of) the folks behind Sesame Street Oct. 20 2011
By M M Frank - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
It wasn't a bad book, but I felt the title was a bit deceptive. A more honest sub-title would have been "The Foundations of Sesame Street," or "How a group of rag-tag geniuses created a television revolution." It covered a lot of what went on behind the scenes to make Sesame Street possible, including biographies of most of the major creators, and much of the history of children's television and television in general. There was at least an entire chapter devoted to Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody. Anyway, after about 180 pages of the book, the author finally gets far enough into the timeline to reach the actual production of the show. Then he spends a whopping three chapters on the show itself, some of the cast members and Muppeteers, and then that's about it. I'm not entirely sure what he intended to accomplish. It seemed like of the Muppeteers, the only people who were discussed in much detail at all were Jim Henson, Caroll Spinney (whose chapter was a welcome break from the tedium of television history), and Fran Brill. Richard Hunt and Kevin Clash got some ink, but Jerry Nelson, Marty Robinson, Steve Whitmire and the others were basically overlooked (and given Jerry Nelson's tenure and Steve Whitmire's taking over of Kermit and Ernie after Jim Henson's death, these were shocking omissions). That made me unhappy. Also a lot of the cast members received short shrift, and there was no discussion of Gordon #2 or #3 or why the switch was made. There was a fair amount of discussion about Northern Calloway (David) and his mental instability. I got the feeling from reading the book that the author started out great guns but ran out of steam by the time he got to the actual show itself. He spent a fair amount of ink on pilot episodes with the stumbling Gordon and how Matt Robinson reluctantly became the original Gordon because no one else was suitable for the role, though he preferred writing to acting.

There is almost no discussion of the technical aspects of filming the show, or how/who produced most of the inserts (commercials or bits) that were common in the episodes for the first 20 years or so. Not much juicy gossip other than that everyone had a crush on Sonia Manzano and the whole mental illness thing. There was a lot of discussion about Jim Henson's illness/death/funeral/estate woes, almost to the point of redundancy. After plowing through a couple hundred pages of bios of the Sesame creators, I was let down by how hastily written the rest of the book seemed.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Exhaustive and (nearly) complete history Aug. 11 2009
By Madigan McGillicuddy - Published on Amazon.com
Davis' background as a journalist really shines through in this exhaustively researched look into the team behind Sesame Street. Spanning five years of interviews with cast and crew, Davis paints a painstaking picture of all the ins-and-outs, all the personalities, all the behind-the-scenes office politics that shaped this television institution. Pioneering the "edu-tainment" niche, Sesame Street was really the first children's show to take educational research seriously, incorporating PhDs on their staff and applying for educational grants to meet budgetary needs.

There's a lot of background info here... quite a lot on the earlier show, Captain Kangaroo. Warm and genial on screen, Bob Keeshan was a sometimes moody prankster on the set. A number of the writers and crew made the jump to Sesame Street when it started, and they brought lessons they learned from the Captain with them, namely, that an ensemble cast would provide less headaches than a single, tempermental actor.

Jim Henson was probably the most widely celebrated Sesame Street contributor, with his furry, funny, wonderful Muppets. Davis also spotlights Children's Television Workshop founding member and Sesame producer, Joan Ganz Cooney and her struggles to be taken seriously in the "man's world" of television production in the late 60's and onward. I didn't know that Bob McGrath, one of the longest-running original cast members got his start as a Japanese pop-singing sensation! I was also unaware that Northern James Calloway, who played David on the show, had such a troubled history. Towards the end of his run on the show, his behavior became increasingly erratic as he struggled with manic-depression.

As I suspected, Sesame Street, especially in it's first decade on television, was a very collaborative effort. In the 1990's post-Barney era, the show floundered for a bit under new management, as the suits tried to micromanage the creative process, until finally hitting on a huge hit with Elmo. Considering the meticulous detail afforded to the early years of Sesame Street, I was a little surprised that even more energy wasn't expended in explaining the Elmo phenomenon but one can't blame Davis for running out of steam towards the end of this epic history. It feels odd to say it, but as long as the book was (and it is long) I did wish for a bit more info about most of the performers. Also, no mention of the Snuffleupagus controversy!

The final 100 pages are perhaps the saddest, beginning with the death of Will Lee, the actor who played the venerable corner-store owner, Mr. Hooper. From there, many of the other founding members passing, especially that of Henson, are covered in detail.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This Book Bought to You By the Letters A and OK Jan. 26 2009
By Damian Holbrook - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As a child of the '70s, this book is both a blessing and the best kind of curse: Davis has nailed the birth and evolution of Sesame Street in a fun, rollicking read (blessing) that had me honestly considering calling out of work so I could continue devouring it (the curse). Opening with Henson's funeral---a heartbreaking inside look at the grief endured by all who knew him--- the story behind our furry compadres rolls out with some shocking truths about the who, what and why of CTW's hey day. But be warned, grown-up kiddies, there is a LOT of stuff you didn't know and might be stunned to find out. Turns out that, even though the show was for children, it was the adults behind the scenes who indulged in some truly childish antics. Do yourselves a favor and buy extra copies because this is going to be the best gift you can give anyone who ever learned how to count from the Count or wash behind their ears with Ernie and his rubber ducky.
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