Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

Color Me Perplexed

by Nikki Grimes

It’s 2010, but you’d never know it.  I’m just back from ALA and I’m still hearing librarians say things like “I love your work!  I only wish I had more African American students so that I could use your books.”


I wish I could tell you that such comments are rare.  Sadly, they are all too common, and my question is why?  What makes a librarian, or teacher, or a parent for that matter, assume that a book is inappropriate, or of diminished value to a child simply because the character on the cover is of a different race? 

Let us, for a moment, follow the line of logic that says one should not share literature by and about people of a certain color with children who are of a different color.  According to that logic, I would have to suggest schools with predominantly non-white student populations skip Charlotte’s Web, Bridge to Terabithia, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Old Yeller for starters.  Forget Alice in Wonderland.  Tom Sawyer is debatable.  Diary of Ann Frank?  I don’t think so.  As for adult literature, let’s just say Shakespeare’s readership just shrunk significantly.

Are you gasping yet?  Have the words “ridiculous” and “absurd” popped into your mind?  I certainly hope so.  And yet, the act of an educator who limits the use of books featuring characters of color is no less egregious, and his or her reasons no less absurd.  The single most important question we should ask when considering a book for our classroom or library shelves is, is the book any good?

Forget about color.  M.C. Higgins the Great, by Virginia Hamilton, is a great book.  Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan, is a rich story.  Night Garden, by Janet Wong, is for all dreamers.  Code Talker, by Joseph Bruchac, has a message for everyone.  Everett Anderson’s Goodbye, by Lucille Clifton, would warm the heart of any reader. 

A good book is a good book, is a good book.  Period.

Students of every race should be exposed to the good work of Julius Lester, Walter Dean Myers, Tonya Bolden, Lucille Clifton, Angela Johnson, Patricia C. and Frederick McKissack, and Christopher Paul Curtis.  Gary Soto, Pam Munoz Ryan and Tony Medina should be names they recognize.  Naomi Shihab Nye should be a staple in their classroom collections, as should Joseph Bruchac and Linda Sue Park.  The list of worthy authors of color, creating books of substance for young readers, is a long one.  Their good books—our good books—should be sprinkled among all the others.

Obviously, a book featuring a character of color (Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American—fill in the blank) will be especially appealing to a child of that race.  However, his or her interests are not—and should not—be limited to those books.  The very same can be said of children who are Caucasian.   I dare say, my fan base is quite diverse, and I receive letters from at least as many white readers as black.   That being true, might I suggest that the problem lies not with the young reader, but with the adults in his life who wrongly assume that their charges will not be interested in a book based on the race of its chief protagonist.   

Earlier in my career, I gave a reading at a bookstore during a Story Hour event.  A child in the audience came forward afterwards to handle some of my books.  She was especially fond of Meet Danitra Brown, and asked her mother to buy it for her.  Her mother, however, did all she could to persuade her daughter to choose another of my books, C is For City, one with a cover featuring a multicultural cast of characters.  I watched helplessly as this mother snatched Meet Danitra Brown out of her child’s hand while the child screamed bloody murder.  It was one of the saddest displays of racism I’ve ever witnessed.  You can be certain I’ll never forget it.

We are all aware that we live in a multicultural society.   Many, though not all of us, would like to create a future society in which our citizens engage more peacefully with one another, without regard for race, color, or creed.  Art and literature, deftly employed, can help us achieve that end. 

When you give a child a book featuring people of a culture other than his own, he is able to learn about that culture in the least threatening way possible.  When you hand him a book that shows that we are more alike than we are different, you are planting seeds for a society in which the next generation is able to, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr, judge one another by the content of each person’s character, rather than by the color of his skin.  We say that’s what we want.   Of course, if that isn’t what you want, then by all means continue to withhold literature  featuring people of color from children who are not.  Just don’t expect the world to change.  It won’t.

{ 3 trackbacks }

This Week in Diversity: Two Steps Forward, One Holding Back « the open book
September 10, 2010 at 3:25 pm
Sunday links | CMIS Evaluation Fiction Focus
September 12, 2010 at 12:58 am
Black and White and read all over | Top Of My Head
September 14, 2010 at 1:07 pm

{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

han nolan September 3, 2010 at 11:53 am

This is excellent! Next time you have to speak at an ALA conference maybe you could speak to this topic. You wrote everything I was thinking after I read about the comments you were getting at ALA. Thanks for posting this.


Roger September 3, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Well said, Mom. Well said. You are and will continue to be my very good friend and I love your work and your heart for truth. For those who don’t know, I am caucasion and consider Nikki my Mom though she is only a handful of years ahead of me in life. Love you my friend.


Stephanie Greene September 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Surely, exposing all children to books written by authors of every color and culture that show them that the children of every color and culture are more like them than different, should be the first step in any peace process.

A wonderful piece. Thanks.


Shelli September 3, 2010 at 5:08 pm

So very well put. I don’t understand people who give consideration to the race of a character as a determining factor in their decision to read the book. Race isn’t the story. It may be an element of the story. Other than that, it’s a character trait. Focus on the story. Everyone’s story.


Sharon Pavon September 3, 2010 at 6:21 pm

I’m so glad you posted this. These attitudes need to go and all of the white washing needs to stop.


Doret September 3, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Well said. I agree, a good book is a good book. It makes me sad to think of all the great stories some students are missing out on.


Kellye September 3, 2010 at 8:07 pm

I couldn’t agree more, Nikki. Adults should make an effort to help kids choose good books, including those that feature protagonists who are different from them. This is especially important, I think, in communities that are less integrated. Years ago, we had a school board member in Des Moines who argued that knowing how to get along in a multicultural society is a skill that all kids need for the future. Thanks for writing this piece!


Dawn September 7, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Yes! Thank you for writing this. When I read “I only wish I had more African American students so that I could use your books.” I thought, “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” so you are more considerate than me!

The whole point of books is to open possibilities, introduce ideas and perspectives beyond our own, limited imaginings and introduce a world, a point of view, a character, an experience that is *different* — that changes us, the way we think, from that point on. A good book is a good book, yes, but the BEST books are the ones that make us think and talk and wonder together.


Laura Manivong September 7, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Amen, and thank you! Wake up please, grown-ups! Even kids on the opposite side of your world bicker with siblings, whine at their parents, feel lost, confused, angry or hopeful, resilient, and resourceful. Should authors not tell their stories because their skin is a different color than your majority?


Tina Hoggatt September 7, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Thanks for writing this piece. Being hurt and angry is natural when having this kind of repeated experience and I’m sure you have felt that. I’ll think about that little girl with your book for a long time. A measured, thoughtful piece like this reaches out to those who might not otherwise be able to hear your message.


Erik Bruhwiler September 7, 2010 at 1:48 pm

The fact that this occurs seems insanely absurd. But I know it does.


Julia Karr September 7, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Excellent piece! It is sad to see that this is still an issue. Sheesh! Don’t people get it? If we don’t change – nothing else will!


Tom M Franklin September 7, 2010 at 2:25 pm

when i was an elementary school librarian i read several of mildred taylor’s short stories (The Well and The Friendship) to fourth graders–white fourth graders, black fourth graders, red fourth graders, yellow fourth graders–because they were powerful, well-written and described a time in our country’s past that those kids -needed- to have put into context to better understand.

and guess what? all of those different racial groups identified with the strong characters and were fully engaged in the story.

the best i can offer is to assure you that not -all- librarians think along those lines.

– Tom


Donna Earnhardt September 7, 2010 at 2:34 pm

“I love your work! I only wish I had more African American students so that I could use your books.”

Maybe I shouldn’t be – but I am shocked. I can’t understand this logic coming from educators. It’s not really logic, but pseudo-logic. What might make sense in their head certainly doesn’t translate well once it comes out of the mouth.
Your post is a good one. I’m glad I popped in today. If I ever hear this “logic” from anyone I know, I’ll be sure and point them to this post!


Eric Kimmel September 7, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Well said, Nikki!

I don’t know any writer who writes for only one “kind” of reader. We put children in boxes and toss in “ethnically appropriate” reading matter. Reminds me of feeding time at the zoo. Throw away the boxes. Open the cages. Minds and imaginations should be free.


heidi r kling September 7, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Well said!


Loreen Leedy September 7, 2010 at 3:29 pm

That is hard to fathom such pigeonholing in this day and age. It certainly would make an outstanding topic for a speech at ALA. I have always included a variety of people in my book illustrations and fortunately the vast majority of people appreciate it or don’t especially notice because it’s the norm in their world.


Candy Gourlay September 7, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Reading is about growing our imaginations so that we can grow our worlds. But so many people lock themselves in narrow little spaces. Thanks for writing this.


Angela L. Fox September 7, 2010 at 3:54 pm

Sage words that I agree with. I will be re-posting this to my facebook with the challenge for people to read a book to a kid with an MC who isn’t “white.” The fact is that people think this way, but there is hope in conversations like the one that Nikki started with this post.

I would like to, respectfully, point out something else that I’ve noticed. People, even here in Nikki’s post, are referred to as “people of color” and then “white people who have no color.” I think that this language contradicts the spirit of tolerance. “White” people have color, ethnicity, flavor. It would sure be nice to be perceived as being included in the rainbow of humanity, I also believe that once everyone is put into the same pot, we might simmer together a little better.

My niece gave birth to two bright, beautiful girls. The older has brown skin, the younger has pale skin the color of her mother’s. However, the older girl looks exactly like her mama. Genetics is amazing indeed. Then some ignorant person asked this gorgeous, fun, smart girl if she felt bad that her skin was brown and not white like her mama’s and sister’s. They planted this ugly seed into a developing brain which, like the unformed dough that it is, took and folded those words into her being over and over. I don’t know who did this to her, but I hope a ‘clue-by-four’ strikes them soundly in their psyche soon. I did the only thing I could think of, I bought her Yuyi Morales’ LITTLE NIGHT.

From the Red Green show, “I’m pulling for you, we’re all in this together.”


Louise Passick September 7, 2010 at 4:50 pm

All I can say is a very loud WHAT? Since when has children’s literature been divided according to skin color? Shameful.


Chris Crutcher September 7, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Near Atlanta not long ago, I went into a bookstore for a copy of THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X to use to round out some details for a novel I was writing. I went directly to the U.S. History section and guess what? No Malcolm. When I asked the store manager if they were sold out, she directed me to the BLACK History section. What followed was a fairly interesting, and heated on my part, conversation about why the hell Black History wasn’t considered U.S. History. I left without buying the book. Folks, it’s time we started telling the truth about racism in this country. Over and over I hear the tea party-ers say it’s only the radical fringe of their movement that sports racist signs and t-shirts, etc. But at a fairly recent rally in Colorado covered by CNN, I watched a woman parade before the camera with a stuffed monkey and a sign telling President Obama to go back to Kenya. I can buy that she could have been a fringer…but not ONE person scolded her or turned from the sign in disgust. Nikki is a WRITER. Christopher Paul Curtis is a WRITER. Sherman Alexi is a WRITER. Laurie Halse Anderson is a WRITER. Lisa Yee is a WRITER. We’re all telling stories about humans.


Chris Crutcher September 7, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Oh, yeah, and Matt de la Pena is a WRITER. Sorry Matt.


Michelle Markel September 7, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Nikki, I’m truly sorry you were subjected to such small-mindedness.In my many years in primary classrooms I’ve found kids receptive and often inspired by stories about people with backgrounds different than their own.
Some years ago, I had a class of predominantly white students do some creative writing about being a superhero- anything they wanted. They did variants of Aquaman etc etc. But a white girl wrote about Martin Luther King!


Jan Watford September 7, 2010 at 6:34 pm

It is the responsibility of both parents and educator to prepare children for their entry into the world as a responsible adult. Part of this responsibility is preparing all children of every race to realize the world is multi-colored with many different races and cultures. If a child is not exposed to this socially in their community or school, an excellent solution is books and literature.


Dianne de Las Casas September 8, 2010 at 1:39 am

Bravo, Nikki! I am Filipina-American and had a couple of manuscripts rejected because the main character was Filipino and the publisher said the readership would be “limited.” I am now publishing the picture book in the Philippines. Such a shame my American readers will be deprived of learning a new culture. I agree with Eric Kimmel, we don’t write for a specific readership. We write for kids. Kids don’t know color until we teach it to them. No matter where I travel in the world, good story transcends any cultural barriers.

To quote Nikki again, “A good book is a good book, is a good book.”

Warmly, Dianne
(Standing ovation for Nikki)


Mayara September 8, 2010 at 8:39 am

I don’t know you or your books – sorry but being brazilian I’m mosty out of the loop and just lately I started on the book blogging world and am still trying to catch up – but what really frustrates me is:
1. When people assume my skin is dark because of where I live (btw, it’s not and I’m probably whiter than most americans or europeans. Really.)
2. When writers write books with black main characters and that’s part of the story. A person’s skin shouldn’t be part of the story “always”. Only if it’s a story about prejudice, nazis or whatever but, really, how many “normal” (as in not prejudice centered) stories with “non white” characters have you seen? I haven’t seen. At all. And gee, I’m brazilian, people here are mostly non white… But then again, most books here are american best sellers and translated so you can’t expect much.
I wouldn’t mind reading a romance or PNR where the MC is black (and now I figured I should say, I’m sorry if “black” is offensive, I’m not quite sure what’s considered offensive or not in the US)… As long as THAT wasn’t part of the story. The first step to making peope equal is TREATING them equal – on both ends. Books with black MCs shouldn’t focus on prejudice or you can end up having a major backfire.
I know I’m not really talking kids books here, but I figured it was pertinent to the theme.


Carmen T. Bernier-Grand September 8, 2010 at 10:17 am

Gracias, Nikki.

Reviewers also make the mistake, saying that a book is excellent for the readers of the specific culture.
“Multicultural” means everyone. Everybody has a culture.


Amanda Salisbury September 8, 2010 at 11:58 am

I enjoyed this entry immensely. The scene after the reading could have been a teaching moment between parent and child. It could have gone so differently. One great way would be to sit with the child and read both books and see which strikes the tightest chord for the child. I find it most unfortunate as a writer, a reader, and a parent that books have covers. Certainly, there is at least a ton of excellent cover art that I would not want to miss. Of course, a primary mode for marketing is to use the cover. But, I long for the possibility of judging a book by its words and their interplay with one’s soul. How much richer we all could be!

I wonder, with eBooks, the possibility of making gorgeous cover art like candy prizes on the inside. Perhaps we could glimpse artists’ renderings after given the chance to form our own mental rendering.

With my own children, I note that a white (blank) page is, as the color spectrum tells us, the absence of all color, meaning that there is no story of any kind. Only by applying ink words and pictures can we have any color at all. That’s my job, I remind them, to add color where there is none, to tell stories with internal truth regardless of any character trait.

Books are primarily printed in black ink, and the color spectrum tells us that the color black is actually the presence of all color. Oh, how I love all those black ink words, for they are the beginning of any story.


Katrina September 8, 2010 at 1:20 pm

I wonder if this teacher’s regret stemmed from an intolerant administration? Perhaps she thought that if she had more African American students, then at least students and parents would be on her side in petitioning to teach your books. It seems strange that somebody who loves your books would be racist enough to think her students wouldn’t appreciate them just because of cultural differences.


tanita September 9, 2010 at 5:35 am

“However, his or her interests are not—and should not—be limited to those books.”

A simple concept on paper, but it seems to really stagger the minds of some. Thank you for eloquently and concisely speaking to the issue — again, and again and as many times as it needs to be said.


Denene Millner September 9, 2010 at 8:11 am

From your keyboard to God’s ears… when will the adults listen?

Like you, I’ve stood by helplessly while mothers wrestled my books from their children’s hands. It wasn’t said out loud, but the actions were implicit: There’s a BLACK GIRL on the cover. YOU CAN’T/SHOULDN’T READ THAT. My heart gets SO heavy when it happens.

I ask again: When will the adults listen?

Thank you for this…


Elizabeth Bluemle September 9, 2010 at 8:55 am

Nikki, I loved your post, and am hopeful it reaches many, many ears. This is my biggest issue with children’s literature; not ebooks or Kindles or Amazon (although those loom large in a bookseller’s mind), but racism. It’s ugly, it’s pervasive, and it’s largely unacknowledged and often unintentional. It’s institutional, as well; I write a blog for PW called Shelftalker, and recently talked about the shockingly white world of children’s book publishing in a post called The Elephant in the Room. If you’re interested:
At this year’s NEIBA trade show in Rhode Island, I’ll be moderating a panel discussion called Multicultural Kids’ Books: Selling Color in a White World, which should provide a starting point for helping booksellers (and librarians) get past unconscious color barriers, both our own and our customers’, and put great books featuring characters of all colors in the hands of children. If you are planning to be in Rhode Island, I would love to add you to the panel! I’ll be giving attendees resources, including sample booktalks, tips for successful conversations with hesitant customers, resources for meeting the needs of multiracial families, a list of helpful websites, and an annotated bibliography of great multicultural books by age. For anyone interested in a bibliography of children’s and YA books featuring kids of color where race is NOT the driving force of the story, I’ve created a LibraryThing collection of more than 500 titles, searchable by age and genre. It’s at
I’m sorry this comment has gotten so long, but I’m passionate about this issue and impatient for out industry to catch up to our world! Thank you so much for speaking up!


melanie hope greenberg September 9, 2010 at 10:28 am

Thanks, Nikki! Your article brings up how prejudice is taught from generation to generation. Children arrive with no preconceived ideas but a world of wonders to absorb. Who stops the patterns of separation?


Pam September 9, 2010 at 11:09 am

I am always ashamed of my race when I hear this type of thing. The story about the mother ripping the book out of the child’s hand is upsetting. I grew up in a very small Southern town, racism is taught in spades still. The sign leading into the town reads “Salt Capitol of the Confederacy” that is what they are most proud of.

It was only through reading that I was able to broaden my scopes and as soon as I was old enough I got the hell out of dodge so to say.

When the white washing of covers came up I started a reading challenge for bloggers and people in the media to read outside of their comfort zones to realize that race shouldn’t be a comfort zone. Hundreds of books written by or featuring other races have been read this year.

My six year old daughter always picks up Indian and Black culture picture books, when I asked her why she said she loved the illustrations they were much more fun. Just further proof that this phenomena is taught because given leave to the child to pick she doesn’t care the race of the characters.


Lyn Miller-Lachmann September 9, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Excellent article. I’m sorry you had to witness that mother instilling racism in her child, but I’m not surprised. The amount of open racism I’ve seen after the 2008 election tells us that our work is nowhere near done. Those of us who have been involved in multicultural education over the years need to find more venues to spread the message of diversity and to encourage parents and teachers to open their minds to a wider range of authors and subjects. This work needs to be done within each of our communities by writing for our local newspapers, bringing speakers to our schools and libraries, recommending a broader range of titles to book clubs, and so on.


Karen L. Simpson (lafreya) September 9, 2010 at 5:26 pm

When even some librarians don’t get it’s just sad….sad.


Judith Schmidt September 9, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Very sad. I am so grateful for the people in my life who saw beyond categories. At age 70, one of my treasures is Tobe, a book I was given when I was six. It was a story of a rural African-American family, illustrated with photographs and written in language simple enough that I could read it myself. I identified so strongly with Tobe, just my age, whose mother helped him deal with bullies and who was frightened of snakes, as was I. I read it over and over and to this day I’m sure it helped me learn to transcend boundaries. “When will we ever learn?”


Barbara Soloski Albin September 10, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Reading books from authors of different backgrounds is one way for our children to learn about all the different people in this world. When I lived in Los Angeles and my children were growing up they were exposed to people from all over the world, even so I would continue to expose them to books written by people from all over the world. Where I live now, if the parents do not exposed their children to the wonderful authors of many different colors, religions and backgrounds, how are the children going to learn about all the different people. For me, I think it was finding Faith Ringgold’s books for my first grade art students and realizing what a treasure I had found. I also remember reading some wonderful tales from Native Americans for children, that I enjoyed as much as the children and I still have my copy of Dinner at Aunt Connie’s. From then on there was no stopping me. I am sorry that someone said what they did to you, what an ignorant statement, and yet I know it is the way many people think. Very sad and just think about all the wonderful books they will be missing.


Amy Bowllan September 11, 2010 at 10:25 am

This summer, I begged my son to read Matt de la Pena’s book, MEXICAN WHITE BOY. His reading list was devoid of any author of color. He said, “mom! my teacher did not say I could read that book.” So until it’s approved by teachers and librarians, parents are in a pickle. It’s so frustrating! Thanks, Nikki, for writing about this.


Monique September 11, 2010 at 10:56 am

Thank you for this post. Unfortunatley some people don’t realize how books foster universal experiences and transcend any racial boundary. When we expose our children to an array of literature they have a richer literary experience. As an author of multicultural literature and a 1st grade teacher, I see firsthand that children gravitate to all types of literature. Maybe as adults, we should follow their lead.


mamacate September 17, 2010 at 3:38 pm

My (White) third grade daughter’s favorite book right now is “The Year of the Dog” by Grace Lin. It’s about a Chinese-American girl in a Northeast suburb. Her experience of difference is very prominent in the book, and the author says she wrote the book because it was the book she wanted to read when she was a child. My daughter has been able to relate in a huge number of ways to Lin’s Chinese-American character in terms of her feelings of being different and feeling excluded at times. But it has also given us a great opportunity to think and talk about what it must feel like when not everyone knows about your holidays, if people made fun of your family’s food, etc. I think reading this book made her a better friend to her classmates who are not from the dominant culture in her school, and also taught her a bit about how her feelings of being different are shared (often in amplified and unfair ways) by other kids.

Thanks for this essay. I hope that librarians and teachers will hear your message. We made sure to recommend Lin’s books to my daughter’s teacher.


Bev Humphrey September 18, 2010 at 7:04 am

Brilliantly well put. As a school librarian turned consultant I was embarrassed to read your post, it’s not a nice thought that any of my worldwide colleagues could be this backward and dense. I don’t think the colour of an author’s skin should have anything to do with book choice and I’m relieved to say I have not come across this attitude in the UK. Thank you for writing such an eloquent and thought provoking piece ;0)


Janet September 18, 2010 at 7:07 am

Thank YOU! Life’s stories are just that. It is sad enough that there are people in the general public that may have outdated understandings of the richness literature brings to us but to have educators and librarians exhibiting shallow mindedness is absurd. Again thank YOU for keeping the concept of reading across cultural lines a reality. Literature is what binds us as the human race. If you don’t mind I would like to borrow your ” a book is a book is a book” because our stories are our stories are ALL of our stories. You continue to be an inspiration- a blessing. Thank YOU!


Debi September 18, 2010 at 9:42 am

This makes me sad, it tells me that we still have a long way to go. As a reading teacher I believe all students need to be exposed to quality literature. Keep writing, you have a talent that can’t be replicated.


Liz September 18, 2010 at 11:08 am

How incredibly sad it was to read that thoughtless librarian ‘s quote. As a first grade teacher in a predominantly white village, I do my best to have my children explore other cultures through literature, art, penpals, etc. And how unenriched my daughter’s and my life would have been without reading The Watsons Go To Birmingham:1963 over and over again. Thank you for your inspiring piece!


J. Patrick Lewis September 21, 2010 at 7:55 am

Hi, Nikki,

Brava, m’dear. Your rich clarion call cannot be shouted too loudly or too often. Literature abolishes the color spectrum–or it should. Your article ought to be a vade mecum for every school librarian and teacher in the land.


Virginia DeBerry September 22, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Amen. And Amen! We have been railing against this kind of reading blindness in adults–and of course it starts in childhood. In fact just blogged about the subject last week on I had a conversation with another writer yesterday who wants to help promote “multicultural” reading–I asserted that whites read Chinese, Japanese, East Indian, Native American, Mexican, Iraqui narratives regularly–how else do these books make the best seller lists? They do read multi-culturally. Sadly, this is an issue that’s far more black and white than we’re comfortable talking about.


Evelyn N. Alfred September 27, 2010 at 9:56 am

What a lovely post. I hope the message is received by many people. I like using Bronx Masquerade during my poetry unit with my middle schoolers.


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