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NEW ENGLAND LITERARY NEWS

A new children’s book about Ona Judge, new poetry by Martín Espada, and a biography of iconic Black feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes

Ray Anthony Shepard's new picture book tells the story of Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who escapes.
Ray Anthony Shepard's new picture book tells the story of Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who escapes.KEITH MALLETT

A freedom tale

Author, educator, and self-described “late-in-life historiographer” Ray Anthony Shepard’s grandfather was enslaved until he was six years old, the son of a white judge, Shepard’s great-grandfather, who had a Black family and a white family. In his work for young people, Shepard, who lives in Lincoln, Mass, shines light on the racial history of this country that’s often glossed over or avoided. His first picture book, “Runaway: The Daring Escape of Ona Judge” (FSG), tells the story of Ona, who was enslaved by George and Martha Washington, and who, when told she’d be given as a wedding gift to a granddaughter of Martha Washington, fled from their Philadelphia home, escaping to freedom in New Hampshire. Shepard details the relative ease of Ona’s enslaved life — “fine dresses, / Fancy bonnets for your bushy black hair / Soft shoes on your tender brown feet” — and the question gets repeated: “Why you run Ona Judge?” Keith Mallett’s illustrations show the luxury of life with this family, the lace, the private bedroom, the same food George Washington eats, paired with a palpable pain and fear in Ona’s face. The book’s question chorus is answered with force: “You knew you were more . . . / Than a ten-dollar pet / The lady wanted back.” Shepard has written that he writes “for readers who understand the universal need for fairness.” Now, it’s an even younger generation of those readers he can speak to.

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Black feminist icon

Black social justice activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes was the co-founder, with Gloria Steinem, of “Ms” magazine. But while Steinem, as Laura Lovett notes in her new biography of Hughes, has been the subject of films, plays, and at least six biographies, Hughes has remained in the shadows. In “With Her Fist Raised: Dorothy Pitman Hughes and the Transformative Power of Black Community Activism,” out this week from Boston’s Beacon Press, Lovett explores Hughes’s life and “the broader social, cultural, and political events that necessitated and shaped her activism,” as well as “the erasure of Black women leaders.” Hughes, who was born in Georgia in 1938 and moved in New York City in 1957, focused her energy on welfare rights, racial justice, and childcare, and Lovett’s engaging examination is a necessary addition to the expanding narrative of Black women’s role in moving this country forward. As Lovett puts it, her life is “a testament to the power of partnerships, the impact of community action, and the ability to confront and overcome racism at a personal level.”

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Verses of the real

A racist encounter with a cab driver in a rush-hour ride over the Mystic Tobin Bridge; incarcerated adolescent migrants held captive in a camp; a Mexican immigrant pissed on and beaten after a Sox game; family history; a punch to the jaw; an ancient turtle. Martín Espada’s new poetry collection, “Floaters” (Norton), is a work of grace-laden defiance. A former tenant lawyer in greater Boston, now an English professor at UMass Amherst, Espada lands jabs of bright, hard wisdom. “A century gone, the mills gone, the union gone, the books gone, the poet / faded as poets fade, like fountain pen, bedridden in a tenement room, / paralysis of the legs bewildering the doctor with his black bag, the bottle / of wine always by the bed, yet the iron in the bars of the cage still prays.” The Boston area is alive in the collection, as is the verve and force of this poet’s long career.

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Coming Out

Pretty Tripwireby Alessandra Lynch (Alice James)

The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women—and Women to Medicineby Janice P. Nimura (Norton)

Remote Controlby Nnedi Okorafor (Tordotcom)

Pick of the Week

Leila Meglio at Porter Square Books in Cambridge recommends “If I Had Your Face” by Frances Cha (Ballantine): “Frances Cha’s debut is completely transporting. Featuring four women who live in the same building in Seoul, it’s a glimpse into four very different lives intertwining as each faces the challenges and expectations of social and economic hierarchy in modern Korean culture. Fascinating and vivid.”

Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Wake, Siren.” She can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.