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NEW ENGLAND LITERARY NEWS

A look at religion as it’s experienced every day; an inspiring new children’s book; and a tribute to those Public Garden ducks

A new children's book by Boston-based author Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Evan Turk tells the story of the artist and activist Ben Shahn.
A new children's book by Boston-based author Cynthia Levinson and illustrated by Evan Turk tells the story of the artist and activist Ben Shahn.Illustration by Evan Turk

Healing spirits

A woman named Donna Haskins tells a young man in Boston that he’d play basketball again, despite a hip surgery that had ended his college sports career. Her words have more power than the young man originally believes possible. Onaje X. O. Woodbine’s layered and insightful new book, “Take Back What the Devil Stole: An African American Prophet’s Encounters in the Spirit World” (Columbia University) looks at religion as it’s experienced not in chapels, churches, temples, or mosques, but in the everyday world and individual bodies of Black women in Boston. Woodbine writes of Haskins’s awareness of and experience with “an-other dimension, a nonmaterial world,” one not defined by others’ perceptions of her body, as she travels in a liminal world, of ghosts and spirits, good and bad, that exists between the imagined and the real. Lyrical, powerful, personal, nuanced, and deeply researched, the book tracks Haskins’s violent childhood, her encounter with the Holy Spirit, and her experiences as a traveler in spirit realms, warring against “the ghosts of American power.”

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Painter’s progress

The Lithuania-born American artist Ben Shahn, whose work shone light on injustice across the 20th century, is the subject of an arresting and inspiring new children’s book by Boston-area writer Cynthia Levinson. “The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art” (Abrams) tells the life story of Shahn and the origins of his attention to people living in the margins. His father was banished to Siberia and escaped to the U.S. where Shahn and the rest of his family joined him, moving to New York City where Shahn tried to acclimate to a new country and a new life, drawing with chalk on sidewalks. He went to art school, but was discouraged by the focus on picturesque landscapes. He took inspiration from the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, and made a series of 23 paintings about the trial. Their success showed he could paint stories; he could paint the trials of people hard done by corrupt systems of power. He was accused of “being disloyal because he didn’t paint purple mountain majesties or America the beautiful. Instead, he shed light on Americans who lived in the shadows.” Evan Turk’s provocative and emotive illustrations, portraits within this portrait, bring swirling movement and feeling to the story of this defier and definer of the times.

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Make way for costumes

Since 1987, a playful family of eight ducklings and one mother duck have been parading across the Boston Public Garden in Nancy Schön’s iconic sculptures based on Robert McCloskey’s picture book “Make Way for Ducklings.” They’ve never been just ducks: almost immediately after their installation, throughout the year, they get dressed, and a new book of photographs, “Ducks on Parade” (Brandeis University) edited by Schön, highlights the various costumes the ducks don throughout the years. Some of them speak to the season: flowery spring bonnets, green caps for St. Patrick’s Day, bunny ears and tutus at Easter; some to Boston sports with Bruins, Red Sox, and Patriots jerseys; and some political, Black Lives Matter sweaters, the ducks in cages and wrapped in foil to express solidarity with immigrants. As former mayor Martin Walsh writes in the foreword, “Nancy Schön didn’t just create one of our city’s most beloved works of public art; she also gave us a living record of life in our city, and encouraged us all to become artists and reflect on the moment we’re living in.

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Coming Out

A Natural History of Transitionby Callum Angus (Metonymy)

White Magicby Elissa Washuta (Tin House)

A Sunday in Ville D’Avrayby Dominique Barbéris, translated from the French by John Cullen (Other)

Pick of the Week

Hannah Zimmerman at Trident Booksellers in Boston recommends “All the Acorns on the Forest Floor” by Kim Hooper (Keylight): “This intertwining short story collection contains what it means to be a woman, a mother, a lover, and everything in between. The prose is outstanding, both approachable and moving, and you will feel like each character is confiding in you their innermost hopes and dreams. Having these stories intertwining shows that we’re perhaps all more connected than we think, and, simultaneously, that everyone has their own story.”

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