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New England Book Awards winners and an abolitionist biography made into a new graphic book

A new graphic novel by David Lester tells the riveting story of an 18th century abolitionist Quaker dwarf named Benjamin Lay.David Lester

New England Book Awards

The New England Independent Booksellers Association recently announced the winners of this year’s New England Book Award, a prize honoring books written by an author living in New England, or focused in or on the region. In the fiction category, Kaitlyn Greenidge took the prize for “Libertie” (Algonquin). Alison Bechdel took the non-fiction prize for the graphic memoir she wrote and illustrated, “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” (Mariner). Claudia Rankine’s lauded “Just Us” (Graywolf) took the prize for poetry. In the children’s book category, “Watercress” (Neal Porter/Holiday House), written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin, won the prize. Rajani LaRocca won the middle grade category for her book “Red, White, and Whole” (Quill Tree). And Crystal Maldonado took the prize for “Fat Chance, Charlie Vega” (Holiday House) in the young adult category. Awards were announced last week in a during a virtual masked ball event hosted by the New England Independent Booksellers Association, which has been awarding versions of the prize since 1990.


Graphic abolitionist biography

Benjamin Lay, born in 1682, was four feet tall, made his own clothes, grew his own food, lived in a cave surrounded by books, practiced vegetarianism, and was a forceful opponent of slavery. In one guerilla demonstration at the Yearly Meeting of Quakers in 1738, he filled a bladder with pokeberry juice, punctured the skin, and splattered attendees with the stand-in blood, arguing that this was the fate in the eyes of god for those who enslaved their fellow creatures. Marcus Rediker wrote an award-winning biography of Lay, published in 2017, and it’s been adapted now into a stirring new graphic book by David Lester, with Rediker and Paul Buhle. “Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay,” out this week from Beacon Press, tells this revolutionary’s life story in moody, evocative, and provocative illustrations. Expressive faces and pained bodies move the action and the atmosphere, in ink, charcoal, paint in austere grays, blacks, and whites. Centuries ago, Lay “made clear that we must not let the markets of capitalism govern our lives, because all commodities disguise their origins in human labor and implicate us in oppressing others,” writes Rediker in the afterword, and showed how “every consumption choice was political and ethical.” In his life, through this new book, readers might see the “creative possibilities for a better future.”


Apples and art

Artist Linda Hoffman admits that when she moved to an abandoned apple orchard in Harvard, Massachusetts in 2006, she “didn’t know the first thing about growing apples.” But she turned Old Frog Pond Farm into the first organic pick-your-own apple orchard in the state, and in the 15 years since, has learned what it is to grow, tend, and be a steward to a place in ongoing change. Her new memoir, “The Artist and the Orchard” (Loom), details the process of making a home on the farm, and learning the ways of the trees, from the practical concerns of bees, fungus, and the intricacies of pruning, to more spiritual and metaphysical explorations of what it is to know a place intimately, to be connected to the shifts, the growth, death, and rebirth of a piece of land, to be awake to the ever-unfolding transformations taking place, both internally and externally. “Mystical moments arrive unexpectedly in the brushwork of clouds over the orchard at sunset and in the quaking orange of a pair of orioles among the green leaves of the apple tree. Yet it is living season to season, on this land, tending it year after year, that I see the nurturing and inspiration the farm offers.”


Coming out

Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in Americaby Michael Eric Dyson (St. Martin’s)

The Perishingby Natashia Deón (Counterpoint)

Sacred Cityby Theodore C. Van Alst (University of New Mexico)

Pick of the week

Britt Davis at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, recommends “The Hole” by Hiroko Oyamada, translated from the Japanese by David Boyd (New Directions): “Absurd and dreamlike. Asa goes through bizarre experiences as she tries to adjust to remote rural life in the Japanese countryside. With elements reminiscent of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’”