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Literary honors: Valley authors receive Massachusetts Book Awards

  • Two books by Lesléa Newman were recognized this year by the Massachusetts Book Awards. Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Author Lesléa Newman, a 2016 recipient of two Mass Book Awards, poses for a portrait Nov. 4 in her Holyoke home. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Author Lesléa Newman, a 2016 recipient of two Mass Book Awards, poses for a portrait Nov. 4 in her Holyoke home. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • "I Carry My Mother," a book by author Lesléa Newman which won a 2016 Mass Book Award, is shown Nov. 4 in Newman's Holyoke home. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Author Lesléa Newman, a 2016 recipient of two Mass Book Awards, poses for a portrait Nov. 4 in her Holyoke home. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • "Ketzel, the Cat who Composed," a book by author Lesléa Newman which won a 2016 Mass Book Award, is shown Nov. 4 in Newman's Holyoke home. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY

  • Author Lesléa Newman, a 2016 recipient of two Mass Book Awards, poses for a portrait Nov. 4 in her Holyoke home. —Gazette Staff/SARAH CROSBY


For the Gazette
Wednesday, November 23, 2016

By JAKE JOHNSON

Writers in the Pioneer Valley brought home the gold this year, in the form of Massachusetts Book Awards.

The 16th annual awards program recognizes significant works of writing in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s/young adult literature published by Commonwealth residents, and is nationally regarded as one of the most select state programs, according to information provided by the awards program to the Gazette.

The big-ticket winner was Lesléa Newman, 61, whose children’s story “Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed” won the top prize for Picture Books this year.

An author of 70 books, including poetry and short-story collections, Newman has received many awards for her writing before.

“This thrill never dies,” Newman said in a recent interview at her Holyoke home. “I spend most of the time in a room by myself staring at a piece of paper, and so to have my work recognized always feels good. I never wanted to do anything else in my life but write.”

Inspired by a true story, Newman’s book tells the story of Moshe Cotel and his cat, Ketzel, who unexpectedly helps Cotel create piano music. It seems the cat ran down the piano’s keyboard — creating a light, simple melody that he submitted to a contest, where it was performed by a 10-year-old girl.

The real-life Ketzel had her own obituary in The New York Times in 2011, and received a royalty check for her contribution to Cotel’s composition.

Perhaps Newman’s most famous works are “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” which tackle issues — Jewish heritage and homosexuality — the author has written about for years.

Newman served as the poet laureate for Northampton from 2008-2010, at which time, she wrote a column for the Gazette that featured work from Valley poets; she compiled those poems into a book, “Hear a Poet, There a Poet: A Pioneer Valley Anthology.”

Other honors

Other Valley writers received Honors designations in the Picture Book category.

Grace Lin, 42, creates picture books and books for early readers at her home in Florence. Trained as an illustrator at the Rhode Island School of Design, Lin both writes and illustrates.

“My books are for kids to learn to read all on their own,” Lin said. “It’s what I love the best.”

Lin won an Honors award for “Ling & Ting: Together in All Weather.”

The “Ling and Ting” book series is about Chinese-American twins whose similar looks are contrasted with their different personalities.

Another Picture Book Honors winner, Jane Yolen’s and Heidi Stemple’s “You Nest Here With Me” — one of more than 20 collaborations between the mother and daughter — is a lullaby for birds in their nests.

“We call it a ‘heart book’ — it’s something that we needed to write,” Stemple said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a book about home, and being comfortable, safe and cozy in there.”

Yolen, 77, and Stemple, 50, reside together on a farm in Hatfield, where they settled after living in various places up and down the East Coast. Yolen alone has written some 360 books, often with her daughter, and with her sons, Adam and James Stemple.

Another Amherst resident, Holly Black, 44, won Honors in the young adult/middle-school reader category. Her book, “The Darkest Part of the Forest,” tells the story of Hazel and Ben, teenagers who are engrossed with the tales they tell themselves about a horned fairy boy who sleeps in the woods.

“It is, in many ways, a story about stories,” Black wrote in an email to the Gazette. “I was really interested in the power of stories — both to create change and to prevent us from changing, to reveal the truth but also to obscure it.”

Nod for nonfiction

Joseph Ellis, 73, who taught history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Mount Holyoke College and West Point, received Nonfiction Honors for his latest book, “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789,” which covers the emergence of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The author of nine books, the Amherst resident’s primarily focus is the Revolutionary War period of American history.

“The 18th century — that’s where they keep the money,” Ellis said, laughing. “That’s where they keep the ideas for our country. It’s our Big Bang that keeps radiating out.”

The award recipients will be honored at a public State House reception Dec. 6. All the 2016 Massachusetts Book Award winners will have their work promoted in libraries and bookstores, and on social media.

For more information about the reception and the awards, contact bookawards@massbook.org.