Book Bag: ‘Always Matt’ by Lesléa Newman; ‘JoJo and the Gazork’ and ‘JoJo and the Eagle’ by Peter Rosnick 

Staff Writer
Published: 9/22/2023 11:42:27 AM
Modified: 9/22/2023 11:41:48 AM

Always Matt: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard
By Lesléa Newman
Illustrated by Brian Britigan
Abrams Comic Arts


For a quarter of a century, Holyoke author Lesléa Newman has felt a special kinship with Matthew Shepard, the gay college student at the University of Wyoming who was brutally murdered in early fall 1998 in a case that attracted worldwide attention.

Newman had been invited to speak at that time during the university’s Gay Awareness Week, and she arrived just as Shepard passed — Oct. 12, 1998 — six days after he’d been beaten by two men, lashed to a wooden rail fence like a human scarecrow, and left to die.

Newman found herself addressing a campus audience and community badly shaken by the violence. Shortly afterward she wrote an essay about Shepard’s death, and she kept thinking about him as the years passed.

In 2012, she published “October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard,” a novel in verse that explored Shepard’s death from several perspectives and voices — and as the 25th anniversary of his death approaches, she’s written a new book about him.

“Always Matt: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard,” is a book for young readers that tells the story of Shepard’s life in short, simple sentences. As a boy, he enjoys playing with stuffed animals, putting on his dad’s cowboy hats, and writing poetry; later he develops a love of horseback riding, hiking, and fishing in Wyoming’s wide-open spaces.

As a teen he “promised to make the world a better place, a kinder place, a more peaceful place for everyone,” Newman writes, and at college he made “many friends, all types of friends. Some of them were gay and out and proud. Like him.”

The story is richly illustrated by Brian Britigan, and he and Newman deal with Shepard’s death in straightforward fashion, describing the two men who killed him as having “hard” hearts and a hatred for gays. One illustration shows Shepard tied to a fence post under the night sky.

But “Always Matt” also focuses on the outpouring of support Shepard’s family received in the wake of his death, and how that led his mother and father, Judy and Dennis, to tell his story to the world and to speak out against violence against other LGBTQ people.

And now that millions of people have heard that story, Newman writes, they’re “writing letters, marching, protesting, voting, passing laws. They are doing their best to make the world a better place, a kinder place, a more peaceful place for everyone.”

“Always Matt” includes an introduction by Jason Collins, the NBA’s first out gay player, additional information from Newman on her connection to Shepard’s family, and short profiles of people such as Moisés Kaufman, the playwright and director behind “The Laramie Project,” the oft-staged play about Shepard.

Lesléa Newman will be part of a reading and panel discussion at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery Sept. 29 at 5:30 p.m., in conjunction with the photo exhibit “Authentic Selves,” portraits of transgender people and their families.


JoJo and the Gazork
JoJo and the Eagle

By Peter Rosnick
Illustrated by Kathryn Burke


A retired math teacher and dean from Greenfield Community College, Peter Rosnick first heard stories about JoJo, a boy who’s only as big as his grandfather’s thumb, from his late father, Hyman “Chick” Rosnick, when he was growing up in the 1950s.

Peter Rosnick later retold those stories and created new ones for his students when he did some student teaching at the elementary level, and then he revived them again when his own children were young.

Now that he’s a grandfather, and retired, Rosnick, of Conway, has published two of his JoJo tales, which are illustrated by Boston artist Kathryn Burke.

In “JoJo and the Gazork,” the Gazork — a creature with floppy ears like an elephant and a long nose that “goes from here to December” — has gotten a cold.

A cold isn’t generally a big deal, but the problem here is that when someone with a schnoz as long as the Gazork sneezes, buildings and trees are knocked down, cars are overturned, and “chipmunks (are blown) out of their burrows.”

So JoJo, who’s very small but pretty smart, gets a call from the mayor asking for help, and he soon devises a solution, rigging up a device that allows his friend the Gazork to cut off its sneezes with a pillow. He also whips up 50 gallons of chicken soup for the embarrassed beastie to help it fight off its cold.

And in “JoJo and the Eagle,” JoJo finds himself “in the pickle of all pickles” when he’s snatched up by an American Bald Eagle, which tells the thumb-sized boy he’s going to feed him to her chicks.

JoJo tries to convince the eagle to let him go, at one point promising to help the big bird and its family in the future. The eagle scoffs at that, but when JoJo announces he’ll likely taste pretty bad because he’d previously eaten a pickle and jalapeño pizza, the eagle sets JoJo back on the ground.

And wouldn’t you know it: JoJo will have an opportunity to do the eagle and her chicks a good turn when he comes up with an ingenious way to preserve their nest from the ravages of a terrible storm.

Rosnick writes that he’s preparing other books in the JoJo series, including one involving llamas.


In other book-related news: Alex Gino, author of the noted middle-grade novel “Melissa” (originally titled “George”), a story about a young transgender girl who’s trying to win acceptance for her identity, has published a new novel, “Green,” and will read from it Oct. 5 at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence

Gino, a New York native who lived in Northampton from 2005 to 2008 and has written a number of books, has also moved back to the Valley.

“Green,” published by Scholastic Books, tells the story of a non-binary middle-grade student named Green who “comes into their own in no small part by fighting for gender-free casting in their school’s production of ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” according to the publisher.

Gino’s Oct. 5 appearance at the Bombyx Center, at 6 p.m., is presented in collaboration with Translate Gender, High Five Books of Florence, and Transhealth, the Valley health service.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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