Ashley Bryant: His Joyous Picture Books Celebrated Black Life and History

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Ashley Bryan, whose joyous picture books celebrated Black life and history, dies at 98”:

Ashley Bryan, a celebrated children’s author whose joyous, vividly illustrated picture books pulsed with the rhythms of modern poetry, African folk tales and Black American spirituals, died in Sugar Land, Tex., outside Houston.

He had congestive heart failure, said H. Nichols B. Clark, the founding director of the Ashley Bryan Center in Islesford, Maine, where Mr. Bryan lived year-round before joining his niece in Texas about three years ago.

Along with writers and illustrators such as Ezra Jack Keats, John Steptoe and the late Eloise Greenfield and Jerry Pinkney, Mr. Bryan helped fill a void in the historically White realm of American children’s literature, crafting works that treated Black characters with dignity rather than disdain.

“He had this way of connecting our current life, specifically Black children’s current lives, to the lives of our ancestors,” said author Jason Reynolds, the Library of Congress’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. “But he had this way about him as a person that made it feel inclusive to every kid. That we could celebrate Black children and the history and legacy of Black Americans in this country, and that it was something for all of us to celebrate.”

Mr. Bryan wrote or illustrated more than 70 children’s books over six decades, in addition to making paintings, linoleum block prints, collage works, hand puppets and elaborate stained glass windows, which he crafted from sea glass that washed up near his home on Little Cranberry Island, overlooking Acadia National Park in Maine.

“Each day, I look forward to finding the child in myself who’s anxious to create something new and wonderful,” he said last year, on the eve of his 98th birthday. “I always have ideas whirling in my head.”

Mr. Bryan was rejected from art schools as a young man because of his race — he was Black, the son of immigrants from British colonial Antigua — but went on to win some of the top prizes in American children’s literature, including the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, now known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.

Annnoucing that honor in 2009, prize chair Cathryn Mercier said Mr. Bryan had “filled children’s literature with the beats of story, the echoes of poetry, the transcendence of African American spirituals, the beauty of art and the satisfaction of a tale well told,” inspiring others “to tell, paint, sing and weave their own stories for generations to come.”

Mr. Bryan also received the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Library Association, as well as a Newbery Honor for “Freedom Over Me” (2016), in which he used an 1828 auction document to tell the story of 11 enslaved people in the American South.

The book “sugarcoats nothing,” wrote New York Times reviewer Jabari Asim, “frequently invoking the language of commerce to expose the brutality of human trafficking.” He added that Mr. Bryan chronicled the indignity of slavery while also sharing his protagonists’ hopes, dreams and fight against captivity. “All we’ve known as slaves is work,” one character says. “Work, from dawn to dusk, in rain, cold, stifling heat.”

Mr. Bryan shifted his style depending on the story he was telling, moving from woodcut or linoleum block prints to watercolor and acrylic paint. For his 2003 book “Beautiful Blackbird,” he illustrated a Zambian folk story by turning to paper collage, using his mother’s needlepoint scissors to cut avian characters out of brightly colored paper, without using a stencil or drawing lines on the page.

“He always told me, ‘I feel my mother’s hand guiding me,’ ” said his longtime editor Caitlyn Dlouhy, who runs her own imprint at Simon & Schuster’s Atheneum Books. “He’d just hold the paper up and start cutting, and he’d have a perfectly shaped wing, the perfect beak, whatever he was creating for Blackbird and the other birds in that book.”

Mr. Bryan traveled frequently to Kenya, where he helped build schools and libraries, and often turned to the continent’s art and folklore for inspiration. Commissioned to illustrate a selection of African folk tales in the early 1970s, he asked to rewrite the text, noting that the stories were told in the stilted language of ethnographic research. When his publisher obliged, he released his first picture book as a writer-illustrator, “The Ox of the Wonderful Horns and Other African Folktales.”

His later works included “The Dancing Granny” (1977), a beloved Afro-Caribbean tale involving the mischievous Spider Ananse, and “Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum” (1987), a selection of five Nigerian stories, with illustrations that evoked traditional textiles and woodblock prints.

Many of his illustrations accompanied song lyrics or poetry, reflecting the interests of an artist who was known to sprinkle his conversations with verses by Shakespeare, Christina Rossetti, Robert Burns and Rainer Maria Rilke, whom he read in the original German after studying at the University of Freiburg on a Fulbright grant.

Addressing audiences at schools or libraries, Mr. Bryan would kick off his readings by conducting a call-and-response recitation of Langston Hughes’s “My People,” a celebration of communal storytelling. “Ashley would, as Black folks say, take his audiences to church, often bringing them to their feet in mere minutes,” said one of his collaborators, poet and author Nikki Grimes.

Dlouhy said Mr. Bryan’s young readers would sometimes follow him off the stage and down the hall, walking behind him “like ducklings, smiles as big as their faces could contain,” as he continued to recite a poem or tell a story.

Even as he moved into other forms of art-making, children remained his primary audience. “Quite frankly,” said Clark, the Bryan Center director, “he’d rather talk to a kindergartner than an agent who might promote his career.”

The second of six children, Ashley Frederick Bryan was born in Manhattan. His mother was a homemaker and seamstress, and his father was a printer who served in the British army during World War I.

Raised in the Bronx, Mr. Bryan grew up drawing on scraps of paper that his father brought home from work; by age 6, he was making his own picture books, binding the pages himself and distributing them at school.

During the Depression, he attended free art and music classes sponsored by the Works Progress Administration and studied under artist Romare Bearden, a friend of one of his teachers. Encouraged by his instructors, he applied to art schools but was rejected.

“It would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person,” he recalled one admissions officer saying.

He was ultimately accepted at the Cooper Union in Manhattan, which had a blind admission process, but found his education interrupted by World War II. Drafted into the Army in 1943 at age 19, he was deployed to Europe as a stevedore in an all-Black unit.

Mr. Bryan rarely spoke about his years in what was then a racially segregated military, where he concluded that German prisoners of war were treated better than Black soldiers. But he chronicled his military service in his most recent picture book, “Infinite Hope” (2019), which featured some of the sketches that he took while overseas, including drawings that he made on Omaha Beach after D-Day, using art materials hidden in his helmet.

“Watching Bryan generously transform the bittersweet into beauty is watching the meaning of art,” a critic wrote for Kirkus.

Mr. Bryan returned to New York and studied philosophy at Columbia University, in what he described as “an attempt to understand why men make war.” He graduated in 1950, the same year, he was commissioned to do the artwork for an edition of Richard Wright’s memoir “Black Boy,” which marked the first time his illustrations were published in a book.

He later continued his studies in Europe, attending the University of Aix-Marseille in France and sketching the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals at a concert in the town of Prades. While trying to capture the movement of the musicians’ bow strokes, he unlocked a gestural new approach to art. “I found the rhythm of my hand,” he later told a Columbia interviewer.

Mr. Bryan said he focused increasingly on Black subjects after reading a 1965 Saturday Review essay, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” by Nancy Larrick. He later illustrated poems by Hughes and Nikki Giovanni, in addition to crafting “Walk Together Children” (1974), a collection of African American spirituals that included notes to help children play the songs on a recorder.

Over the decades, he also taught at institutions including the Dalton School and Queens College in New York, Philadelphia College of Art and Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., where he retired in 1988 as a professor emeritus of art. In 2008, he was honored as a “Library Lion” by the New York Public Library, alongside writers Edward Albee, Nora Ephron and Salman Rushdie.

“I remember one time we were having breakfast, and I asked him, ‘How does a man live to be so old?’ He said honestly, ‘I don’t have any survival skills. I don’t really know how to cook or clean. All I know is I wake up every morning and I make art.’

“His life-giving ability,” Reynolds continued, “had everything to do with his choice to do the thing that he loved every single day.”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

Speak Your Mind