Bringing Diversity to Children’s Books, Ashley Bryan dies at 98


Ashley Bryan, an eclectic artist and children’s book illustrator who introduced young readers to black characters and African folktales, bringing diversity to an often white-dominated genre, died February 4 at her niece Vanessa Robinson’s home in Sugar Land. , Texas, near Houston. She was 98 years old.

Another niece, Bari Jackson, also confirmed the death.

Bryan had built a 20-year career as an artist when he read an article in The Saturday Review in 1965 lamenting the lack of diversity in children’s books. Already a devotee of African traditions and stories, he saw a chance to use his talents to bring these stories to life on the page.

He wrote many of them himself, often in verse, injecting rhythm into stories hitherto often told in dry prose by anthropologists. He would then pair these stories with his art, sometimes with painting, sometimes with collage—whatever style seemed appropriate for the moment.

“I use the tools of poetry to listen to the sound of voice and the printed word,” he said in an interview with Language Arts magazine in 2004. “I want the reader to listen and engage with the storyteller and actually feel the story come to life in a very dramatic way.”

He has also illustrated the work of other authors – either as collections such as “Ashley Bryan’s ABC of African American Poetry” (2001), or for specific poets, including various collaborations with Nikki Giovanni, most recently “I Am Loved” (2018).

Perhaps his best-known book, “Beautiful Blackbird,” was published in 2004 at the age of 81, when many artists had already put their brushes aside. He went on to publish eight more, including “Sail Away” (2015), an illustrated edition of his poems. Langston Hughesand “Freedom On MeKnown as the Newbery Honor Book, which tells the story of 11 slaves about to be sold (2016).

“It was really important in the movement to start telling, retelling and disseminating stories about Black life and African folktales and focusing them on Black heroes and Black children,” said Sal Robinson, assistant curator at the Morgan Library and Museum. Manhattan said in a phone call. Morgan will start in October Quarterly exhibition of Mr. Bryan’s workHe focused on his illustrations for “Sail Away”.

While Mr. Bryan has illustrated more than 70 books, he has worked far beyond the hardcover page. Working in his studio on Little Cranberry Island, part of Maine’s Acadia National Park, he made hand puppets, made paper collages, and cut linoleum block prints, often using materials and inspiration from the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

As a tribute to the island’s Islesford Congregational Church, he produced a series of stained glass windows depicting events from the life of Jesus using sea glass he found on the beach.

“Everything I do is about everything else,” he said in an interview with the 2017 documentary “I Know a Man… Ashley Bryan.” “So whether I work with puppets, work with sea glass, paint or work on a book, it’s all the same challenge: How can I live in the moment?”

Ashley Frederick Bryan was born on July 13, 1923, in Harlem, one of six children to Antigua immigrants Ernest and Olive (Carty) Bryan. His father worked as a greeting card printer and his mother as a cleaner and seamstress.

The family settled in the Bronx, where they lived in a series of walking railroad flats. His parents encouraged his interest in the arts at an early age: his father brought home scraps of paper for him, and his mother let him use the cloth scissors.

He graduated from high school at the age of 16, and his teachers encouraged him to apply for art school scholarships. But she told an interviewer in 2014 that she was completely rejected. “This is the best portfolio we’ve seen, but giving it to a black student would be a waste,” one admissions officer said.

Undeterred, she applied to Cooper Union in Manhattan, which used a blind application process. This time it was accepted.

He was halfway through his studies when he enlisted in the army in 1943 and was appointed stevedore in an all-black battalion. He landed in Normandy three days after the 1944 Allied invasion and spent the rest of the war in France and Belgium.

Along the way, he filled his sketchbooks with scenes of soldiers, often while they were resting or playing. Along with the humiliations that come with serving as a Black man in a Separate Army, he also captured the tensions, tribulations, and occasional joys of military life; A sketch showed a Black soldier in despair after he was told his return to America was delayed because white soldiers had priority on troop ships.

He kept those pictures and his wartime experience for decades. He eventually revealed them in a traveling exhibition that began in 2014. Ashley Bryan CenterOn Little Cranberry Island, and in a memory five years later, “Eternal Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace

After completing his program at Cooper Union, he enrolled at Columbia and graduated in 1950 with a degree in philosophy. He was fond of noting that both his Army discharge papers and his diploma were signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who became president of Columbia after leading the Allied forces in Europe.

He continued his education at the University of Aix-Marseille in France. He later remembered attending a concert by Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, arriving early so he could draw the performers while they were practicing. Trying to capture their movements, she said, unlocked a new part of her artistic self – she liked to call it “opening my hand to their rhythm.”

He returned to the United States three years later and taught art at various institutions before coming to Dartmouth College in 1974. He remained there until his retirement in 1988.

In addition to her niece, Mrs Jackson, survivors include her brother Ernest, as well as a niece, John Ashley Swepson, and two nephews, Valerie Swepson and Mrs Robinson, whom she all helped raise.

Mr. Bryan was already visiting Little Cranberry Island during the summer holidays and moved there full time after leaving Dartmouth. His house and garden have become a tourist attraction from nearby Bar Harbor, and so is Mr. Bryan himself, who drives around in a bright orange golf cart.

Visitors who came to see him without notice would be greeted with a smile, a cookie, and a tour around his studio – the painting room upstairs, the puppet workshop downstairs. On a shelf were the cloth scissors her mother still used to make her art.

He told The Portland Press-Herald in 2014: “Every morning is a brand new day of discovery. The only thing I have in common with any adult I meet is childhood. Every person has survived childhood. The most tragic experience you can have in life is the death of a child. I say, ‘Never let him die.



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