Ashley Bryan, Newbery Honoree and creator of more than 50 children’s books, was talking to some fellow writers at a children’s literature conference in the early ’90s, and he shared something about himself that they hadn’t known before: he had fought in World War II. “You were in the war?” they asked incredulously. They could not imagine the gentle man they knew on the battlefield. “The theme of the conference was war and peace,” Bryan said. “And so I then told them and they were so surprised.” He showed them some sketches he had done of his fellow soldiers. One of his colleagues contacted Bryan’s editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, and the seed was planted for an account of Bryan’s war experiences—the book that eventually became Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace.
Bryan, now 97, had never spoken publicly about his service in World War II. On top of the nightmare of combat—his battalion manned the supply ships that moved troops and equipment onto Omaha Beach on D-Day—he and his fellow soldiers of color were treated as second-class citizens. The irony bit deep: “We were fighting a war in a segregated army to stop other people being treated as Other,” he said. Black soldiers were restricted to labor and service jobs and housed separately from white troops. Bryan remembered riding with German prisoners of war. “We had to go sit in the back of the bus and they sat in the front of the bus, laughing.” When the war ended, white troops were met with fanfare and parades. Black soldiers were sent home as an afterthought, in twos and threes, met only by their families.
There were some good memories. Before leaving for Europe, Bryan’s battalion was stationed in Boston, and he was posted to guard duty in front of the local school. The neighborhood children “skipped around me, sang, asked me questions, imitated my pose.” As a soldier in uniform, he was expected to remain professional at all times. Instead, he made friends with them, bringing them art supplies on his days off and drawing portraits of them. (Years later, an assistant of his tracked several of them down—they were still in Boston—and invited them to a lecture Bryan gave, leading to a happy reunion and renewed friendship.)
Yet confronting those experiences was heavy going. It was years before Bryan felt ready to talk further. At last, four or five years ago, he and Dlouhy began work on the project—a 32-page picture book, they thought. In November 2016, Bryan sent Dlouhy an early draft and scans of artwork and journal entries. “There was a lot of back-and-forthing,” Dlouhy said. “When someone’s kept something bottled up for 40 years, 50 years… His first draft wasn’t detailed enough, so I was trying to gently coax more stories out of him, more examples. I didn’t want to do anything to cause him pain and yet I knew that to have the story penetrate, it had to have both the dark and light.”
“The text was a challenge,” Bryan admitted. “[It was] not a history, but what you feel—the anguish and suffering, what war really means. If I had not had the love of art to back me up, I could not have made it. So much pain, and how could you take that? You have to have some way of surviving it.” He carried art supplies in his gas mask bag throughout the war, everywhere he went.
“I drew all the time, no matter what.” His superior officers tried to stop him. “They threatened to put me in the guardhouse, and I said ‘Go ahead, put me in the guardhouse! I’ll never stop drawing!’ ”
Nick Clark, executive director of the Ashley Bryan Center, the nonprofit that curates Bryan’s archives, had already embarked on a project to scan and preserve the journals, papers and artwork that Bryan had saved over the years. A precious source was a trove of correspondence with Eva Brussel, a friend from Cooper Union; Bryan had written her countless letters. After her death, her family sent them to the Ashley Bryan Center, where Clark had them transcribed.
“We were planning for the book to be his narrative with drawings attached,” Dlouhy explained. “Then I found out about these journals and letters, and when we saw those, we thought, this can’t look like a typical biography. It has to look like a work of art.”
Quotes from the letters to Eva appear throughout the book, with facsimiles of Bryan’s scribbled notes as well as printed copy. “It helps that they’re all letters to one person. They bring a poignancy and a specificity that couldn’t come with a broader narrative,” Dlouhy said. “We went through all the letters that best amplified the text. I would show them to him and he’d say “Oh yes,” or “No,” or “Yes, it’s important they know I wanted sweets!” (One such request: “So Eva, if ever you should bake, make, or find somewhere in your garden by accident some edible sweet of a more durable nature just remember your ole pal me (Ashley)….”)
“And we did the same with the drawings,” Dlouhy said. “We went through all of the drawings that worked best for the story he was telling for the age group.” She recalls her first visit to the warehouse where Bryan’s wartime artwork is stored. “The art director who started on the project and I went to this out-of-the-way place outside of Boston, this huge, faceless building behind a chain-link fence. But it’s filled with these big sculptures and astounding paintings. There was a whole area of Ashley Bryan’s stuff. There was so much there, and so much was in the scope of the book.”
The work grew and evolved. “A lot of books that contain text with photographs can tend to look more scholarly as opposed to friendly,” Dlouhy said. “Someone showed me a book—I don’t have it right here—but the pages were loose and welcoming. As soon as [art director] Irene [Metaxatos] saw [it], it completely changed how she was doing sample layouts. Irene could not have done a more exquisite job, and this became a project of her heart. She’s a sensitive, artful, thoughtful collaborator.”
The result is a multimedia presentation in which every spread features overlapping areas of text, photographs, sketches and paintings, scraps of letters—even postage stamps and ticket stubs. Sonia Chaghatzbanian, Atheneum’s art director, “pitched in when we were concerned about rights, things like that.” Associate editor Alex Borbollo sourced photos and ephemera. “A paint swatch on a page, copyediting... we were still copyediting when it was about to go out to the printer,” Dlouhy said. “It was a mission. Team Ashley.”
“We spoke on the phone a lot,” Bryan said about working with Dlouhy to put all the material together. He lives most of the year on a small island in Maine. “The people who look after me, they would show me things. They would set the computer up so that Caitlyn and I were looking at the same thing.”
Bryan’s nieces and nephews (he has no children) worked behind the scenes in innumerable ways. “Vanessa and Bari and Verna Rae and Sandy—they were so helpful,” Dlouhy said. “We went back and forth on whether this should be a story for adults or for children and they said, ‘We need to honor Uncle’s wishes. Let him tell the story he wants to tell, for his children. All children.”
“It’s still quite difficult to talk about,” Bryan said. “I’ll be happy when the book is available, because then it will answer all people’s questions. It will make a tremendous difference. There’s nothing like it. That’s what I’m so happy about.”
Dlouhy reflects with emotion on the experience of assembling the book. “I can honestly say I felt teary sometimes because we had to leave so many good things out. It could have been 400 pages. We also very much wanted it in the year of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. We wanted him to be able to celebrate it. Just knowing that he has it in his hands and that he’s so moved by seeing all of these different pieces of how he does art: writing, drawing, telling his own story. It was a gift from him, and a gift to him. And a gift, really, to the world.”
Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace by Ashley Bryan. Atheneum/Dlouhy, $21.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-5344-0490-8