Like other states across the country, Maine is grappling with the new coronavirus outbreak, impending elections, and an economic downturn, but those challenges did not stop Governor Janet Mills from taking a moment—a day, in fact—to celebrate the work of author-illustrator Ashley Bryan. Earlier this week, Mills issued a proclamation declaring July 13 Ashley Bryan Day in honor of the 97-year-old’s canon of more than 50 books, including his recent WWII memoir, Infinite Hope, Beautiful Blackbird, and Freedom Over Me.
“Through his art, Mr. Bryan has illuminated the African American experience and cultural heritage for which he has been recognized by universities and institutions internationally, and continues to pave the way for Black writers and illustrators, creating opportunities for greater diversity in the world of children’s literature,” Mills said in her proclamation.
Bryan was born to Antiguan immigrant parents and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He later taught at Dartmouth College and moved to Maine, where he has lived for the last 60 years.
“It means the world to me to have my work recognized in my home state, and across the country in this manner,” Bryan told PW. “It's a tremendous honor, and will help get more books to the children, for whom I do all of my work.”
At Devaney, Doak, and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, owner Kenny Brechner praised the announcement. “I’m so pleased to see a store favorite become a state favorite,” Brechner said. “Who could be worthier of being honored than the sublime Ashley Bryan, an artist and author who has brought so much richness and depth to his readers’ lives?”
Bryan’s works have garnered multiple Coretta Scott King Awards, and Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life received the Newbery Honor in 2017. Bryan has been a longtime advocate for public art, education, and storytelling from South Africa and Kenya to the Isleford area of northeastern Maine that he first visited in 1946.
Bryan’s editor Caitlyn Dlouhy, v-p and editorial director at Atheneum’s Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, called Bryan a “national treasure” and said she hopes the state’s recognition is the first of 50.
“One of the greatest honors of my career has been working alongside Ashley,” she said. “He never ever stops being creative—he was on his porch filling a huge canvas with massive oil painted flowers just the other week. What Ashley creates, from books to sculpture to stained glass window, are gifts to the world that come straight from the heart, that speak to others’ hearts, and that can only help us all grow in our humanity. And with this recognition, our great hope and dream is that more of the world will now also learn of Ashley and his books, and that growth blooms.”
With all of the challenges young people are facing right now, Bryan encouraged them to turn to art. “As I’ve written in Infinite Hope, about my time during World War II in France on D-Day, the arts give meaning to all of our lives,” he said. “So: paint! Draw! Write! Sing! Dance! Whistle! Make music! Practice your art every day! No one can take creativity away from you, and the joy that comes from it can help anyone through the darker times, for with creation, there is always hope.”