Award-winning children’s book author and illustrator, fine artist, and educator Ashley Bryan, widely known for his passion for poetry and vibrant retellings of folktales and spirituals rooted in the Black oral tradition, died peacefully on February 4 while staying with relatives in Texas. He was 98.
Bryan was born July 13, 1923 in Harlem to parents who had immigrated from the British West Indies (now Antigua) following WWI. Though times were tough when he was growing up in the Bronx, Bryan noted that his father, a printer and musician, and his mother, a seamstress, had been hugely supportive of his early love of art. “I can’t remember a time when I have not been drawing and painting,” Bryan wrote in his autobiographical essay for Something About the Author. His father brought home paper from his job for Bryan to draw on, and his mother had a flair for crafting the flowers she missed from her homeland out of cut paper. Bryan wrote that there was always “music and color” in their family’s apartment.
From the ages of 10 to 12, during the Depression, Bryan further developed his drawing skills when he and his five siblings were able to take free art, drawing, and piano lessons provided by artists working in the Works Progress Administration. He credits teachers throughout his public schools in the Bronx with encouraging his pursuit of art and even giving him supplies to work with. He wrote in SATA that he was especially grateful to two of his high school art teachers. They helped him put together a portfolio so he could apply for scholarships to local art schools. When Bryan experienced blatant racism during the interview process, his high school teachers—who were white—counseled him to take the intensive placement exam at New York’s Cooper Union in the summer of 1940—which did not involve a face-to-face interview. Bryan was selected for a scholarship on the basis of his submitted work.
Bryan was drafted into the U.S. Army in May 1943, during his final semester at Cooper Union. He said that his art helped sustain him during war, giving him “faith and direction” as he endured the struggles of being a Black soldier in a segregated army. While stationed in Glasgow, Scotland, he requested—and received—permission from his officers to take art classes at the Glasgow School of Art. He sketched relentlessly, chronicling everything around him and kept paper, pens, and pencils with him at all times—in his knapsack and even in his gas mask. His company took part in the Normandy invasion on Omaha Beach. “I carried my drawings everywhere I went—the harder it was to draw the more important it was to do it!” he wrote in SATA. “My art was able to help me get through the terror and desperation of war.” After not speaking about these experiences for most of his life, he wrote about them in the memoir Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace (Atheneum/Dlouhy, 2019).
Upon returning to the U.S. in early 1946, Bryan completed his art studies and graduated from Cooper Union. The summer of that year he received a scholarship to study at the Skowhegan School of Art in Maine. While there, he fell in love with Isleford/Little Cranberry Island—the place he would eventually call home for six decades.
Bryan took advantage of the G.I. Bill to enroll in Columbia University and pursued a degree in philosophy, which he earned in 1950. Following his graduation from Columbia, Bryan additionally used the G.I. Bill to study art in Europe including at the Université d’Aix-Marseille in France; he also received a Fulbright grant to study at the University of Freiburg in Germany.
By 1958 Bryan had returned to New York and began his professional teaching career while he simultaneously shopped his portfolio around to book publishers and opened an art studio. Over the years, Bryan taught art at New York City’s Dalton School and Queens College, as well as at Philadelphia College of Art and Dartmouth College.
Bryan’s first book-illustration gig came to him through friends he had met in France, and he did not receive credit for his work on Fabliaux: Ribald Tales from the Old French, edited by Robert Hellman and Richard O’Gorman, published by T.Y. Crowell in 1965. But his children’s book career got its start when Jean Karl, an editor at Atheneum, paid a visit to Bryan’s art studio. Impressed with his work, she offered him a contract to illustrate poems by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore using his linoleum cut medium. That book became Moon, for What Do You Wait?, edited by Richard Lewis (Atheneum, 1967). It marked the start of a long, fruitful partnership with Karl and a relationship with Atheneum that has lasted nearly 60 years.
Illustration work from Karl kept coming, including a collection of African folktales, a project that Bryan agreed to take on only if he could retell the stories himself and liven them up. Karl was on board. That first venture into reinterpreting texts resulted in The Ox of the Wonderful Horns and Other African Folktales (Atheneum, 1971) and opened the door for Bryan to do many more.
As an artist, Bryan possessed an impressive mastery of various media. For each of his children’s books he worked in whatever style he believed best fit the text. He won the first of four Coretta Scott King Illustrator Awards for Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum (Atheneum, 1980), which featured woodcut illustrations. His 2003 title Beautiful Blackbird, another CSK winner, was the first to feature collage. He cut the paper freestyle using his mother’s embroidery and dressmaking scissors. “In a sense I have my mother’s hand in mine as I’m cutting,” he told SATA. In 2017, Bryan received a Newbery Honor for Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life (Atheneum, 2016). Additionally, he received two lifetime achievement awards for his contributions to children’s literature: the 2009 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal and the 2012 Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award.
Following his retirement from teaching at Dartmouth in the late 1980s, Bryan began working with Children’s Literature for Children and other initiatives in Africa where he traveled each year for weeks or months at a time to raise funds and help build schools and libraries. The children of Kenya he adored honored him with the nickname “LongPapa.”
Though many people know Bryan for his more than 70 acclaimed children’s books, he continued working in the fine arts for his entire life, taking great pleasure in painting outdoors on large canvases at his island home and creating puppets out of found objects including shells and pieces of fishing net that had washed up on the beach. In the 1950s he began crafting a series of stained-glass window panels using sea glass he collected and a method of papier-mâché. The windows depict scenes from the life of Christ and Bryan has said they were inspired by European cathedrals. The panels can be seen on Islesford at the Congregational Church and at the Storyteller Pavilion constructed in 2017 on land next to Bryan’s home there. The Ashley Bryan Center in Cambridge, Mass., was founded in 2013 to “preserve, celebrate, and share broadly” Bryan’s work. The Center donated Bryan’s archive to the Kislak Center for Special Collections at the University of Pennsylvania in 2019 and is working with colleges and museums in Maine to place other works and ensure Bryan’s Maine legacy.
In 2020, Maine governor Janet Mills proclaimed July 13 “Ashley Frederick Bryan Day” in honor of his contributions to the state. Fittingly, July 13, 2022—which would have been Bryan’s 99th birthday—is the planned date of a memorial service for him to be held on Islesford, Maine. In the meantime, friends and fans of Bryan are invited to share memories and notes via the Ashley Bryan Center website.
Caitlyn Dlouhy, v-p and publisher of her eponymous imprint at Atheneum, who had been Bryan’s editor for 21 years, shared the story of how they first met. “I had just started at Simon & Schuster and I didn’t know anybody, really,” she said. “It was Newbery Caldecott time and for whatever reason they had me go to help chaperone somebody. And at the Newbery Caldecott dinner, they had me sitting next to this incredibly lovely gentleman. It was so loud that when he said who he was, I didn’t hear his name. And it was dark, so I couldn’t quite make out exactly who he was. But it turned out that this gentleman and I had this big long conversation, the whole night, talk, talk, talk. A few days later, when I was back at work, Jon Lanman [former editorial director at Atheneum] came into my office and he said, ‘I got a call from Ashley Bryan, who wanted to know who that young woman he was talking to at the Newbery Caldecott dinner was, because he felt that she should be his editor.’ I kind of stuttered, ‘The man I was sitting next to was Ashley Bryan?’ I could barely speak!”
Dlouhy added, “One of the remarkable things about Ashley is that everything interested him. He just saw the worth in everything, and everybody, and it all went into his art—to give all of it back to us to remind us of our worth.”
Michelle Leo, v-p and director of education and library marketing at Simon & Schuster, worked closely with Bryan for many years. “One of my favorite memories of Ashley is his acceptance of the 2017 Newbery Honor for his book Freedom Over Me,” she said. “It has always been the ALA tradition that only winners, not honor book recipients, speak at the award banquet. When Ashley was called on stage to receive his plaque, he burst into one of his famous lively performances of “My People” by Langston Hughes. It was the most unexpected treat and the highlight of the evening for all in attendance. Ashley’s joy was infectious. He lit up the world. He was one of the most kind, gentle, and humble humans I have ever met, and I will miss him dearly.”
Fellow artist, illustrator, and Mainer Daniel Minter spoke of Bryan as someone he sought to emulate. "When I met Ashley, I considered him an elder and a role model. That sentiment only deepened as I got to know him more. I looked to him as an example of what a person needs to do to be an artist—where does this path of an artist take you? One of the things I often think back on is when Ashley told me about the slave documents he had found [at auction] listing the names and prices of 11 slaves in 1828. He said he just knew he had to have those, but what does he do with them? He struggled for a long time over that, but we talked about who those people were, and he said he wanted to make them knowable characters. Giving those people personalities, dreams, desires of who they actually are not who that document says they are, was a way for him to take these documents from a clearly damaged world and do the thing that Ashley does so well. He transforms just about any situation into a positive situation or an opportunity for growth."
Poet Nikki Giovanni, who collaborated with Bryan on two books of poetry for children, recounted fond memories of nervously making her first visit to Bryan at his island home a number of years ago. “I was fortunate that he wanted to do a book with me. And I couldn’t say yes quickly enough. Like many who knew him and many who saw and admired his work, I love him. I know you are not dead until you are forgotten and Ashley will never be dead.”
Author Nikki Grimes said, “It’s difficult to isolate one single remarkable quality when it comes to Ashley Bryan. Let me say this, though: Ashley’s one default was generosity. Whether you were a member of the children’s literature community or not, Ashley was generous towards you. His gracious smile and open-handedness was simply part of who he was. He didn’t seem to know how to be otherwise. How fortunate we all were because of it!”
And author Katherine Paterson paid tribute with these words: “I’m only one of thousands who felt that I was Ashley’s close friend. He made each one of us feel beloved. I am so grateful for his enriching presence in my life, and his gifts of image and voice and heart to us all.”
Giovanni offered this poem in Bryan’s honor:
An Angel Like Ashley
What does a poem
Well of course you can read
Or admire the paper
And even wonder why
This metaphor embraced
But to see a poem
You may wonder
What a poem tastes like
Yes you can swirl
An egg (well beaten)
But to taste a poem
You need an angel
Sometimes you’re cold
And you need something
Or someone to comfort
And you turn
To a poem
Because an angel
Comes to rub your back
How does a poem
Like an angel
Blowing a saxophone
Or a vibraharp
Or most likely like Ashley Bryan
Reading to us