Ashley Bryan, whose diverse characters livened children’s books, dies at 98

An award-winning author who introduced African folk tales and Black characters to what then was an overwhelmingly white world of children’s literature, Mr. Bryan died Feb. 4 in Texas, where he had been living with a niece, the Ashley Bryan Center announced.

He was 98 and previously had taught at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, before retiring in the late 1980s to the hamlet of Islesford on Little Cranberry Island off the Maine coast, where he lived until moving to Texas a few years ago.

Artist and author, poet and illustrator, Mr. Bryan began publishing books when diversity was all but nonexistent in children’s literature.

His work brought him a Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (since renamed the Children’s Literature Legacy Award) in 2009 for books that the American Library Association said had “made a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children.”

He also received the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2012 from the ALA.

Mr. Bryan’s dozens of books received numerous other honors, including Coretta Scott King Book Awards and recognition bestowed by other literary organizations.

Among his best-known books was “Beautiful Blackbird” (2003), which retold a Zambian folktale about different colored birds deciding the blackbird is the most beautiful among them. Envious, the other birds ask the blackbird to note their feathers with touches of black so they can be as beautiful.

“In most books, the color black is not regarded as beautiful,” Mr. Bryan told Columbia magazine last year. “With that book, I wanted to open up black as a way of making beautiful art.”

As an artist and illustrator, he worked in mediums including acrylic paint, watercolor, woodcut, and stained glass. Some books were a collage of paintings, photos, poems, and letters.

“Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan,” published in 2016, was a Newbery Honor Book, a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book.

He drew inspiration from a July 5, 1828, estate document on which “eleven slaves are listed for sale with the cows, hogs, and cotton; only the names and prices of the slaves are noted (no age is indicated),” he said in his author’s note.

“Under slavery in the United States, Negro people were not considered human beings. They were the owner’s property,” he wrote. “My art and writing of this story aim to bring the slaves alive as human beings. … I wrote their inner thoughts as they went about their work, then created the art that illustrates these individuals’ desires to realize their dreams.”

Born in New York City on July 13, 1923, Ashley Frederick Bryan was one of six siblings who grew up in a household with three orphaned cousins.

His parents were immigrants from Antigua. Ernest Bryan was a printer, Olive Carty Bryan a seamstress.

They “had to use their wits” raising nine children during the Great Depression, Mr. Bryan told the Globe in 1990, and did so “making an atmosphere that was joyous.”

Free classes sponsored by the Works Progress Administration introduced the children to the arts. “It opened up ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling,” he said.

Teachers from elementary through high school also encouraged their creativity. “As a child I was blithely unaware of any sort of segregation,” he later wrote. “My schools in the Bronx weren’t segregated.”

And besides, “I was always absorbed in my drawing and painting,” he recalled in the 1990 Globe interview.

While sketching on paper scraps his father brought home, Mr. Bryan “loved to sit with people and listen. I would ask the elderly what it was like before the first cars, before the first airplanes. … And I listened to the way they spoke, their way of using language.”

Suchness foreshadowed travels as an attentive adult to Kenya, Uganda, and the Ivory Coast, where he visited Indigenous people and absorbed stories that became part of his art.

In high school, Mr. Bryan applied to art schools that rejected him. “This is the best portfolio we have seen, but it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person,” an interviewer at one school told him.

He was finally accepted by The Cooper Union in Manhattan, which awarded scholarships in a blind test. Professors evaluated artwork without seeing the applicants. Mr. Bryan was the only Black student in his class.

Then World War II interrupted his studies. Drafted into the Army, he was assigned to be a Stevedore with an all-Black unit and landed on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion.

Secreting art supplies in his belongings, sometimes in his gas mask bag, he drew throughout the war, even when officers told him to stop.

“They threatened to put me in the guardhouse,” he told Publishers Weekly in 2019, “and I said ‘Go ahead, put me in the guardhouse! I’ll never stop drawing!’ “

That year he published “Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace,” which drew in part from letters he wrote home to a Cooper Union friend.

“The seagull is a soul,” he wrote in one letter. “It is my lonely soul when I am down by the waterfront.”

After the war, I finished the Cooper Union program and attended Columbia University, graduating in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

He continued his studies at Aix-Marseille University in France and the University of Freiburg in Germany on a Fulbright grant. Mr. Bryan taught in cities such as New York City and Philadelphia before joining Dartmouth’s faculty in 1974. He retired in 1988 as a professor emeritus.

Over the years, his work included books such as “Sail Away,” in which he illustrated poems by Langston Hughes. He also contributed illustrations to a special edition of Richard Wright’s influential memoir “Black Boy.”

Other artists influenced him as well. While in France in 1950, he attended rehearsals when the renowned cellist Pablo Casals prepared for a concert.

As he sketched the musician’s bow strokes, Mr. Bryan found a new way to move a pen and paintbrush for his own acts of creation. “I found the rhythm of my hand,” he said.

Mr. Bryan leaves his brother, Ernest, along with nieces and nephews who worked closely with his publishers on books such as “Infinite Hope.” Complete details about a memorial service were not immediately available.

“The world has lost a wonderful person,” Mr. Bryan’s nieces and nephews said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News in Maine. “In our lives there have been few people as special. His joy of discovery, invention, learning and community has had a profound impact on us all.”

Known for his prodigious memory for poetry, Mr. Bryan delighted audiences, children, and adults, including Maine Governor Janet Mills, for whom he recited Langston Hughes and Shakespeare during a lunch last year.

“He was a wonderful, happy man with a deep, rich history, a great imagination, and a beautiful, childlike soul,” she said in a statement.

For Mr. Bryan, creativity never ceased.

“I don’t think artists know what retirement means, really,” he said in a 2015 Mackin Community interview. “I always have a sketchbook in hand. It doesn’t matter where I am or what it is, that sketchbook will always be active.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.

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