Ashley Bryan’s Bright and Beautiful Books

Ashley Bryan deserves a special valentine for bringing so much joy to the realm of children’s literature. From his witty, rhythmic retellings of folktales to his bold and beautiful paintings, woodcuts, and collages, Bryan has enriched the lives of countless readers around the world. You can meet this beloved author/illustrator by opening Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song (Atheneum, 2009). This engaging autobiography shines with light, color, and love. Bryan, 87 and still thriving, invites us to hear his story, enlivened with his own poetic language and with a potpourri of photographs that reveal his childhood world, his family, his artwork, his Bronx neighborhood, his parents’ home back in Antigua, as well as his life on Little Cranberry Island, off the coast of Maine. We get a sense of how he evolved as an artist; one touching painting shows him as a wide-eyed child, book in hand, staring out the window at night. Images of birds — which filled the family’s living room — and the echoes of his mother singing will pop up in Bryan’s books, as shown in the illustrations reproduced in this book. Bryan’s childhood was punctuated by drawing, painting, reciting poetry, and listening to the Bible stories his mother read to him and his siblings. He recalls how they were the first black family to join the pretty St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church — where he would one day design a stained-glass window over the altar, showing a magnificent, dark and honey-hued image of Jesus rising from the tomb. After high school, he went, portfolio in hand, to a prominent art institute. A representative there told him his artwork was the best he had seen and that “it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person.”
Bryan persevered. He was accepted at the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, and his world widened. After serving in WWII and graduating from Columbia, he taught art (from prep school to Dartmouth), and eventually made his way to the peak of children’s book illustrators.  This autobiography does not brag about Bryan’s multiple awards; instead, it beams with his humble, respectful and indomitable creative spirit. It invites us all to reach inside and listen to that still, precious voice … and to celebrate life while we can.
Note: Bryan will speak March 16th at the Virginia Festival of the Book. If you’d like to read more about him, see this fabulous 2009 interview in Horn Book.

Of Ashley Bryan’s nearly three dozen books, which do you like best? One of my favorite read-alouds for children ages 7-9 is Beautiful Blackbird.

In Bryan’s rousing version of an Ila folktale from Zambia, all the birds have solid-colored feathers, with no patterns or specks of black. Only Blackbird has black feathers that “gleam all colors in the sun.” Generous Blackbird stirs up a brew in his medicine gourd, and then gives the birds their own splash of blackness. Bryan’s gorgeous cut-paper collages show the joyous birds with their now-striking patterns and designs. It’s unanimous: “Black is beautiful, UH-HUH.” This books offers caring adults and their children a fun way to celebrate the many hues of humanity. Oh, what a wonderful world it would be if we all opened our eyes and marveled at that variety! 

More Beauties by Ashley Bryan:

All Things Bright and Beautiful. Atheneum, 2010. All ages. Bryan’s cheerful illustrations make this lovely old hymn by the Irish woman Cecil F. Alexander come alive. The vibrant cut-paper collages celebrate the diverse people, animals, and plants that fill our multicolored Earth. An illustrator’s note and musical notation are included in this richly rendered interpretation, which should be considered the definitive version of the several children’s editions that have been published.
Bryan’s rhythmic retellings of African folktales are must-re ads. This compilation includes 14 stories from previous collections. Highlights include “How Animals Got Their Tails” and “The Foolish Boy,” a touching story about a boy harshly judged by the villagers. His loving, patient parents, however, take time to teach Jumoke well and have faith that he will learn from his mistakes. He shows them how right they are when he outwits that crafty Spider Ananse!
This winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award includes the lyrics to “This Little Light of Mine,” “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Energetic, brilliantly colored cut-paper collages evoke the love and faithful spirit of these popular spirituals, created by slaves and now sung throughout the world.

Freedom on the Menu

Carole Boston Weatherford is the vibrant author of some of the best children’s books  exploring African-American history.  I met Carole a year ago after she flew up from North Carolina to come visit our school library. As a snowstorm barreled in that day, we felt forced to change our schedule. Carole mastered the situation with grace and verve, adjusting each of her three sessions to relate perfectly to the age group. She recited poems to the youngest; she had children participating by chanting, jingling bells and tapping a triangle. They left the library joyous and inspired!

A section of lunch counter from the Greensboro...

Image via Wikipedia

With the fourth and fifth-graders, she discussed Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins and presented a sensitive and nuanced look at Jim Crow as it still existed when she was a child in Baltimore. She showed a photograph of the park where she and her family were not allowed to go. The students were solemn and spellbound. Carole Boston Weatherford knows how to make history real to children.

Freedom on the Menu (Dial, 2004), is one my favorite read-alouds for Black History Month. Told from the point of view of eight-year-old Connie, the story takes readers to the Woolsworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Connie and her mother often stop there for a soda after shopping downtown. Connie would like to sit down and have a banana split instead, but can’t; only whites may sit at the counter.  “All over town signs told Mama and me where we could and couldn’t go,” Connie lamented. Lagarrigue’s somber, impressionistic paintings show the hateful Jim Crow signs that warp the community. Changes are in the air, though, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to town. Connie sees her older siblings become politically involved and join in the lunch counter sit-ins. As the protests spread through the South, laws change. Six months later, Connie gets to savor her banana split at the counter, and it tastes like so sweet — like freedom. The author’s note about the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins provides additional information that will help young people understand the Civil Rights movement. See Weatherford’s web site for lesson plans inspired by this exemplary picture book, which works well with ages 6-10.

And don’t miss these treasures …

For older children:

The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights. illus. by Tim Ladwig. Eerdmans, 2009. Ages 7-12. Anyone looking for a picture book to illustrate the role of religion in helping people survive and eventually overcome tragedy should take a look at this beautiful book. Weatherford illuminates the path from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to African-Americans’ long struggle for freedom and equality. From the dark Middle Passage in the bowels of slave ships to the inauguration of Pres. Barack Obama, people have found hope, strength, and inspiration in their religious faith. Concise biographical profiles of famous African-Americans are included.

Birmingham, 1963. Wordsong, 2007. Ages 10+ This stunning little masterpiece pairs actual black-and-white photographs with Weatherford’s poems to describe the ruthless bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four girls, an event that became a turning point in the struggle for equality. Told from the perspective on an unnamed fictional girl, we hear how

The day I turned ten
Our church was quiet. No meetings, no marches.
Mama left me in Sunday school
With a soft kiss and coins for the offering plate.

In addition to her moving poems, Weatherford provides a section that profiles the four young girls who died in the bombing. Additional historical background and photo citations are included, as well.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. illus. by Kadir Nelson. Jump at the Sun, 2006. Ages 7-12. This fictionalized story of Harriet Tubman focuses on the spiritual journey of the woman who risked her life time after time to help others escape from slavery, as she had done. In spare, poetic text, we hear how she flees Maryland, in hopes of reaching Pennsylvania. “A boatman rows her upriver. Back on shore, hounds snarl, sniff for Harriet’s trail. She races as fast as she can. Lord, I can’t outrun them. God speaks through a babbling brook: SHED YOUR SHOES, WADE IN THE WATER TO TRICK THE DOGS.” As Tubman encounters a series of dangers along the way, she calls upon God for help each time. When she reaches the free state of Pennsylvania, she finds her journey has just begun. Now it is time to help others. Nelson’s grand, atmospheric oil and watercolor paintings won a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award. Weatherford provides an accessible foreword on the institution of slavery, as well as an author’s note with a brief biography.

For younger children …

Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane. illus. by Sean Qualls. Holt, 2008. Ages 5-7. Read it and then put on some Coltrane and dance!

First Pooch: Malia and Sasha Pick a Pet. illus. by Amy Bates. Marshall Cavendish, 2009. Ages 5-8. Light-hearted story of the First Family choosing their first dog.

Jazz Baby. illus. by Laura Freeman. Lee & Low, 2002. Ages 4-7. Rollicking, rhyming fun for little ones


The bullies, the victims, and the silent bystanders

“Another thing I think about names is that they DO hurt. They hurt because we believe them. We think they are telling us something true about ourselves, something other people can see even if we don’t.”      — James Howe in The Misfits

GREAT READ-ALOUDS THAT DEAL WITH BULLYING

Estes, Eleanor. The Hundred Dresses. Ages 7-10. This timeless little novel remains one of the most powerful explorations of bullying in children’s literature. First published in 1944, Estes sets her  story in a cliquish, Waspy little town. Wanda Petronski is from a family of Polish immigrants. She has a strange name. She wears the same clean but faded blue dress to school every day. After Wanda confides to popular Peggy that she has 100 dresses, she gets taunted daily. Then one day, she’s gone. Her father informs the school they’re moving to the big city, where plenty of people have “funny” names. Yet another surprise comes when Wanda’s lovely drawings of 100 dresses win the school art contest. The girls, even queen bee Peggy, regret their behavior, but it is too late to make amends. Especially moving is the response of Maddie, the bystander too afraid to intervene. Maddie reaches the decision that she will never again remain silent while someone gets bullied in her presence. Since research indicates that most children tend to be bystanders, it is important to teach them to stand up for what’s right, even (or especially) when it means contradicting the “in” crowd.

Polacco, Patricia. The Junkyard Wonders. Philomel, 2010. Drawing on her own experiences as a dyslexic child, Polacco tells how young Tricia landed in the “junkyard” class for kids who had learning differences. The children were taunted and ridiculed and felt like cast-offs, but their wise and nurturing teacher, Mrs. Peterson, saw their gifts and helped them realize their potential. The story, while lengthier than most picture books, has plenty of conflict and action and can easily be read in two sessions. Allow time to discuss the need to value each person and to resist judging on the basis of appearances. Then share Polacco’s concluding note, in which she reveals the stellar achievements of her “junkyard” classmates.

More picture books that explore bullying:

  • Anholt, Laurence. Camille and the Sunflowers: A Story About Vincent van Gogh. Barron’s, 1994. Ages 6-8.  A boy and his family befriend the lonely painter who has a unique perspective.
  • Bateman, Teresa. The Bully Blockers Club. Ages 5-7. Lottie is tired of being bullied, so she starts a club where everyone is welcome.
  • dePaola, Tomie. Trouble in the Barkers’ Class. Ages 5-7. When the new girl acts like a bully, the students try talking to her and ignoring her until she finally figures out a better way to treat others. Also, see dePaola’s Oliver Button Is Not a Sissy.
  • DiSalvo, Dyanne. Spaghetti Park. Ages 7-9. A community unites to fix up their park and manages to persuade the bullies to join them.
  • Fierstein, Harvey. The Sissy Duckling. Ages 5-8. Elmer’s interests are different from the other male ducks. His father doesn’t sympathize, and after getting bullied at school, Elmer decides to run away from home. After Elmer saves his father’s life and looks after him until he’s well again, the father realizes he should be proud of his brave son.
  • Fleischman, Paul. Weslandia. Ages 7-10. The neighborhood kids torture Wesley for being different, but in time they learn to appreciate his ingenuity, as he creates his own wild and wondrous civilization.
  • Howe, James. Pinky and Rex and the Bully. Ages 6-8. Short chapter book, easily read in two sessions. Pinky got his nickname because his favorite color is pink. When boys at school tease him because of that, he initially tries to change his ways. But a kind, elderly neighbor helps him realize how important it is to be true to yourself. This engaging story presents great opportunities to discuss bullying and gender-based stereotypes.
  • Howe, James. Horace and Morris But Mostly Dolores. Atheneum, 1999. Ages 6-8.  Three mice friends learn it’s more fun to include others than to exclude them.
  • Kellogg, Steven. Island of the Skog. Puffin, 1993. This is a must-read picture book that can be appreciated and discussed on many levels. A group of mice, tired of living in fear, sail off to find a peaceful home. They land on an island inhabited by one skog. That’s when fear and conflict creep in again. Discuss how the mice approached the creature and how they could have made better choices.
  • Lester, Helen. Hooway for Wodney Wat. Ages 5-8. The other kids tease Rodney, but his way of speaking is what helps defeat the classroom bully.
  • Michelson, Richard. Busing Brewster. Random House, 2010. Ages 7-10. This is an unusual, sensitive picture book set in Boston during the contentious 1974 court-ordered busing. Brewster and his brother experience taunts by children and adults when they start at the white school. Fortunately, Brewster finds caring, helpful Miss O’Grady, the librarian, who encourages Brewster in his goal to become president some day.
  • Moss, Peggy. Say Something. Tilbury, 2004. A child who doesn’t speak up when other children are bullied finds herself in that position one day.
  • O’Neill, Alexis. The Recess Queen. Scholastic, 2002. Ages 5-8. Mean Jean was the playground bully nobody contradicted until the new kid, sweet, sassy little Katie Sue broke the rules and even invited Jean to become her friend.
  • Swope, Sam. The Araboolies of Liberty Street. Random, 1995. Ages 6-8. Horrors! The Araboolies don’t conform to General Pinch’s standards! They must go! No, decide the neighbors, that intolerance must give way to freedom, respect, and individuality.

For middle-school and up, consider such novels as …

  • Blume, Judy. Blubber. Ages 9-12.
  • Hiassen, Carl. Hoot. Ages 10-14.
  • Howe, James. The Misfits. Ages 10-14.
  • Spinelli, Jerry. Loser. Ages 10-14.

For more information, read “Names Can Hurt You.”


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