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.

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