2021 was marked by the deaths of several giants of children's literature, including Floyd Cooper, Eric Carle, Lois Ehlert, and Jerry Pinkney. 2022 sadly brings another addition to this list, author, teacher, and artist Ashley Bryan. During a career spanning over six decades, Bryan illustrated more than 70 children's picture books in a variety of media and in several genres, including poetry, folk tales, and biography. He earned multiple accolades for his work, including more than one Coretta Scott King award and the 2009 Wilder Medal for lifetime achievement.
A look at the many books by Ashley Bryan in our catalog resoundingly proves that the esteem and recognition are well deserved. We highlight some of his books below.
I was already familiar with Ashley Bryan's paintings and collages before his death, but I was unaware of his work in puppet making and sculpture. Ashley Bryan's Puppets is an astounding book featuring full color photographs of his extraordinary handmade puppets crafted from found materials. As I read this book, I kept exclaiming and gasping at Bryan's otherworldly creations. WOW. Do not miss these puppets!
Inspired by African folklore, each puppet featured has a name and a story all their own. Their brief biographies are written in free verse poetry, revealing the significance of their names, the materials with which they were created, and their relationships to the other puppets in Bryan's retinue.
This book can readily be used in a classroom puppetry unit or in an art class unit on using found materials. One can't help but be inspired by Bryan's ingenious use of sea glass, driftwood, bones, and other materials. What art can you create with things you find?
In his last published book, Infinite Hope: A Black Artist's Journey from World War II to Peace, Ashley Bryan tells a biographical story that by his own admission, he did not tell for over forty years: that of his service in the U.S. Army during the Second World War. Drafted at the age of 19 while a student at The Cooper Union in his native New York City, Bryan eventually was among the Allied forces that invaded Normandy on D-Day.
Bryan movingly writes of his experience serving in a segregated battalion and the camaraderie between he and his fellow soldiers. Seeing his obvious talent (Bryan writes that he drew whenever and wherever he could, whenever he could steal a free moment), his comrades encouraged him to draw, even taking up some his duties for him. The book is filled with the sketches Bryan made during this time, and with reproductions of the letters he wrote home to his family. Archival photographs round out the historical background of Bryan's WWII biography.
This picture book biography is most appropriate for older children, including middle and high schoolers (remember: no one is ever too old for picture books). In a history class, it can used to demonstrate how personal correspondence helps us better understand how everyday people experience historical events. For Bryan, it was his art that helped sustain during the years of service. It was art that carried him through.