Ashley Bryan, a prolific, prize-winning illustrator and children’s author, has passed away at the age of 98. He was an accomplished and prize-winning artist and illustrator. Ashley told stories about Black culture, history, and folklore through such works as “Freedom Over Me,” and “Beautiful Blackbird.”
Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing reported that the long-time resident of Maine died peacefully in Texas on Friday. He had been visiting relatives there.
The publisher’s statement states that he was “an early, quiet and powerful force in bringing children and issues of race diversity into the canon, children’s literature. He was also committed to opening children’s eyes to a wide variety of themes through poetry and folktales and biblical narratives.”
Bryan, a Harlem native, was gifted at drawing. He was for a time the only Black student at Cooper Union’s art school in Manhattan. He was a member of a segregated military unit during World War II. This experience is what he wrote in his memoir “Infinite Hope” and he resumed his art education after the war.
Bryan was responsible for more than 70 books. He received many honors, including Coretta Scott King Awards, which are given for the best year’s work by a Black author/illustrator. These awards were for the folktales “Beautiful Blackbird” (now called the Story-Drum and Pum-Pum) and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, now known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.
According to Simon & Schuster, his brother Ernest and “many cherished nieces and nephews” are his survivors.
Maine Governor. Janet Mills released a statement on Saturday. He was a happy, wonderful man. He had a rich, deep history. His imagination was great. And he had a beautiful, childlike spirit. He was so kind and generous that I had the opportunity to spend some time with him last year. He spontaneously recited Langston Hughes and Shakespeare’s love sonnets over lunch.
Mills had declared July 13, 2020 Ashley Frederick Bryan Day in Maine, to commemorate Bryan’s then-97th Birthday. An Isleford memorial service will take place this July 13.
Bryan taught art at Dartmouth College between 1974 and 1988 before moving to Maine.
He was drafted to the U.S. Army during World War II and fought in Europe hiding his drawing materials in his gas mask in order to sketch his fellow soldiers.
Bryan continued his European studies after the war. According to the Daily News, he credited sketches he made at a festival of musicians in France with “opening up his hand” and giving him an approach and style that will last.
Bryan spoke out in a 2014 interview to the newspaper. Bryan stated that if I could find the rhythm in whatever I was experiencing, I would be able to do all my work and still know who I am. It didn’t matter what I was painting, whether I was making a puppet, sea glass panels, or a book, all of it was trying to tap into that inner mystery of who and what I am.