Ashley Bryan (1923–2022) was an eclectic artist who used painting, poetry, music, collage, and prose to tell stories. Bryan fused these seemingly separate art forms within his books for children. "I try not to accept walls and boundaries and definitions in a strict way," he says. "I would hope that everything I do is interrelated."
Bryan is known for retelling African folktales in a distinct, rhythmic prose that is heavily influenced by African-American poetry. In 1981, his collection of Nigerian folktales, Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum, received the Coretta Scott King Book Illustrator Award. In 2012, Bryan was awarded the Coretta Scott King — Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement.
A beloved illustrator, Ashley Bryan was named a Newbery Honoree for his picture book, Freedom Over Me. He also received the Coretta Scott King—Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award; the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award; was a May Hill Arbuthnot lecturer; a Coretta Scott King Award winner; and the recipient of countless other awards and recognitions. His books include Freedom Over Me, Sail Away, Beautiful Blackbird, Beat the Story-Drum, Pum Pum, Let It Shine, Ashley Bryan’s Book of Puppets, and What a Wonderful World.
Ashley Bryan was born in Harlem in 1923. His childhood was filled with books, music, and art even though resources tended to be scarce during the Great Depression. Ashley's mother sang and his father played the piano. At home, Ashley and his siblings set up old crates and filled them with a revolving collection of library books. After school, Ashley attended free art and music classes.
All the way through 12th grade, Ashley Bryan spent much of his free time drawing and painting. After graduating from high school, Bryan applied for a scholarship at a prominent art institution, but was essentially told that a scholarship "would not be wasted on a colored person." Under the guidance of his high school teachers, Bryan then applied and was accepted into New York's prestigious Cooper Union Art School. From there, Bryan went on to study philosophy at Columbia University, earn a Fulbright scholarship to study art in Europe, and become the head of the art department at Dartmouth College.
In the early 1960s, when Bryan was working in his art studio in the Bronx, a curious children's book editor visited him. Impressed by his artwork, she soon offered him contracts to illustrate children's books. For many years Bryan collaborated with this same editor to both write and illustrate unique books for young people. In addition to being a talented bookmaker, Ashley Bryan was a natural performer who captivated audiences with his dramatic readings and presentations.
Ashley Bryan lived in Islesford, one of the Cranberry Isles off the coast of Maine. His art studio, often open to visitors, was filled with toys, paintings, illustrations, and handmade puppets. To learn more about Ashley Bryan's incredible life and work, visit the Ashley Bryan Center website.