Ashley Bryan, Who Brought Diversity to Children’s Books, Dies at 98
Ashley Bryan, an eclectic artist and children’s book illustrator who brought diversity to an often white-dominated genre by introducing generations of young readers to Black characters and African folk tales, died on Feb. 4 at the home of his niece Vanessa Robinson in Sugar Land, Texas, near Houston. He was 98.
Another niece, Bari Jackson, confirmed the death.
Mr. Bryan had already built a 20-year career as an artist when, in 1965, he read an article in Saturday Review bemoaning the lack of diversity in children’s books. Already a devotee of African traditions and stories, he saw a chance to use his talents to bring those tales to life on the page.
He wrote down many of them himself, often in verse, injecting rhythm into tales that until then had usually been recounted in dry prose by anthropologists. He would then pair those stories with his art, sometimes painting, sometimes collage — whatever style felt right for moment.
“I use the devices of poetry to open the ear to the sound of the voice and the printed word,” he said in a 2004 interview with the magazine Language Arts. “I am asking the reader to listen and be engaged with the storyteller and to actually feel that the story is coming to life in a very dramatic way.”
He also illustrated work by other writers — either as collections, like “Ashley Bryan’s ABC of African American Poetry” (2001), or for specific poets, including several collaborations with Nikki Giovanni, most recently the book “I Am Loved” (2018).
He published perhaps his best-known book, “Beautiful Blackbird,” in 2004, at 81, an age when many artists would have long since put aside their brushes. He went on to publish eight more, including “Sail Away” (2015), an illustrated edition of poems by Langston Hughes, and “Freedom Over Me” (2016), which tells the story of 11 enslaved people about to be sold, and which was named a Newbery Honor Book.
“He was really essential in the movement to start telling and retelling and spreading stories of Black life and African folk tales, and in centering them on Black protagonists and for Black children,” Sal Robinson, an assistant curator at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, said in a phone interview. In October, the Morgan will begin a three-month exhibition of Mr. Bryan’s work, focused on his illustrations for “Sail Away.”
Though Mr. Bryan illustrated more than 70 books, he worked far beyond the bound page. Operating from his studio on Little Cranberry Island, a part of Acadia National Park in Maine, he built hand puppets, constructed paper collages and cut linoleum block prints, often using material, and drawing inspiration, from the nearby Atlantic Ocean.
As a gift to the island’s Islesford Congregational Church, he produced a series of stained-glass windows depicting events from the life of Christ using sea glass he found on the beach.
“Everything I do is related to everything else,” he said in an interview for the 2017 documentary “I Know a Man … Ashley Bryan.” “So whether I’m working with puppets or working with sea glass or doing a painting or working on a book, it’s all the same challenge: How can I live in that moment?”
Ashley Frederick Bryan was born on July 13, 1923, in Harlem, one of six children of Ernest and Olive (Carty) Bryan, immigrants from Antigua. His father worked as a greeting-card printer and his mother as a housekeeper and dressmaker.
The family settled in the Bronx, where they lived in a series of walk-up railroad apartments. His parents encouraged his early interest in art: His father brought home paper scraps for him, and his mother let him use her fabric shears.
He graduated from high school at 16, and his teachers encouraged him to apply for art-school scholarships. But he was roundly rejected, he told an interviewer in 2014. One admissions officer, he recalled, told him, “This is the best portfolio we have seen, but it would be a waste to give it to a colored student.”
Undaunted, he applied to the Cooper Union in Manhattan, which used a blind application process. This time he was accepted.
He was halfway through his studies when he was drafted into the Army in 1943 and assigned to be a stevedore in an all-Black battalion. He landed at Normandy three days after the Allied invasion of 1944, and he spent the rest of the war in France and Belgium.
Along the way, he filled sketchbooks with scenes of soldiers, often at rest or at play. He captured the strains and boredom and occasional joys of military life, as well as the humiliations of serving as a Black man in a segregated Army; one sketch showed a Black soldier despondent after being told that his return to America had been delayed because white soldiers had priority on troop ships.
He hid those pictures, and his wartime experience, for decades. He finally revealed them in a 2014 traveling exhibition that began at the Ashley Bryan Center, on Little Cranberry Island, and five years later in a memoir, “Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey From World War II to Peace.”
After completing his program at Cooper Union, he enrolled in Columbia, where he graduated in 1950 with a degree in philosophy. He liked to point out that both his Army discharge papers and his diploma were signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had become Columbia’s president after leading Allied forces in Europe.
He continued his studies in France at Aix-Marseille University. He later recalled attending a concert by the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, arriving early so he could sketch the performers as they practiced. He said that in trying to capture their movements, he unlocked a new part of his artistic self — “the opening of my hand to their rhythms,” he liked to say.
He returned to the United States three years later and taught art at several institutions before arriving at Dartmouth College in 1974. He remained there until his retirement in 1988.
In addition to his niece Ms. Jackson, his survivors include his brother, Ernest, as well as a nephew, John Ashley Swepson, and two nieces, Valerie Swepson and Ms. Robinson, all of whom he helped raise.
Mr. Bryan had already been visiting Little Cranberry Island during his summer breaks, and after leaving Dartmouth he moved there full time. His home and garden became something of an attraction for tourists visiting from nearby Bar Harbor, and so did Mr. Bryan himself, who puttered around in a bright orange golf cart.
Visitors who stopped by to see him unannounced would be met with a smile, a cookie and a tour around his studio — painting room upstairs, puppet workshop downstairs. On a shelf sat his mother’s fabric shears, which he still used to make his art.
“Every morning is a whole new day of discovery,” he told The Portland Press-Herald in 2014. “The one thing I have in common with any adult I meet is childhood. Every person has survived childhood. The most tragic experience you can have in life is the death of a child. That’s why I say, ‘Never let the child within you die.’”