ASHLEY BRYAN, born July 3, 1923, to Antiguan immigrants in Harlem, New York, was the first African American to publish a children’s book as both its author and illustrator in 1962. He created his first book in kindergarten as an assignment to make a drawing for each letter of the alphabet. Since then, he’s authored or illustrated over 35 children’s book and earned several awards including the Coretta Scott King Award multiple times, which recognizes outstanding African American authors and illustrators.
Bryan grew up with his two brothers, two sisters and three orphaned cousins in the Bronx, and his parents ensured a strong sense of pride within their family. Growing up during the Great Depression, he says his childhood was filled with books, music and art, although resources were scarce (“The public library was like a second home.”) His mother sang while his father played the piano, and he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t drawing or painting. The alphabet book, which Bryan authored, illustrated and bound himself, received much praise from his teachers, family and friends, prompting him to continue creating these “limited editions” as gifts for loved ones.
While his parents promoted literacy with frequent trips to the local library as well as community activities that included the arts, his Antiguan grandmother also fostered his inspiration as the best storyteller he’s ever seen. Despite the language barrier, she was able to convey her meanings in tones, rhythms and gestures that instilled a sense of ancestry in her grandchildren. Although African American literature was not a part of Bryan’s school curriculum, he was able to obtain a sense of culture based of his grandmother’s characters.
After graduating high school at the age of sixteen, Bryan was discouraged by college officials who told him it would be wasteful to give a scholarship to a colored student. His teachers, however, encouraged him to apply to The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious colleges which also offers a full-tuition scholarship to every admitted student.
He became one of the few African-American students at that time to be awarded a scholarship: “You put your work in a tray, sculpture, drawing, painting, and it was judged. They never saw you. If you met the requirements, tuition was free, and it still is to this day,” Bryan said.
While attending Cooper Union two years later, at the age of nineteen, Bryan was drafted. Although he was fighting in France during World War II, he drew whenever he could and kept a sketch pad and art supplies in his helmet. After returning from the war, he studied philosophy at Columbia University and earned a Fulbright scholarship to study art in Europe. It was during this time that he was inspired to create children’s books which helped introduce African American children to their roots, after he saw children in France and Germany performing spirituals and being educated about them.
When Bryan returned to the U.S., he began teaching art at Queen’s College and Lafayette College, before moving on to Dartmouth College where he chaired the art department and retired as emeritus professor of art and visual stories in the mid-1980s. Following his retirement, Bryan moved to Islesford, Maine, where he opened his own gallery so he could paint and create stained glass windows from glass he finds walking along the beach. It was also during this time that he began writing his own stories because he was dissatisfied with the way African American children’s books were written.
Bryan’s books reflect his African-American, West Indian and African heritage because he firmly believes you should “be strongly rooted in who you are—your people and what they have had to offer, then reach out and draw upon the gifts of other peoples of the world.” Each book is also distinctly designed, and after more than forty years doing what he loves, Bryan says, “I never gave up. Many were more gifted than I but they gave up. They dropped out. What they faced out there in the world–they gave up.”
Bryan, now 87, continues to create beautiful works of art, both textually and visually, making puppets, writing, painting and creating collages. He also spends time traveling the world helping with projects designed for poor students across the globe. He says, “You’ve got to just stand up for what you love, what you love and go to and immerse your life in and want to offer others. You are doing the works of peace. You are clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry. Our desire is for peace.”
Bryan’s autobiography, Words to My Life’s Song, was published in 2009 and features art, photographs and the story of his life in the form of a picture book for children, although it’s twice the normal length of one. The publisher knew it had to be beautiful, so they kept letting him expand it, he says. That same year, he was awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for substantial and lasting contributions to children’s literature.
If you’re looking to explore the catalog of Ashley Bryan, he says Ashley Bryan’s African Tales, Uh-Huh is a good book with which to start. It has a number of his retellings of African tales and offers a range of themes. The National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature is also showcasing his work with Rhythms of the Heart: The Illustration of Ashley Bryan, which is currently on tour.
ASHLEY BRYAN SPEAKS ON “WORDS TO MY LIFE’S SONG”