Many of us in this small world of US children’s literature have been fortunate enough to have encountered Ashley Bryan (who, a few weeks ago, at age 93, received a long-over-due Newbery, an honor for Freedom Over Me). And none of us who have will ever forget this intelligent, courtly, warm, and creative man. But as for the rest of the world? Those outside are regularly surprised by this incredible man. Case in point: at the 2009 Newbery-Caldecott-Wilder Banquet where Neil Gaiman, a rock star in the world of comics and fantasy for adults, received the Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book, Ashley received the Wilder Award. Knowing what was coming and figuring Neil did not, I watched him with amusement as Ashley roared out “MY PEOPLE BY LANGSTON HUGHES!” and then got us involved with his usual call and response to recite the poem, a smiling uber-cool Gaiman along with us. Bet he will never forget that experience!
MY PEOPLE BY LANGSTON HUGHS. I will never think of that poem without also thinking of Ashley and I will never think of Ashley without that poem. I’ve seen him present to adults and to children and that poem is his touchstone. I wasn’t at this particular conference, but this is exactly how he does the poem with any audience.
Ashley had been an art teacher at my school before I arrived and came back regularly to do artist-in-residency activities with our students. It was much later that I first saw him with adults at the memorable summer institutes run by CLNE. For some golden years I saw Ashley regularly, with children at my school, and then with adults elsewhere. Always, he was amazing. And this was as a teacher, performer, person, and icon. There is also his art, his writing, his books. You don’t need to have seen him, to know him, anything to love these. Folktale retellings, poetry, and more — they are original and wonderful. (I should say Ashley is an artist far beyond the children’s literature world. For example, he is currently being honored at the DeCordova New England Biannual.)
It is very hard for me to select just a few of Ashley’s books as I so appreciate them all, but here are a few to give you a taste.
I am a huge fan of this lesser known work from 1976 as Ashley does such a beautiful job retelling these West African folktales and illustrates them in a form inspired by the colors of the area. Having been there I can assure you that he is spot on.
This is another wonderful collection of African folktales. It is impossible for me not to read them without Ashley’s voice in my mind.
Who doesn’t adore Louis Armstrong’s song? This is Ashley’s joyful take.
Love, love, LOVE Beautiful Blackbird. At a book party we held for him at our school for his autobiography, Words to My Life Song, l played a recording of my students enthusiastically reciting this delightful book.
Photo taken by Ashley’s editor Caitlyn M. Dlouhy last week.
And then there is his latest, the outstanding and rightly lauded Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life. It is wonderful that this work, one that he cared so much about, has been so honored. Hopefully it will move out beyond our world so that more will know of this man and all his gifts to the world.
Thank you, Ashley Bryan, for your steadfast commitment to all that is best, the beauty you have brought to our world. You have made my life and countless others better, even in the darkest of times.