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Prolific children’s author, illustrator, and painter, Ashley Bryan, has passed away at the age of 98. He is known for the title’s “Beautiful Blackbird,” “Freedom Over Me,” and “Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum.” The longtime Maine resident died “peacefully” on Feb. 4, 2022, in Texas at his niece Vanessa’s home.
He was born on July 13, 1923, in Bronx, New York. At the age of 17, Bryan enrolled in the tuition-free Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering. Some of his high school teachers suggested he apply there since other places would not accept him due to his race. Bryan was told they based admission solely on a student’s exam portfolio.
Two years later he was drafted into the segregated United States Army. He was able to preserve his humanity during World War II by drawing. When he needed to he would store his supplies in his gas mask.
After the war, he finished his degree at Cooper Union. Under the GI Bill, he studied philosophy and literature at Columbia. Then he went to Europe on a Fullbright scholarship pursuing knowledge to help him understand why mankind chose war.
The renowned cellist, Pablo Casals, agreed to break the vow of silence he had taken after Franco came to power in his native Spain in 1950. Bryan was allowed to draw the cellist and his fellow musicians as they rehearsed in Prades, France. As he listened to them play something “broke free” within Bryan allowing him to find “the rhythm in my hand.”
After returning to the U.S. he taught art at several schools and universities. Bryan retired to Maine’s Cranberry Isles as professor emeritus of Dartmouth College in the 1980s.
Eventually, he “discovered a hole in children’s literature. There were no introductory books of African American spirituals. There were no stories from the African oral tradition. The translations he found were academic,” his editor Caitlyn Dlouhy wrote.
Throughout his career, he wrote over 70 children’s books. He won awards such as:
- The Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award.
- The Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal.
- The New York Public Library’s Literary Lions award.
Many African and U.S. libraries, literary festivals, and children’s rooms are named after him.
Maine’s Governor Janet Mills declared July 13, 2020, as Ashley Frederick Bryan Day to commemorate his 97 birthday. A memorial service will be held for him in Isleford, Maine.
He is survived by his brother Ernest and “many cherished” nephews and nieces. May he rest in peace.
Written by Sheena Robertson
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Inset Image Courtesy of BrotherM’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Top and Featured Image Courtesy of Paul VanDerWerf’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License