Remembering Ashley Bryan

July 13, 1923 - February 4, 2022

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For over two decades, the Maine Humanities Council has been featuring Ashley Bryan’s work in our programs.

As Ashley Bryan moved about the stage, the crowd went wild. It was the Maine Humanities Council’s 2005 Born to Read conference “Early Literacy in a Changing World,” and he was our keynote speaker. His reading was a rich, invigorating storytelling performance that evoked a powerful reaction: enthusiastic answers from children and adults alike to his call-and-response readings and, at the end, resounding applause. At the signing table afterward, beaming children formed a long line, and Ashley Bryan shared with each child a taste of his enthusiasm: warm words and a handshake. When the books ran out, he took a stack of bookplates and kept signing. 

The creator or co-creator of over 40 picture books, Ashley Bryan captured important cultural records within his art. He interpreted African legends, popular songs, and the experiences and dreams of enslaved Americans. As he was quoted in a MHC article about the 2005 conference, “Poetry is at my center as a human being.…I believe that poetry lies at the heart of the wonder and mystery of language.” 

Born in Harlem, Ashley Bryan grew up in Brooklyn and served in WWII. He first saw Little Cranberry Island on a 1946 visit to M.D.I., and, not long after, became a resident and one of this state’s most beloved artists and storytellers. In his long life as a creator in which he was internationally recognized as the U.S. nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award, Ashley Bryan racked up an impressive series of awards: ten Coretta Scott King Awards, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, a Newbury Honor Award, the Maine Library Association’s Lupine Award and Katahdin Award—and the key to the City of Portland. 

For over two decades, the Maine Humanities Council has been featuring Ashley Bryan’s work in our programs. From 2004 to 2011, What a Wonderful World (1995) reached child care providers throughout Maine as part of our Many Eyes, Many Voices early childhood literacy training. What a Wonderful World and Beautiful Blackbird (2003) were Maine’s books at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. (MHC staff remember the crowds and massive smiles that met them and those titles covering our table at the Mall.) More recently, in 2020 and 2021, statewide MHC Discussion Project groups read the Newbury honor-winning Freedom Over Me (2016), a powerful imagining of 11 enslaved people’s hopes and dreams. One participant who read it in a Portland Adult Education group wrote, “It is a very strong book with a good message and how the dreams of the people are important and it does not matter the color, the race, the social class. We are people and we have the same rights. The pictures in this book are beautiful.” And Ashley Bryan’s memoir, Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace (2019), has been popular in Discussion Projects as well. 

A 2018 MHC grant helped to fund “Painter and Poet: The Art of Ashley Bryan” at the Portland Museum of Art, which was written about here. But our grants have helped to fund still more: from a 2007 public presentation, reception, and panel discussion with five mural artists, including Ashley Bryan, who painted fresco murals at the Meeting House at the South Solon Historical Society; to the Indigo Arts Alliance’s Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival. 

Known for his brilliant and colorful art, his insightful cultural preservation through poetry and literature, and his warmth, openness, and generosity, Ashley Bryan brought immense joy to his neighbors across the entire state of Maine. In the coming months, the MHC will feature some of Ashley Bryan’s titles in an ongoing celebration of this extraordinary beloved Maine artist and storyteller. 

To close, please enjoy this brief interview with Ashley Bryan by Charlotte Albright for “Maine Writers Speak,” a collaboration between the MHC and MPBN.