By Elizabeth Wroten
Nonfiction Review: Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song
On 23, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Ashley’s autobiography is full of art, photographs, and the poignant never-say-never tale of his rich life, a life that has always included drawing and painting. Even as a boy growing up during the Depression, he painted — finding cast off objects to turn into books and kites and toy and art. Even as a solder in the segregated Army on the beaches of Normandy, he sketched — keeping charcoal crayons and paper in his gasmask to draw with during lulls. Even as a talented, visionary art student who was accepted and then turned away from college upon arrival, the school telling Ashley that to give a scholarship to an African American student would be a waste, he painted — continuing to create art when he could have been discouraged, continuing to polish his talents when his spirit should have been beaten. Ashley went on to become a Hans Christian Anderson Award nominee, a May Hill Arbuthnot lecturer, and a multiple Coretta Scott King award winner.
Another winner of a book from Ashley Bryan. I liked this so much I ordered my own copy. Bryan grew up during the Depression Era, but his family was happy and seemed to make the most of their circumstances. His parents, born in Antigua on the island of St. John, immigrated to Brooklyn and lived in a small apartment with their six kids and three orphaned nieces and nephews. The way Bryan describes his home and his parents is almost magical. His mother sang from morning until night. His parents encouraged Ashley’s artistry and all their kids. They were able to take free WPA music and art classes. His mother also grew plants where ever there was light in their apartment and made paper flowers to brighten darker spaces. Who wouldn’t want to grow up there and who wouldn’t find inspiration in that? When Bryan was older his parents bought the house across the street from their apartment building and made a home there.
When Bryan was 19 he was drafted into the army during WWII. Because he was black he was stuck doing service work, but was present at the D-Day invasion on a supply boat. After traveling to Scotland, England, and then France, Bryan returned to the US, but was haunted by questions of war. He decided, after a summer art scholarship, to study philosophy and got an undergraduate degree from Columbia. (I have to note biographies of this time period make it seem that it was considerably easier to get an education back then, especially a college education). After that he decided to use the GI bill to continue his education and went to France where he painted and studied French. He was even able to see Pablo Casals in concert! Bryan also got a Fulbright scholarship and studied in Germany.
Bryan did not set out to be a children’s book author/illustrator. He was a practicing artist and taught at the college level. He was approached by Pantheon books, who ultimately did not use his work, and then later by Atheneum. He has published a ton of books since then!
The interesting thing about the layout/format of Words is that it could have gone very wrong. It’s chock full of pictures of his drawings and paintings over the year, photographs of Bryan as a child and young man, pictures of his letters and photos of the places he grew up, as well as pictures of the Cranberry Isles where he lives now and his studio there. There is also the story of his life, his autobiography, and a parallel story of him inviting the reader along to see his island home and how he draws inspiration from it. The three pieces, pictures and two stories, could have felt jumbled, disjointed, and incongruous, but nothing interrupts anything else. It all flows so beautifully together and is so inspiring and lovely. At the end you feel as though you have spent a relaxing day chatting with an amazing artist who has led a full and interesting life.