Ashley Bryan, a prolific, award-winning children’s author and illustrator who has told stories of black life, culture, and folklore in acclaimed works such as “Freedom Over Me,” “Beautiful Blackbird,” and “Beat the Story- Drum, Pum-Pum,” died at age 98.
The longtime Maine resident died peacefully Friday in Texas, where he was staying with relatives, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing reported.
“An early, silent, and powerful force in bringing children of color and issues of racial diversity into the canon of children’s literature, it is committed to opening the eyes of children from all walks of life to a wide range of themes at through poetry, folk tales, spirituals and biblical stories,” the publisher’s statement read.
Bryan was a Harlem native who showed an early talent for drawing and, for a time, was the only black student at Cooper Union School of Art in Manhattan. He served in a separate military unit for two years during World War II, an experience he recounted in his memoir “Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey From World War II to Peace”, and resumed his studies in art after the war.
Bryan has worked on more than 70 books and received numerous accolades, including the Coretta Scott King Awards – given to the best work of the year by a black author or illustrator – for the folk tales “Beautiful Blackbird” and “Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum”. He also received two lifetime achievement awards: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (now known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award) and the Virginia Hamilton Award.
Survivors include his brother Ernest, according to Simon & Schuster.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of Ashley’s passing,” Maine Governor Janet Mills said in a statement Saturday. “He was a wonderful, happy man with a deep and rich story, a great imagination and a beautiful childlike soul. I am so grateful to have been able to spend time with him last year. Over our lunch , he spontaneously recited Langston Hughes, Shakespeare’s love sonnets and other wonderful verses.”
Mills had proclaimed July 13, 2020 Ashley Frederick Bryan Day in Maine to mark Bryan’s 97th birthday.
Bryan also taught art, including at Dartmouth College from 1974 to 1988, before moving to Maine.
During World War II, he was drafted into the US Army and fought in Europe, hiding drawing materials in his gas mask so he could draw his comrades, the Bangor Daily News reported. He was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France at Omaha Beach in June 1944.
After the war, Bryan continued his studies in Europe. He credited the sketches he made of musicians at a festival in France with “opening up his hand” and giving him an enduring style and approach, the Daily News reported.
“I knew if I could find the rhythm of everything I was going through, that I could do all my work and know who I am, keep trying to reach that core of who I am,” Bryan said in an interview. in 2014. “And it didn’t matter whether I did a painting, whether I did a puppet, a sea glass panel, whether I did a book – it all tries to tap into this inner mystery of who I am.”