An internationally recognized children’s book author and illustrator, poet and humanitarian, Bronx native Ashley Bryan, recently had a collection of his work acquired by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.
On Thursday, December 5, Bryan’s archive came to the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Penn Libraries through the Ashley Bryan Center, which has represented and preserved his legacy since 2013. Bryan also has art displayed in the Mott Haven Library.
The archive includes original drawings and manuscripts for Bryan’s many book projects, along with correspondence dating from his days as a student at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in the early 1940s and fan mail from admirers around the globe.
Nick Clark, the founding director of the Ashley Bryan Center, in Maine, has known Bryan for several years and feels this is a tremendous opportunity for people to learn about Bryant.
“He’s extraordinary. He’s the type of person that literally when he comes into a room he lights it up,” Clark said. “As an artist of color he was among the pioneers to bring characters of color into books for children.”
Bryan, 96, was raised in the Bronx. At 17, he entered the tuition-free Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, having been denied entry elsewhere because of his race.
Drafted out of art school into the segregated U.S. Army at 19, Bryan preserved his humanity throughout World War II by drawing, stowing supplies in his gas mask when necessary.
After the war, he completed his Cooper Union degree, studied philosophy and literature at Columbia University on the GI Bill, and then went to Europe on a Fulbright scholarship, seeking to understand why humans choose war.
Clark noted that while Bryan served overseas, his fellow soldiers kept him away from weapons if they could.
“He didn’t let the war get in the way of his making art,” Clark said. “The safest way for them was for Ashley to be as far away from machinery as possible.”
Bryan has published more than 50 books, including his recent one, “Infinite Hope.” This memoir, recounts his experiences as an African American drafted into the segregated U.S. Armed Forces in 1943.
Bryan also spent 14 years teaching at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
“He’s a very gifted teacher,” Clark said. “I think he really prefers working with younger children.”
Bryan has made his home on Little Cranberry Island, just off the coast of Maine, for the last 50 years.
During the past three decades he has written and illustrated more than 20 children’s books celebrating his African American heritage.
Lynn Farrignton, the senior curator of special collections at the Kislak Center, has met Bryan many times and though his work would be a great addition to the facility.
“He’s an amazing individual,” she said. “I’ve been blown away every time I’ve met him.”