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Ashley Bryan, children's illustrator and author, has died at 98

Children's author and illustrator Ashley Bryan has died at age 98.
Bill McGuinness
Simon & Schuster
Children's author and illustrator Ashley Bryan has died at age 98.

Ashley Bryan, the celebrated children's book author and illustrator who created stories centered on African and African American folk tales, has died. He was 98.

Bryan's website said he died Friday at the home of his niece. It noted that after his last birthday on July 13, 2021, he "continued to recite poetry from his vast repertoire – especially Shakespeare's sonnets – up to the very end."

In a career spanning more than six decades, Bryan's vibrantly colored collage and paper-cut illustrations adorned the pages of some 50 books, folktales and poetry collections by such acclaimed writers as Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni and Walter Dean Myers. The books he wrote and illustrated himself include Infinite Hope about his experiences serving in the segregated Army during WWII, Beat the Story-Drum: Pum-Pum, his retelling of Nigerian tales and Beautiful Blackbird, a story that celebrates community and individuality.

<em>Beautiful Blackbird</em> by Ashley Bryan, published in 2003.
/ Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster
Beautiful Blackbird by Ashley Bryan, published in 2003.

Among the numerous honors Bryan received throughout his career are multiple Coretta Scott King Awards, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for Lifetime Achievement and, in 2008, he was named one of New York Public Library's Library Lions along with Edward Albee, Nora Ephron and Salmon Rushdie.

Bryan grew up in the Bronx, the second of six children. He started drawing and painting as a little boy, using art supplies provided by his father who worked as a printer of greeting cards.

While attending New York City's Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, Bryan was drafted into the Army to fight in WWII, and was subjected to racism by white American soldiers. He sketched all of his experiences, including what he witnessed on D-Day on Omaha Beach.

<em>Infinite Hope</em> is Bryan's picture book memoir about serving in the segregated Army during World War II.
/ Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster
Infinite Hope is Bryan's picture book memoir about serving in the segregated Army during World War II.

Bryan drew inspiration from a wide variety of cultures, artistic styles and disciplines. Growing up in the Bronx, he loved the stained-glass windows at the nearby St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, according to a profile in the magazine of his alma mater, Columbia University. He made puppets out of bones, shells and other objects he found on the beaches near his home on one of the Cranberry Isles off the cost of Maine. He played the recorder and sang spirituals.

Both whimsical and deeply spiritual, he once said, "There are so many ways in which we learn about life and the self. If you put art into the world, you will get beauty in return."

Among the tributes to Bryan, author Jason Reynolds wrote: "But we throw 'National Treasure' around so cavalierly that when you get to know one, you realize how rare they are, and you want the world to dance jubilee in their honor. He deserved it. My god, Ashley, have you earned your rest."

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
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