Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Ashley Bryan was born on July 13, 1923 in Harlem, New York, the second of six children of Antigua immigrants and childhood sweethearts, Ernest Bryan and Olive (Carty) Bryan. Bryan later recalled that he "cannot remember a time when I have not been drawing and painting." His artistic talent was recognized by his father, a printer by trade, who provided him with a steady supply of paper left over from printing orders. Bryan and his siblings were raised in an apartment in the Bronx, New York, and their mother, a seamstress by trade, decorated the naturally lit spaces in their home with flowers and plants, and "where there was no light she made colorful crepe paper flowers to brighten the shadowed areas." Bryan's father was an avid bird enthusiast, once housing "over 100 birds, canaries, finches, warblers, [and] parakeets," whose cages lined the living room (Ashley Bryan papers, Autobiography drafts).
During their early childhood, Bryan and his siblings were encouraged to take Works Progress Administration (WPA) art and music classes. While in kindergarten, Bryan authored, illustrated, published, and distributed an alphabet book, the first of many books Bryan would publish in his lifetime. Bryan and his siblings attended P.S. 2, where they were educated with Irish, Italian, German, Polish, Jewish, and fellow Black students, where each school day began with poetry recitations by students.
Bryan's mother read Bible stories to her children and the Bryan family became the first Black family to join St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bronx, a building that Bryan had admired for its ornate stained-glass windows while walking to school.
Bryan attended Benjamin Franklin Junior High School and Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, where he developed his portfolio of artwork which he used to apply to leading art colleges. According to Bryan, an admissions officer from one institution claimed, that it was "the best portfolio that he had seen [but] that it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a 'colored' person" (Ashley Bryan papers, Autobiography drafts). Despite this setback, he applied to the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering. In 1940, after a blind entrance exam process, Bryan was accepted to Cooper Union as the only Black student in his class, where he pursued painting as his primary discipline in addition to sculpture, calligraphy, design, and book illustration.
In March 1943, Bryan was inducted into the Army to serve in World War II, assigned to the segregated 207th Port Company, 502nd Port Battalion as a stevedore, forcing him to forgo his studies at Cooper Union. After receiving basic training at Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, Massachusetts, he was listed as a Winch Operator, graded as a Tech Sergeant, and assigned to work at the dockyards in Boston. Bryan befriended the children of the South Boston community where he lived and taught them to draw during his free time. Shortly thereafter, the battalion sailed from Boston to Scotland, and he was given special permission from Colonel Pierce, the battalion commander, to attend Glasgow School of Art, where he was educated to draw from plaster casts of Greek and Roman statues. On June 9, 1944–three days after D-Day–the battalion landed on Omaha Beach and was stationed in nearby Le Havre shortly thereafter. Bryan spent much of his free time drawing, later remarking that he "kept a sketch pad and art supplies in [his] gas mask" and that his fellow soldiers "admired and supported [his] artwork" (Ashley Bryan papers, Autobiography drafts). Bryan also wrote many letters during this time, regularly corresponding with Cooper Union friend, Eva Brussels [Mason].
In 1946, Bryan was honorably discharged from the Army and returned to Cooper Union, earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts in June. Shortly thereafter, Bryan was awarded a summer scholarship to the newly founded Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. During his time in Maine, Bryan discovered what would become the site of his annual summer painting retreats and eventual home on the Cranberry Islands.
Later in 1946, Bryan enrolled at Columbia University, where he studied as an undergraduate philosophy major. During his studies, Bryan befriended Kurt and Helen Wolff, founders of Pantheon Books, who were working on a book of African folktales with Professor Paul Radin. Impressed with his illustrations to Aesop's Fables from his time at Cooper Union, the Wolffs assigned Bryan the task of illustrating Radin's tales. Although these illustrations weren't used for publication, the experience working with and illustrating African folktales would later become a major artistic and professional focus for Bryan.
After graduating from Columbia University in 1950, Bryan sailed back to France to continue his education under the GI Bill in Aix-en-Provence at the Universite d'aix-Marseille and attended the festival commemorating the 200th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's death in the small Catalan town of Prades, organized and led by legendary cellist, Pablo Casals. After discovering that rehearsals of the music took place in the ruins of St. Michel de Cuxa Cloister, Bryan began to sketch the musicians, later remarking that "the swift lines needed to capture the musicians rehearsing freed my hand […] I carried the rhythmic strokes in the drawings to the free brush strokes in painting the musical scene" (Ashley Bryan papers, Autobiography drafts).
In 1953, Bryan return to the United States and began to teach art full-time, at institutions including the Dalton's Lower School and Queen's College. He returned to the Cranberry Isles in Maine every summer to focus on painting.
In 1956, Bryan returned to Europe having received a Fulbright Scholarship to Germany, studying German at the University of Freiburg-im-Breisgau. Having already memorized the English versions of many Rainer Maria Rilke poems from German-English translations, Bryan brought these books to Germany to grasp "the rhythms of the German language," and also spent a considerable amount of time drawing the marketplace around the Freiburg Cathedral (Ashley Bryan papers, Autobiography drafts).
Upon his return to the United States in 1959, Bryan taught art classes and rented a studio in the Bronx. During this time, Bryan's parents took his sister Emerald and her five children into their home. After school, Emerald's children would visit Bryan at his studio to draw and paint and a portion of his earning went to supporting his family.
In 1962, Jean Karl, a legendary editor of children's books at Atheneum, visited Bryan in his studio studio in what would be the beginning of a long and fruitful personal and professional relationship. Karl, impressed by the variety of styles he used to illustrate text, sent Bryan a contract to begin work for Atheneum Publishers. In 1967, Karl and Bryan published a book of poems by Rabindranath Tagore, Moon, for what do you wait?, the first of many collaborative efforts until Karl's death in 1999, after which Caitlyn Dlouhy took over this role. Bryan illustrated—and in many cases, authored or translated—more than 70 books, dedicating himself to bringing African folktales, African-American spirituals, and poetry to life. Using the lyricism of the text to guide the artistic direction and style he used for his children's books, Bryan brought "diversity to an often white-dominated genre by introducing generations of young readers to Black characters and African folk tales" (Risen). Accompanying his publications, Bryan also began a decades-long effort to participate in school visits and public events, bringing his books to life through his reading performances, using "the devices of poetry to open the ear to the sound of the voice and the printed word" (Risen).
In 1978, Bryan joined the faculty at Dartmouth College's newly established art department, teaching courses in drawing, painting, and design. During this time, Bryan built a summer home in Islesford, Maine, a town on Little Cranberry Island. Upon his retirement from Dartmouth, Bryan winterized his Little Cranberry Island home and became a year-round resident. Bryan took daily walks along the shore, collecting bones, shells, drift wood, fishing net, and sea-glass. He used these materials to create hand-held puppets, held together by papier mâché, in addition to continuing to authoring and illustrating children's books.
Bryan received book awards including numerous ALA Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator awards and the ALA Newbery Honor Book award, among many other awards for at least 16 of his books. Bryan also received several lifetime achievement awards of distinction including the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in 2007, New York City Public Library Lion (with Salman Rushdie, Edward Albee, and Nora Ephron) in 2008, Coretta Scott King—Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2012, among many others. Several institutions have been named after Bryan, including the Ashly Bryan School in Islesford, Little Cranberry Island, Maine and the Ashley Bryan Children's Literature Illustrator Award at the Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta, Georgia, among others. Additionally, Bryan received several honorary degrees, including honorary doctorates from the Oakland University in 2003 and University of Southern Maine in 2013.
In 2013, with help from Nick Clark, Director of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Bryan's legacy was ensured through the establishment of the Ashley Bryan Center, with the mission "to preserve, celebrate, and share broadly artist Ashley Bryan's work and his joy of discovery, invention, and community" (Ashley Bryan Center).
Ashley Bryan died on February 4, 2022 in Sugar Land, Texas, in the company of his family, survived by his nieces Vanessa Robinson and Bari Jackson, among many other family members and close friends.
Ashley Bryan Center. "Ashley's Timeline." Accessed May 9, 2022. https://ashleybryancenter.org/ashleys-timeline.html.
Ashley Bryan papers, 1823-2019 (bulk: 1928-2019), Ms. Coll. 1439, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania, Autobiography drafts, Box 16, Folder 20-21.
Risen, Clay. "Ashley Bryan, Who Brought Diversity to Children's Books, Dies at 98." The New York Times. February 9, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/09/books/ashley-bryan-dead.html.
The Ashley Bryan papers document his professional activities, including drawing, painting, poetry, African folk tales, African-American spirituals, and storytelling. This collection is arranged in sixteen series: I. Personal and family material; II. Correspondence; III. Notebooks; IV. Sketchbooks; V. Artwork; VI. Writings; VII. Book projects; VIII. Professional engagements; IX. Ashley Bryan Center administrative records; X. Calendars and appointment books; XI. Certificates, awards, diplomas, and plaques; XII. Photographs; XIII. Greeting cards and post cards; XIV. School children thank you cards and artwork; XV. Research files and ephemera; XVI. Audiovisual material and computer files. Researchers should be aware that the material overlaps significantly between series, within boxes, and folders, retaining original order whenever possible. Correspondence, particularly with publishers, and research material is found throughout the collection, and it is probably necessary for researchers to consult large components of this collection, regardless of research topic.
This collection will be of value to scholars of children's book illustrators and the book publishing process (Series VII. Book projects; Sub-series. A. Published), artists and artwork, African folk tales, African-American spirituals, the craft of storytelling, and the experience of Black soldiers in World War II. This collection also documents familial, friendly, and collegial relationships where art and storytelling are a central focus, in addition to providing insight into the relationship between a children's book illustrator and young readers.
More detailed information about the contents of the collection is available at the start of each series.
Gifts of Ashley Bryan and the Ashley Bryan Center, 2019.
- Children's literature
- Publishers and publishing
- Voyages and travels
- World War, 1939-1945
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Access Restrictions
The bulk of this collection is open for research use. However, volumes containing the grades of Ashley Bryan's students contained within box 11 (folders 1-2) and box 83 (folder 3) are restricted until 70 years from date of creation. Original audio, video, and digital images on machine readable media contained within box 56 (folders 21-22), 57, and 128 (folder 8) are restricted.
Access to original audio/visual materials and computer files is restricted. The Kislak Center will provide access to the information on these materials from duplicate master files. If the original does not already have a copy, it will be sent to an outside vendor for copying. Patrons are financially responsible for the cost. The turnaround time from request to delivery of digital items is about two weeks for up to five items and three to seven weeks for more than five items. Please contact Reprographic Services (firstname.lastname@example.org) for cost estimates and ordering. Once digital items are received, researchers will have access to the files on a dedicated computer in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. Researchers should be aware of specifics of copyright law and act accordingly.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.