In any conversation about the legends of children’s literature, Ashley Bryan’s name is sure to be mentioned. Still going strong after five decades (his next book will be out in April 2019), Bryan has made an indelible, invaluable contribution to American literature for children. His picture books of African folktales and African-American spirituals have honored the ancestors and brought these works of art into the daily lives of children all over.
In recognition of the significance of Bryan’s oeuvre, the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, in partnership with the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, is mounting an exhibit of his works, including original illustrations from books dating from The Ox of the Wonderful Horns and Other African Folktales in 1971 to 2016’s Freedom over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life, a Newbery and Coretta Scott King honor book as well as a finalist for the 2016 Kirkus Prize for Young People’s Literature.
It’s always a thrill to see original picture-book art, as it has a physicality that cannot be detected on the printed page. Bryan’s cut-paper–collage illustrations for Let It Shine, for instance, are wonders of layered construction, allowing viewers to marvel at how much movement their flowing, construction-paper lines contain.
Indeed, movement is the strongest impression viewers gain from exposure to Bryan’s work as it’s displayed here. The earliest examples are sketches done during his service in World War II (he stored his materials in his gas mask). Even a quick pen-and-ink sketch of other members of his all-black battalion in repose gives viewers a sense of ready energy. No matter the medium, style, or palette, even the stateliest pictures are composed of curves and arcs that keep the eyes moving. The intricate whorls that delineate the faces of those 11 slaves hint at the vibrant life behind their composed façades.
“Vibrant life” pretty much sums up Bryan and his work—happily, children don’t need to go to the museum to enjoy it (but how lucky they’ll be if they do).
Vicky Smith is the children’s editor.