Ashley Bryan believes that "the desire of a child, when they see someone in need, is to help." Perhaps it's his own desire to help others that keeps Ashley Bryan such a youthful and involved human being—or should we say "human doing"—at age 89. Who Built the Stable? A Nativity Poem began during Bryan's annual trip to work with children in Africa. The boy hero, a carpenter and shepherd, offers shelter in a stable he's built to a couple who seeks a place to stay after others have turned them away.
How did the idea for this retelling of the Nativity story come to you?
One Christmas, I wrote down in my sketch pad, "Who built the stable?" For years we've learned about the Holy Family in the Nativity story, but who built the stable?
Then in late January and February, I was in Kenya helping in the rural schools. In Nairobi, the van picks us up, all of us who do this work each year, and it's about four hours to Nyere. I'm usually looking out the window and drawing. This time, when I opened up my sketchbook, I came upon those words, ["Who built the stable?,"] and I began working on them. By the time I reached Nyere, I was writing a poem.
Kemie Nix and her group, Children's Literature for Children, based in Atlanta, organize this trip [to Nyere] each year. As I developed the poem, they would keep talking to me about, "Remember that it's a boy who built the stable. He knows nothing of the Holy Family." By the time I left Nyere, the whole feeling of the poem was there, and I crossed out anything that suggested the boy knew anything about the Holy Family.
Did the images come to you right away?
I worked for a year on illustrating the poem. I started at the beginning. I used bricks, wooden sticks. I used clay and sod. It was not leading anywhere. Then a friend asked for help with a post-and-beam house he was raising on the island. When I saw that structure go up, I made a swift sketch of the house. I saw immediately, this is what the story must begin with, the structure of the stable. Once I got to that, everything else flowed within it.
Is this typical for you, to begin with the words then do the illustrations?
In illustrating, you must follow a text. But I wasn't sure I could fulfill these words. I thought, "Maybe [my editor] Caitlyn should give this to someone who could develop the images." That's the misgivings we have in our lives. Then we push through, and the next step is the opening to everything. The not-giving-up moment. Taking the step beyond when you're giving up. After that it was a joy.
Once I had the sketch of the house, I had to keep the focus on the boy. I'd already been playing with the idea, "Was it made by human hands, / Was it built by God?" I immediately began playing with hands of many colors.
This is one of the few Nativity books that reflect the people who live in the region that Mary and Joseph traveled. Was it important to you to bring the people of Egypt and other parts of Africa and the Middle East into the story?
The story is of a boy working with people of many backgrounds. I wanted the richness of the region: Africa and Egypt, and the bridge across into the Sinai Peninsula. The boy has this feeling of openness; the couple could have had the look of anyone in his father's carpentry shop. He was not afraid of people, and he was able to see [Mary and Joseph] were people who needed help. The desire of the child, when they see someone in need, is to help. Jesus reached out to those in need: the widow, the sick, the lame. It's the basic meaning of our lives on this Earth.
There's also this feeling of continuity, the father apprenticing the son in carpentry and God sending his only son in human form, who would grow up to be a carpenter.
There's the son following the father. Because of his love of what he does, when the boy sees the baby, he says, "That baby's going to be like me." That was Jesus' life. He was in the shop with his father. When a child is excited about something, he wants others to be excited about that, too. He looks in the baby's eyes, he knew in his heart, "The babe would be a carpenter. / He'd be a shepherd too."
You have worked in a variety of media. Your artwork here looks like stained glass—even in the way the borders pick up on colors from each composition.
I was working with the spirit of illuminated manuscripts. When I did Langston Hughes' Carol of the Brown King: Nativity Poems, I also used borders. I wanted the borders to contain the glow of each spread, so you could stop and enjoy each spread, feel the adventure of how it was designed and painted.
I use tempera paints because they're the colors children use in schools, poured into separate parts of a muffin tin, and they can mix them, and paint with them. I've used them from childhood. If mixed with a great deal of water, it may be used like watercolor. I get a range of textures, from strong color to almost translucent. I use acrylics with it if I want to reinforce the color. Acrylics are also water-based and accessible. I apply the tempera paints and then a touch or two of the acrylic when I wanted to get a bit more emphasis than the tempera paint would give it.
On the spread where the boy says, "Oh, come with me!" we see Joseph's kindness as he strokes the shepherd boy's dog, and then we see the radiant star move to its proper position over the stable the boy built.
The boy says, "My stable is a warm place. / My animals will welcome you." People have turned them away, but "my animals will welcome you." The boy and dog are always together, but the boy [leaves] the dog to watch the sleeping couple. It's a night with strong colors and trees and richly colored animals, and the beautiful star gleaming. I've noticed [when I visit schools where they know my work,] children will render the most colorful animals possible. I want to enrich everything about the events of the story—The brightness of a star that is so breathtaking that it indicates something eventful in that moment in the sky.