At 96, Ashley Bryan has had one of the most accomplished careers in contemporary children’s literature. He’s written and illustrated dozens of works about the African American diaspora, addressing slavery (Freedom Over Me), folktales (Beautiful Blackbird), and music (I’m Going to Sing), earning multiple awards along the way. But it took a long time for him to contemplate one of his most formative experiences as an artist: his Army stint during World War II.
“Drawing was a way of surviving because war was so dreadful,” he says. “The anguish and suffering was so horrible, all around me. Drawing was a kind of escape, a way of making sense of myself.”
As Bryan explains in his illustrated autobiography, Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey From World War II to Peace (Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum, Oct. 15), in 1943 he was an art student at New York’s Cooper Union—the only black student there at the time—when he received his draft notice. He was eventually sent to the European theater, where he worked as a stevedore and was part of a company of black soldiers who delivered supplies, dug foxholes, and searched for land mines in advance of D-Day. The experience introduced Bryan not just to the horrors of war, but discrimination within the armed forces. The military was segregated, and, as he explains in the book, black soldiers were often assigned the most onerous and dangerous tasks.
To convey his experience, Infinite Hope is a rich work of collage, integrating Bryan’s narration with letters he sent back home to New York, paintings of people he met during his travels through France, and sketches of his fellow soldiers. The drawings gave him a connection to his Army buddies—and, he concedes, occasionally got him out of work.
“Sometimes in a company, if there’s someone who they called different, you’d have a hard time, but they never looked on me as different,” he says. “They loved my drawing, and often in the midst of work would say, ‘Oh, you go ahead and draw.’”
“Why does man choose war?” Bryan wrote in one of his notebooks at the time. After V-E Day, Bryan remained stationed in Europe, where he chronicled the devastation left after the fighting stopped: Infinite Hope includes his drawings of the ruins of the Rouen cathedral as well as displaced adults and children. And though Infinite Hope is written for children, he felt no compulsion to soften its message.
“I always think of children as sitting on the lap of an adult explaining the difficult things of history,” he says. “I don’t go by the age thing. To me, the most wonderful photographs are those of a little child sitting on the lap of an adult with an open book and the adult reading and talking and explaining things of life to the child that come up in the book.”
The message of Infinite Hope emphasizes tenacity in the face of adversity, a point reflected in its title, taken from a quote by Martin Luther King Jr.: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” A hint of that optimism is conveyed in the colorful paintings that bookend the book, which Bryan produced using his sketchbooks as inspiration. “Fifty years ago, those paintings would have been dark—grays and blacks,” he writes. “But in really looking at those sketches now, I saw a beauty there—the beauty of the shared experience.”
These days, Bryan is engaged in his foundation, the Ashley Bryan Center in his hometown in Maine, which maintains his archives and promotes his interest in storytelling. But Bryan is also still writing and illustrating books, continuing his series of titles featuring works by black poets. “I’m working on illustrating Langston Hughes’ poem ‘My People,’ which I chant all the time,” he says. “I’m sort of known by that. ‘The night is beautiful, / So the faces of my people.’”
Mark Athitakis is a frequent contributor to Kirkus and author of The New Midwest.