Ashley Bryan, children’s author who told stories of Black life in America, dies

Ashley Bryan discusses his book "Freedom Over Me" at the Portland Public Library in Maine.
(Portland Press Herald via Getty)

Ashley Bryan, a prolific and prize-winning children’s author and illustrator who told stories of Black life, culture and folklore in such acclaimed works as “Freedom Over Me,” “Beautiful Blackbird” and “Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum,” has died at 98.

The longtime Maine resident died peacefully Friday in Texas, where he had been staying with relatives, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing announced.

“An early, quiet and potent force in bringing children of color and issues of racial diversity into the canon of children’s literature, he was committed to opening the eyes of children of all backgrounds to a wide range of themes through poetry, folktales, spirituals and biblical narratives,” the publisher’s statement said.


Bryan was a Harlem native who showed an early talent for drawing and, for a time, was the only Black student at the art school at Cooper Union in Manhattan. He served in a segregated military unit for two years during World World II, an experience he recounted in his memoir “Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey From World War II to Peace,” and resumed his art studies after the war.

Bryan worked on more than 70 books and received numerous honors, including Coretta Scott King Awards — given for the year’s best work by a Black author or illustrator — for the folktales “Beautiful Blackbird” and “Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum.” He also received two lifetime achievement prizes: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award (now known as the Children’s Literature Legacy Award) and the Virginia Hamilton award.

Survivors include his brother Ernest, according to Simon & Schuster.

“I am deeply saddened to learn of Ashley’s passing,” Maine Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement Saturday. “He was a wonderful, happy man with a deep, rich history, a great imagination and a beautiful, childlike soul. I am so thankful I was able to spend time with him last year. Over our lunch, he spontaneously recited Langston Hughes, Shakespeare’s love sonnets and other wonderful verses.”

Mills had proclaimed July 13, 2020, as Ashley Frederick Bryan Day in Maine to mark Bryan’s 97th birthday.

Bryan also taught art, including at Dartmouth College from 1974 to 1988, before moving to Maine.

During World War II, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and fought in Europe, hiding drawing materials in his gas mask so he could sketch his fellow soldiers, the Bangor Daily News reported. He was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, at Omaha Beach in June 1944.


After the war, Bryan continued with his studies in Europe. He credited sketches he made of musicians at a festival in France with “opening his hand” and giving him a lasting style and approach, the Daily News reported.

“I knew if I could find the rhythm of whatever I was experiencing, that I could do all of my work and know who I am, keep trying to get to that core of who I am,” Bryan said in a 2014 interview. “And it didn’t matter if I was doing a painting, if I was doing a puppet, a sea glass panel, doing a book — all of it is trying to tap that inner mystery of who I am.”