Blogger Suzi Wackerbarth

Ashley Bryan: wonder, artist, author

Have you ever been somewhere with Ashley Bryan? He started every presentation by first saying, “My name is Ashley Bryan” and then recites “My People” by Langston Hughes:

“The night is beautiful, so the faces of my people!”

He continues, practically shouting:

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

How do you write about Ashley Bryan, a man who won so many awards, who was bigger than life? I throw up my hands and say, “all I can do is try.” (This is my second try, and doubtless I shall try again.) After correspondence with the publisher regarding my first post about Mr. Bryan, I now have two striking books in my possession, gifted to me generously by Alazar Press. They are: Black American Spirituals Volumes 1 & 2: Walk Together Children, and I’m Going to Sing. Ashley, as I’ll refer to him from now on, as if I know him, compiled and illustrated these collections because I dare say he was scandalized that no such collections existed. Spirituals are the first among many important African-American art forms, and one of the most accessible, if you trust your vocal chords and pitch. Ashley traveled the world and found folk song collections in every nation but his own. So, like every book he made since his handmade ABC book in kindergarten, he made a book of spirituals. Well, two.

Ashley Bryan signed this page, "Singing the Spirituals! Peace Love Joy, Ashley Bryan, April 2012
I'm Going to Sing, Walk Together Children (two books by Ashley Bryan)

I’m Going to Sing and Walk Together Children. Photographs by Suzi Wackerbarth

The publishers, Joseph and Rosemarie Gulla have written some of the text you read. Welcome them, warmly, ALSC blog readers, they are lovely people.

First published in 1974 and 1982,

the new editions came about because the original publisher allowed the books to go out of print. Ashley asked for his rights back and then assigned them to us, Alazar Press, so we could devise new editions. We published these editions with significant changes in cover images, corrected error in the originals and added new narrative materials. We traveled extensively to promote the books with Ashley.

Both books in their first editions won awards, the first title winning Ashley an ALA Notable Book Award, and the second a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.

The prints in the books are linotypes, produced by hand, and the illustrations in each book took more than three years to produce.

A linotype illustration, black on ivory, a street scene of Black children and adults.
Illustration by Ashley Bryan. Photograph by Suzi Wackerbarth.

From Alazar Press:

Ashley often used his recorder to demonstrate the spirituals. He encouraged children to do the same. He also encouraged teachers to copy book pages so the students could use crayons to add color.

He used the recorder because it is a common first musical instrument in schools. That makes sense. But can you imagine? An award-winning illustrator telling a you flat out, it’s okay to make photocopies of my book, and oh sure, let the children color the pages! Ashley was not about his art being “precious,” instead, he was all about it being used and shared. His love for children was so evident in everything he did. This is evident in his art, but also visible in so many YouTube videos you can find online, including this tribute video. I love the first images you see, Ashley in his home in Maine, hugging a girl as she went onto the “school boat.”

Oh, were we talking about books? Yes! People loved the new editions. For instance, Amy Kellman, a children’s literature consultant, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, wrote,

The Spirituals remind us that life is hard but hope is always there, a message that children need and adults should cherish.

We are, each one of us, touched by ones who we have worked with. I have only seen Ashley in person three times, and the second and third times were not happenstance. I would have gone to see him more in person had I the opportunity. Writing these blog posts and being able to quote the woman who gave me the words finally when I sought to become a librarian, (thank you, Amy), well, it might bring a tear to this blogger’s eye. (Enough!)

I always have to ask someone to help me with conclusions. You don’t know it, but I would keep writing this past the deadline if I could. So thanks to Mary Voors for offering me this simple piece of advice: ask your readers a question. And so I do.

Do you have a favorite Ashley Bryan book? A favorite spiritual? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


This post addresses ALSC competency IV. Collection Knowledge and Management.

4 comments

  1. Nancy Robinette

    Love being introduced to this writer and artist. Thank you Suzi

    1. Suzi Wackerbarth

      you are very welcome!

  2. Michele

    I did a graduate project in Children’s Literature and was introduced to Ashley Bryan through his work Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace. Such history!

    1. Suzi Wackerbarth

      I am looking forward to sinking my teeth into that book, just put a hold on it today!

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