Ashley Bryan: Stories for the Spirit

Ashley Bryan is a man who uses his words and pictures to lift up readers' spirits. When he enters a room and starts to tell stories from Africa's past, he transports his audience to a faraway, long ago time to learn valuable lessons for today. His talents illuminate wisdom earned from a lifetime of hard work.

New York Wonderland

Raised by a strong African-American family if not a rich one, Ashley was born in New York City on July 13, 1923. His father worked printing greeting cards, and his immediate family included three cousins who had been orphaned.

Not having a lot of money, the Bryan children made their own fun—including toys. Among many other projects, Ashley remembers creating airplane models out of tissue paper. New York City was an amazing place for the young boy to explore, and exploring didn't require a lot of money. In those long ago days of the 1920s and 1930s, the city felt very safe. He would travel to the Botanical Garden and the Natural History Museum. All those wonders could fill a child's mind.

In an interview for American Visions (December-January, 1997), he said, "New York City was a different world. There were no fears….It was the time of the Work Projects Administration; there were artists and musicians in the schools. We all drew, painted, played instruments."

The Lord's Deliverance

Ashley worked to develop his talents in art as a teenager, and he wanted to attend the famous Cooper Union Art School. But when he needed a scholarship, he was told that it would be a waste to give it to "a colored man." But Ashley Bryan did not give up.

"Is that going to stop me?" he remembered thinking. "Did my Lord deliver Daniel, and why not every man?" he said, reciting the words to a spiritual. Through the years he would illustrate several collections of spirituals for young children, sharing with them the strength he had found.*

He went on to graduate from Cooper Union and earn a philosophy degree from Columbia. He won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship and went on to chair Dartmouth College's art department. In between, he served in the Second World War, and he never lost contact with his love of drawing. According to a note on, even in the army in France he continued to sketch, keeping his drawing paper dry under his helmet.*

For some, just teaching at a top college would have been plenty and enough fulfillment. But as Ashley revisited collections of African folktales, supposedly written for kids, he found they were missing the kind of captivating writing and evocative illustration that would bring them to life for young readers. He set about to create storybooks based on African folktales that would be enriched by his words and illustrations. His first book, The Ox of the Wonderful Horns and Other African Folktales, was published in 1971.

Enchanted Evenings

Although Ashley Bryan has not retired from writing, drawing, and storytelling, he has found a peaceful place to dwell. On Little Cranberry Isle, off the coast of Maine, there is a cottage filled with toys. Among the toys are puppets, amazing puppets the author has created to use in his storytelling performances. His back porch is lined with stained glass panels he has created from the beach glass that he finds on his daily walks by the ocean. 

A Place for the Next Generation of Artists to Learn and Grow

In 2013, The Ashley Bryan Center was founded with the mission "to preserve celebrate, and share broadly artist Ashley Bryan’s work and his joy of discovery, invention, learning and community. The Ashley Bryan Center will promote opportunities for people to come together in the creation and appreciation of visual art, literature, music, and the oral and written traditions of poetry. The Center is fiercely committed to fostering cultural understanding and personal pride through scholarship, exhibitions and opportunity in the Arts." 


Cover to Sail Away, poems by Langston Hughes with illustrations by Ashley BryanHis books have won many honors. Beat the Story Drum, Pum-Pum won the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. Lion and the Ostrich Chicks was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. His West Indian folk tale The Cat's Purr and his collections of Black American spirituals, Walk Together Children and I'm Going To Sing, were ALA Notable Children's Books. In 1990 he received the Arbuthnot Prize, a prestigious international award given to recognize lifetime achievement in children's literature.

His most recent books include Ashley Bryan's Puppets: Making Something from Everything and Sail Away, which has his glowing images with Langston Hughes' poetry about the sea.

Click here for a complete list of his books that may be reserved at Central Rappahannock Regional Library.

More about Ashley Bryan on the Web

The Ashley Bryan Center
Their Read, Watch, Listen section has interviews with Mr. Bryan, and you will also find a timeline and a short biography.

Ashley Bryan WebCast
You can hear Ashley tell stories from his books online. This WebCast was recorded at the 2002 National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

LibraryPoint Research: Ashley Bryan
Use your CRRL library card to read, print, or save articles on Ashley Bryan from Biography in Context (articles from reference works), eLibrary (magazine articles), and Literature Resource Center (interviews, reviews, and more).

Wagging the Tail Right Off the Page
This terrific article from the Washington Post focuses on the author's storytelling