On February 4, 2022, beloved children’s picture book creator, artist, poet, and literary legend Ashley Bryan died. He was 98 years old. Since the late 1980s, he lived in the other corner of the country, on Little Cranberry Island in Maine. He wrote and illustrated over 50 books, many of them award and honor recipients, like his Coretta Scott King Honor books. Authors, illustrators, librarians, teachers, and readers have shared an outpouring of love and memories of this great man.
Inspired by a document appraising the value of 11 enslaved people (along with livestock and cotton) in an estate for sale in the antebellum South, this exceptional book presents the imagined faces and voices of individuals whose society, against all reason, regarded them as less than human. Each person appears in a four-page section, opening with a page of free-verse text opposite a riveting head-and-shoulders portrait with a grim collage background of slavery-related documents. A banner reveals the person’s appraised value, master-imposed slave name, and age. In the text, these individuals introduce themselves, their roles on the estate, and the skills (cooking, blacksmithing, sewing) they take pride in. On the second doublepage spread, a verse text offers more personal reflections on their African roots, their love of family, and their dreams, while a more detailed, colorful painting expresses their heritage, their strength, and their rich inner lives. Their humanity shines through, showing the tragedy of their status and the gross absurdity of assigning prices to people. Longing for freedom is a constant theme, made all the more poignant by the appraisal document’s date: 1828, decades before emancipation. Clean and spare, the verse brings the characters to life, while in the radiant artwork, their spirits soar. Rooted in history, this powerful, imaginative book honors those who endured slavery in America.
— Carolyn Phelan, Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
I Am Loved written by Nikki Giovanni, edited and illustrated by Ashley Bryan
A legendary pair presents a volume of verse worth remembering. Bryan’s recognizably vibrant, colorful, and moving illustrations accompany a selection of Giovanni’s poems (both new and previously published). The electric blue, sunny yellow, warm brown, bright purple, etc., of the front-cover illustration set the upbeat tone that Bryan maintains throughout (even in “A Song of a Blackbird,” a poem about death). While the topics range from dance to self-reflection to nature to friendship, each illustration affirms the beauty and worth of black and brown children. Several poems recall slavery and the civil rights movement, providing a historical source of strength and courage for contemporary readers. One poem, “I Am a Mirror,” is told from the first-person perspective of the mylar mirror attached to the facing page. The speaker travels back generationally, beginning with “I reflect the grace / Of my mother…” and going back to the great-grandfather and the ancestors, taking an attribute from each generation that results in a strong individual. The presentation can be viewed as an almost literal interpretation of Rudine Sims Bishop’s concept of a mirror book. An awe-inspiring compilation of poetry and art that will bring readers back again and again.
— The Horn Book Magazine