JULY 13:

  • Happy birthday Marcia Brown (Stone Soup, Once a Mouse…, Shadow).
  • Best birthday wishes to Ernö Rubik, the Hungarian architect who invented the Rubik’s Cube.
  • On a related note, it’s International Puzzle Day. Read The Calder Game by Blue Balliett, illustrated by Brett Helquist, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.
  • It’s National French Fries Day. Read My Mother is a French Fry and Further Proof of my Fuzzed-Up Life by Collen Sydor and French Fries Up Your Nose by Margaret Ragz.

Today marks a very special birthday: the 88th of author and illustrator Ashley Bryan. Born in Harlem and raised in the Bronx, Ashley has lived on an island off the coast of Maine for years. He gets to stay there less than he might like, because he is in so much demand as a speaker. Not only has Ashley created his own work, he has also championed the work of black poets, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Eloise Greenfield. Anyone who has ever heard Ashley perform other poets’ words comes away with an entirely new appreciation for them. When I pick these poets’ books, I often hear Ashley’s voice. I am sure there are hundreds of readers of the Almanac who have had the same experience.

A few years ago, Ashley published his life story in Words to My Life’s Song. Growing up in the Bronx during the Depression, he always drew and painted. A World War II veteran who landed on Omaha Beach, Ashley ultimately received a degree from two art schools, Cooper Union and Columbia. After teaching in New York at Queens College and the Dalton School, he headed to New England and became Chair of the art department at Dartmouth. In the sixties he began to work with Jean Karl of Atheneum on a series of books. Karl was famous in the industry for her great taste and highly effective management skills. She never touched any paper more than once and dealt immediately with all manuscripts that fell on her desk.

Ashley initially produced books based on African legends or African-American songs, such as The Ox of the Wonderful Horns and Other African Tales, Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals, and Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum. While he built up his own canon, he toured throughout the United States, presenting the literature of black writers to thousands of listeners.

In the almost forty-one years that I have been associated with children’s books, I have heard only adoring comments about Ashley Bryan. His reputation in the industry says everything about his character. A true believer, he has worked with passion and devotion to promote the creative work of African Americans. Ashley ends Words to My Life’s Song with this sentence: “This is my story. Whether it be bitter or whether it be sweet, take some of it elsewhere and let the rest come back to me.” What I hope will come back to Ashley today, on his birthday, will be lots of love letters, like this one, to him from his many admirers and fans.

Here’s a page from Words to My Life’s Song:


Originally posted July 13, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: 20th Century, African American, Art, Award Winning, History, Multicultural
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Words to My Life’s Song


  1. suzi w. says:

    Anita, you have just made this grumpy librarian grin. I have made every effort to see Ashley Bryan live and have been able to do so at least three times. (Is it possible he came to my class in Library School?). The way he champions African American poets and has folks recite poetry with him every time he speaks is only one facet of the way this wonderful sprite of a man…well, he just exudes happiness in his being.

    One time, I went to an event that was really not at all for public librarians, it was more a literacy event for teachers and I think I was the only public librarian there, but it was worth every awkward moment at lunch for the time spent listening first to Ashley Bryan coax us into poetry and then to do what he does best.

    Thank you.

  2. G.Perry says:

    When an ATC controller asks a pilot to squawk a certain number, he means the pilot is to dial a certain number into a box called a transponder on his instrument panel, and then push a button. When the pilot does that, a flash of light goes off on the controller’s screen which helps identify that aircraft.

    I just wish I could find all these special souls like Ashley Bryan, on a radar screen.

    Happy Birthday Ashley!

  3. McCourt says:

    I heard Ashley Bryan for the first time last summer. He was so fabulous! Despite being an avid reader, I would not have characterized myself as a lover of poetry. However, after listening to his joyful interpretations, I began searching out poetry to enjoy and share with my kids. He definitely lit a spark, and I am so grateful. Have a grand birthday Mr. Bryan!

  4. T. Olthouse says:

    Mr. Bryans life and work is such an inspiration for so many. I am so thankful to join in on celebrating his life!

  5. susie for ashley says:

    Thank you Pat K for bringing this site to my attention and to Anita for the site. I will print this all out for Ashley to enjoy. And thanks to all who left such wonderful comments. Susie, who does Ashley’s email for him.

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