Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Remembering Ashley Bryan


The SCBWI, those who create books for children, and children themselves from every corner of the world, are pausing today to reflect on the passing of Ashley Bryan. Ashley, who passed on February 4, was one of the most talented, generous, influential, and extraordinary members of our profession. He was 98.



Ashley grew up in New York, the son of parents who encouraged all their children to pursue their dreams, no matter how difficult the path. As a young child, Ashley began illustrating his little piece of the world, including his pets, his family, and the people passing by on the street. His school teachers encouraged his creative work and urged him, upon graduation, to apply to art schools in order to further his education. The Dean at one school told him he had never seen such a professional portfolio, then went on to say, “We can’t admit you because it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a Black person.” 

Fortunately, with the help of his high school teachers he applied to and was accepted at Cooper Union in New York, which had a color-blind admissions process, based solely on the portfolio.

Three years into his studies, he was drafted into the army, and sent to a segregated unit bound for combat in Europe. Ashley, in his spare time, sketched his fellow soldiers, children in a nearby Boston school, and others he met while briefly stationed in Scotland. The praise he received from those he immortalized helped offset the hurt he often endured from others because of his race.

Black soldiers, which included Ashley’s battalion, were some of the first to come ashore on Omaha Beach in June of 1944, D-Day. In his memoir, Infinite Hope, A Black Artists Journey From World War II to Peace (Caitlin Dlouhy /Atheneum) he describes the absolute horror of that day, in both words and illustrations. Published in 2019, the book is a testament to Ashley Bryan’s fortitude and talent. 

In the years following the war, in addition to pursuing his illustrating and painting, he taught art at New York’s City’s Dalton School, Queens College, and later, Dartmouth. 

In all, he has written and/or illustrated nearly 50 books for children, and is widely recognized as being the first Black creator to both write and illustrate a book for children.

For many years he summered on Islesford, one of the Cranberry Islands off the coast of Maine. In the 1980’s he moved there permanently. Today The Ashley Bryan Center not far from his house features his paintings, his fanciful sculptures of wood and found sea glass, and colorful handmade puppets. The University of Pennsylvania has joined with the Center to preserve Ashley Bryan’s legacy.

On July 13, which would have been his 99th birthday, the Center will host his memorial.

Among his numerous honors are many Coretta Scott King Awards, Laura Ingalls Wilder Awards, the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Newbery Medal Honor for Freedom Over Me. In 2008 the New York Public Library named him a Literary Lion.

In 2010 the SCBWI was proud to award him our Golden Kite for Nonfiction for Words to My Life’s Song (Atheneum). Ashley was a frequent speaker at SCBWI Conferences. His presentations were always highly anticipated events, brimming over with words and song, infused with humor and wisdom. He never failed to bring the crowd to its feet. It was almost like being in church.

He was more than just a pioneer, an artist, and a writer. He was bigger than life. He is missed, but he has left a mark on the world of children’s books that will never be extinguished.