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2008 African American Read-In: Special Guest

photo of Ashley Bryan

The 2008 DCCCD African American Read-In will highlight the written and visual artistry of illustrator, poet and storyteller Ashley Bryan, who will read, perform and engage the audience with poetry, African-American spirituals that children should know and lively African folk tales. The production, directed by Monique Ridge-Williams and written by read-in founder Carla Ranger, is titled “Read, Believe, Achieve!” It encourages students of all ages to read, believe and learn about historic personalities who overcame great odds to achieve.

This year’s featured guest just won the 2008 Coretta Scott King Book Award in illustration for “Let It Shine” and was named a 2008 NAACP Image Award winner; he will receive that award during a special ceremony in mid-February.

Bryan has written and/or illustrated a number of award-winning children’s books, including “The Ox of the Wonderful Horns and Other African Folktales”; “The Dancing Granny”; “Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum”; “The Cat’s Purr”; “Beautiful Blackbird”; and others. Bryan, who has been writing and illustrating children’s books for more than 30 years, has lectured widely and appeared at schools and colleges across the country. He has been a May Hill Arbuthnot lecturer and the recipient of numerous other awards, including a previous King Award for “Beat the Drum-Story, Pum-Pum.” He lives in Islesford, Maine, one of the Cranberry Islands off the coast of Mount Desert Island, where his paintings of island flowers are shown and sold at a local gallery.

Bryan, who grew up during the Great Depression and whose father’s love of birds led to a collection of more than 100 birds that lived in their Bronx apartments, was surrounded by music and art as he grew up. His parents enrolled him in free art and music lessons provided by the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s, a program which created jobs for the unemployed. He began making his own books in elementary school, starting with illustrated ABC and counting books. “I was the author, illustrator, binder and distributor,” recalls Bryan. “… That feeling for the homemade book is at the heart of my bookmaking today.”

He adds, “Reading aloud from the poems of African-American poets has greatly influenced the prose of my stories. Their poems inspire the vocal play that I carry into my retelling of the African tales. Whenever I do programs, I always read first from the African-American poets. This prepares my audience for my emphasis on the sound of the voice in the printed word as I read my retelling of the African tales … and I always close my programs with black American spirituals.”

Bryan says, “There is a poem by the Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor in which he unites childhood to Eden, present to past, and life to death with the line ‘a tender bridge connects them.’ That lovely phrase stays with me as I retell and illustrate African stories.”