Ashley Bryan's Words to My Life's Song made me catch my breath with its flat-out beauty. Not only because it is lavishly illustrated with Bryan's own art, although this certainly adds to the stun factor. But Words is the kind of lovingly designed book where everything, from the photography to the illustration to the layout and even the creative use of typeface, feels meticulously crafted and gorgeously inviting. It seems like the book's text is not so much being illustrated as it is being enveloped in the visual. Bryan has been a presence in the field of children's book illustration for many years now, but somehow I had never before appreciated the full impact of his body of work. It is now clear to me that Bryan's contribution to children's book illustration can stand alongside the best artists in that field. This is a book I want in my own library so I can read it over and over, and absorb its spirit on a regular basis.
Words to My Life's Song describes Bryan's artistic education and influences, beginning from an early age. We learn that he "published" his first books in kindergarten as part of a class project ("I got hugs, kisses and applause from family and friends for these books. The teacher called these 'rave reviews'..."). His parents encouraged his artistic interests, brought home paper for him, and sent him to free community art classes. As an adult he attended the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, and later, drafted into the U.S. army and sent to work the dockyards in Glasgow, he attended Glasgow School of Art part-time. After the war he completed his art studies at Cooper Union, then, troubled by his war experiences, sought answers doing a philosophy degree at Columbia University. Still later he studied landscape painting and fresco in Maine, then spent several years in France and Germany learning languages at University and developing his painting on his own.
His introduction to the publishing world came in 1962, when an editor at Atheneum books visited his studio in the Bronx and was impressed by the books Bryan had illustrated as art projects, and especially by the variety of styles at his disposal. And lucky for us that she made that visit, since Bryan has been illustrating and writing for Atheneum pretty much non-stop ever since, to our great benefit.
There is a sense of graciousness in Bryan's telling of his life's story. Incidents which in another person might have inspired bitterness, such as poverty or racism, are acknowleged but not dwelt on. Instead, Bryan's life story is filled with a sense of good fortune, generosity, and joy in creation. One of my favourite children's book blogs, Seven Impossible Things, asks the authors and illustrators they interview which three people they would most like to share a glass of rich red wine with, if they had anyone alive to pick from. If I were asked that question, Ashley Bryan would be my first pick, easy.