Transcript from an interview with Ashley Bryan

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Ashley Bryan. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Ashley Bryan

Books as gifts

I grew up in New York City, born in Harlem, raised in the Bronx. In, kindergarten, we made our first books. As we named the alphabet, we did pictures for each letter and when we reached the letter Z, the teacher gave us construction paper. We sewed the pages together and she said, "You just published an alphabet book. You're the author, the illustrator, the binder. Take it home, you're the distributor as well." Now, when I brought that book home I got so much praise for it, I could hardly wait to go back to kindergarten and publish more books. When we learned numbers we did pictures for each number, sewed it together, and had a numbers book. We learned to spell words: boy, cat, hat, block; then sewed it together with our word book.

I continued making books from kindergarten on. I've never stopped. All through the years I made books as gifts, as presents for family and friends. I continued that into college, taking a course in book illustration as well. It had always been a part of my life as an artist, drawing and painting and making little books as gifts.

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A homemade library

During the Depression years there wasn't extra money for buying books. But my brother, sister and I went to the library and we took out the library books and then with empty orange crates, we would set our books on those crates and pretend it was our home library. So we always had books in the home. That continued later as well. That's what I tell the children, wherever I go, I say, "I know you go to the public library, you go to your school library, but are you building your own home library?" I emphasize that books in the home are very valuable and an important thing through life.

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A part of being human

There's no question about the arts as a part of being human and being a whole person. It's unfortunate when they begin cutting programs in the arts because they're essential if you're going to create a citizenry that you can be comfortable with, who will be contributors to a society. I think that should never be on a budget where you say, "Now we cannot afford this program," because you'll pay much more later when you've cut those programs out. Many children find their way of carrying all their responsibilities through being gifted in one form of the arts or another. They use that form and that strength they gain from it to carry every other area of study that they're involved in.

To take that out and to have a child floundering with no sense of achievement in any area of what it is to study and to learn and to grow, is very unfortunate.

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Color barriers

I was always drawing and painting and when I was in high school I decided that since that was I was always doing, that it was my passionate interest, that I would pursue that as a career. In high school I'd always been encouraged all through the years by teachers. I grew up in the Bronx in New York with the Irish, the Italian, the Polish, and a large Jewish community. I was always encouraged by my teachers; all my teachers have been white through high school. I graduated high school with a portfolio to make the rounds of the art schools for a scholarship, because with the number of children in our family, you could not go further without a scholarship.

I applied for a scholarship from one of the leading art institutes in New York City and was told this is the best portfolio we have seen but it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person. I went back to the high school and they said, "Look Ashley, you've graduated in January. Take a post graduate course. Do any work you like with us and develop your portfolio even further. In the summer take the exam for the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering. They do not see you there."

I took that exam in 1940 and it was in three parts. You did a drawing exercise, an exercise in sculpture, and an exercise in architecture. You put your responses on the tray and set it on the great hall of the Cooper Union with your name and address. On the basis of that the selection for admission was made and I was fortunate to be one of the small group that was admitted to the Cooper Union. The Cooper Union continues as tuition-free to this day. If you get past whatever their requirements are, you have your undergraduate tuition covered in the fields of art, and engineering as well.

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Hearing the voice

If I meet with elementary school children, I will start right off giving varieties of demands for the voice that the words on the page will ask.

At a certain point I will take a poem that I've read very slowly and quietly and compare it to a poem that's read very forcefully, with a rich, vigorous voice, and I'll read it with that quiet, slow, concerned voice. The students immediately see that you may be a good reader but the poet is not asking for that voice. I try to demonstrate right off the importance of listening for the sound of the voice in the printed word because then the words are speaking to you. When words are speaking to you, you are actively engaged and then you get meaning. But when you are pronouncing, as many children will be doing, when asked at the end of the sentence, "What have you read?" They'll say, "What do you mean? I said every word."

They've said every word, but they have not listened. They have not heard the sound of the voice in the printed word. That is my major emphasis wherever I go. Listen for the sound of the voice in the printed word. Now I speak of it to my young ones almost literally. My middle pre-schoolers, when I've finished a program with them, they'll often come up and take the books from which I've been reading and put it to their ear to see if they can hear it, because they listened for the sound of the voice in the printed word. But these are little four- and five-year-olds are hearing it literally.

It's a virtual sense in which we are readers and create as we read. But it is active in every reader. It is one of the most creative things you can do — to read — because you engage the mind when you read. You create the scene, you create the instant, you create the action, everything about it is being created. That's why I've always said a child who at any time of the day sits with a book reading, you don't have to worry about all the technology of the world today. They can be involved in everything of it but if they will spend any time with a book, engaging the mind actively in that way, creating a world out of those words, you don't have to worry about them. It's those who have turned the book aside, who have nothing to do with books anymore, those are the ones we have to work with and try to bring into it.

I always have felt that if I can associate the excitement of the voice with the book that will bring them into becoming readers.

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Retelling folktales

I'm working with African folktales and these come from an oral tradition. I'm working from documents of stories which were taken down by linguists, anthropologists, missionaries, who wanted to get written alphabets of these hundreds of tribal languages, which were not written languages. Yet story was a very vital part of the life and day. Now those linguists and anthropologists wanted to get written alphabets, to create a dictionary of those languages. They generally would ask for stories. But the stories, when told by the informant, was very often summarized. It was like a précis of the motif. They did very valuable work in documenting the story motifs but very rarely was it told in a way that when it entered the book, you felt the richness of the oral tradition.

I work from these documents. I work from the Shawnberg Library in Harlem in New York City, 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. It's a research library. People have come from all over the world to use those resources. Today with the Internet and all of that they don't have to leave anywhere, they can tap into those resources from home. They have the works that are long out of print from the 1800's and early 1900's, and these are the sources that I work from. I go to the Shawnberg Library, I copy out these documents of stories when there are stories that interest me. Then I become the storyteller. What can I do with stories that were in the oral tradition and it's going to be in a book?

How can I bring something of the feeling of the oral tradition into my writing? Ah, through poetry. I use the devices of poetry in my prose. In reading any of my stories you're going to hear the rhyme, the rhythm, the syncopation; you'll find onomatopoeia, the playing with sounds, all of the devices of poetry work closely in my prose.

What often a prose writer will avoid because they would want you to read more fluently, more directly, I am seizing upon and using in the way I write my stories. I would like my reader to feel while reading the story even silently, that he or she can hear the storyteller, you see. By using those devices of poetry, I open that up quite directly.

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The all-white world of children's books

My work has been to open up contributions of the black peoples to the audience as a whole, because that at one point was closed. There was the time in 1965 when Nancy Larrack wrote her essay, the "All-White World of Children's Books". That shook up the field, in 1965. Jean Carl came to me earlier in the '60s and I was working with her before that article came out. When that article came out, a group of people got together, black and white, and they formed the Coretta Scott King Award.

That award was formed to recognize the very few Blacks who were in the field at the time and to encourage publishers to open up to a recognition of what it meant to be United States. United States means people from all over the world — the only indigenous Americans are the Native Americans — everyone else has come from another country. They've all fed into the culture of the United States. It was very restrictive and limited. When Blacks opened the door, it's opened to everyone. The Native American came through, people from Poland came through, people from China, people from parts of India, from Japan, from the different countries of Africa, all began to enter the field of young people's books so that today you have a variety of backgrounds for a child to relate to.

Not only to his or her own, but to other children and other people that really make up the world and the work in that area is very rich today. You have people from all these backgrounds who are doing significant work. The artwork is so, so beautiful that you can develop your esthetic response to art through picture books.

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Let It Shine

For this book Let It Shine, I chose three of the most popular spirituals. "This Little Light of Mine, I'm Going to Let it Shine", "When the Saints Go Marching In", and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands". Now this is my sixth selection from the body of spirituals — the spirituals because slaves were not permitted to learn to read or write. These songs are extraordinary. Their instruments were taken from them, they worked from dark of the day to the dark of the night. But they had this freedom of the mind which was a gift. They had to be expressive in some way, to offer something creative of their lives. And they created this song called spirituals, you see.

These songs are now loved and sung throughout the world. I have always wanted to get them out in ways in which I can do the pictures to them. I've always felt that the incredible gift of language to a people who were not permitted to learn to read or write and they could create songs based on what they heard of biblical stories and of their own experiences and create a music that has just taken hold of people wherever. Our concert singers have taken those songs throughout the world. When I studied in France and in Germany, the students sang spirituals. They knew them well. In our country somehow they're often called traditional or American folk tunes. They've entered the hymnals of all denominations.

But when you turn to the back of the book to find the song, "Let us Break Bread Together on our Knees," it says: traditional, American folk tune. You still don't know that it comes from black slaves. Wherever I travel in the United States I ask the children, "Anyone here know a black American spiritual? American folk tune, you know a black American folk song?" No hands will go up. But then if I sing, "He's got the whole world," they sing me down. "This little light of mine," they sing me down. They know the songs. They are not taught historically so they do not know. Many adults love and sing them and are surprised when I say, "Oh, that's a spiritual." "Let us break bread together — oh, we sing that at communion in our church. That's a spiritual?" They're surprised.

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Hen and frog come to life!

I sometimes will choose a story that has a pattern that's well known. In one of my stories in my book, Ashley Bryan's African Tales, Uh-Huh, there's a story of a hen and frog. They meet and it begins in this way and you're going to hear the poetry now…

(Bryan recites lines from his book, Ashley Bryan's African Tales, Uh-Huh and explains)

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"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl