Renowned children’s author/artist Ashley Bryan is 88. He’s also my neighbor, well sort of, it’s a half-hour boat ride from the town dock behind my house in Southwest Harbor to his home on Little Cranberry Island. We’ve been friends for more than 25 years, and he’s always at the top of my list of people to visit when I’m in Maine every July.
Today Ashley and I had a wonderful visit by phone. “I’ve got lifelines, not deadlines, for upcoming books,” he told me. “I didn’t get to paint in the garden till late August this summer.”
“That’s just wrong,” I said. Ashley’s made the best use of Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug slogan, “Just say no.” That’s what the sign says taped to the dial-up phone near his studio, so he won’t spontaneously agree to go to the ends of the earth to tell stories, entertain kids, recite poetry and read from his award-winning books.
The creator of more than 34 children’s books, dozens of puppets made from found beach items, hundreds of gorgeous paintings, and thousands of toasted cheese sandwiches, a few years ago after much prodding from his editor and friends, Ashley finally wrote his picture book autobiography, “Ashley Bryan: Words to my Life’s Song.”
“Wait till you hear this amazing story,” Ashley said today. After presenting at a recent conference in Boston, two women came up to him whom he hadn’t seen in 70 years. Drafted into the military at 19 from Cooper Union School of Art, Ashley was sent to work in the Boston shipyards as a stevedore in 1943. Ashley drew everything around him, including two 12-year-old girls who years later turned into 82-year-old women and wanted to see him.
Ashley got through World War II “with his drawing pad and his gas mask.” That’s how he survived Normandy. That’s how he kept his sanity, he says.
“You know veterans don’t like to speak about their experiences,” he reminded me today. “They’re all bottled up.” Ashley first talked publicly about being an artist/soldier at a Children’s Literature New England conference on war and peace. (That must have been before his sign because he wasn’t able to say no).
In the late ’90s I took my U.S. history class to Little Cranberry Island when we were studying WWII. It was a magnificent island blue Maine day in early June. Tears rolled down all of our faces by the time Ashley finished his true story. I could see that it had taken its emotional toll on him, yet he became the pied piper as we followed him down the road to catch the ferry. Ashley played his recorder. We all sang “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands.”
“The world is falling apart,” Ashley said today. Yet I felt great after I got off the phone with him. Nothing stops him: “I’m going to Kenya in January!” He’s the epitome of someone who sees life’s tough realities and the beauty that’s still there. Yeah, pass that lifeline, Ashley, you’re the most remarkable human being I know.