Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 15, 2010

What I’m Reading: Words to my Life’s Song by Ashley Bryan

March in Massachusetts can be glum, but it’s impossible not smile while reading this book, which recently won the Golden Kite Award for nonfiction from SCBWI . It’s sort of a memoir of joy, with even the title page a rainbow of yellow, blue, orange, and yellow stripes. The elegant design puts some older black and white photos in the background, with Bill McGuinness’s gorgeous and bright photos popping out. We begin with Ashley standing on his beloved Little Cranberry Island in Maine.

The brilliant pictures of Ashley’s varied art, his thirty-four books for children, and his homes illustrate this short version of his life, which emphasizes art and faith. Vivid color came into his life early on, with his mother nurturing flowers in their Bronx walk-up and his father keeping birds. Both of his parents came from Antigua, and many years later, they died there. That island was important to Ashley, too, but not as much as Little Cranberry Island in Maine, which he first visited as a teenager and which, after leaving a teaching position at Dartmouth in the late 1980s, became his full-time home. Many wonderful pictures show the beaches where he collects wave-smoothed stones and beach glass.

His mother sang at home and the family sang at church. Music remains an important part of his life. Before illustrating some African folktales, whose translations first seemed too flat on the page, he read aloud poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and others, letting the rhythms get into his bones, so that his words would convey the sense of stories being spoken.

Ashley’s father was a printer, which meant he got to bring home spare paper, which Ashley used for artwork his parents praised. He made his first book when he was five. Poetry and art were encouraged at his school, too. Memorizing and reciting poems started his lifelong sense of poetry as performance. He grew up during the Depression, and he, like many, found uses for what was cast-off. He and his father made kites from scavenged paper. He found fabric-sample books discarded by upholstery stores and drew patterns for quilts and vests his sisters made from scraps. Using what was found also marks the art he made as an adult. He illustrated Beautiful Blackbird with cut paper. We see pictures of the stained glass windows he made from sea glass and papier mache, and puppets he put together from driftwood, shells, and whatever was washed ashore.

Few people have taken the raw materials of life and turned them into so much vibrant beauty. I’m going to come back to this book again on the next gray-skied day. And you can get a sweet taste of his spirit by clicking on this link to a short video, (which I’m sorry I couldn’t get to embed:

For a roundup of Nonfiction Monday posts, see



  1. That looks marvelous!

  2. There really is something to smile at on every page. Amazing.

  3. HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY!!! So happy for you! Off to order your book! 🙂

  4. Thank you SO much, Kimberley!

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