Students and faculty gathered at Van Pelt Library Thursday Night to celebrate the release of artist and storyteller Ashley Bryan's World War II picture book memoir “Infinite Hope” and Penn Libraries' acquisition of his archives.
Bryan is a renowned author who has published more than 50 children's books focused on African culture and black American experiences. At the event, he shared illustrations and pieces of writing he produced during his time in the segregated United States Army, following the timeline presented in “Infinite Hope.” Many of the original sketches and correspondence used in the memoir are now part of the Ashley Bryan archive at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, along with manuscripts and illustrations from his previous children’s books and various other works.
Bryan said he created the picture book memoir to visually communicate the realities of war to readers of all ages.
"It was important to me that the smallest child would get something for him or herself of what war means through the book," Bryan said.
Bryan also talked about the discrimination he faced in his segregated unit in World War II, which he said was treated as inferior within the U.S. Army.
“When we got on a bus, we always had to go to the back of the bus, but the German prisoners were sitting up front and they would laugh as we walked by them," Bryan said.
The acquisition of the collection comes as part of a larger Penn Libraries initiative to diversify collections and expand research opportunities, Kislak Center Senior Curator Lynne Farrington said.
“Collections like this can speak to a lot of communities at Penn and will provide research possibilities, exhibit possibilities so that all students feel there’s something that speaks to them, something that they can investigate in their own research," Farrington said.
Created in 2013, the Ashley Bryan Center works to preserve and share Bryan's work and promote opportunities for people to celebrate visual artworks and literature. Dan Lief, one of the directors of the Ashley Bryan Center, said they visited universities, libraries, and museums on the East Coast, but the decision to send the collection to Penn was unanimous.
“We are very proud to see an exhibit of Ashley’s right next door to Benjamin Franklin’s desk," Lief said.
As an author of children books, Farrington said the Bryan collection brings greater genre diversity to Penn’s special collections.
“Children’s literature speaks to us not just as children, but as adults as well, so collecting this material for research allows us to better understand the importance of children’s literature,” Farrington said.
First-year Education master's student Jen Cautilli said she especially appreciated learning about the publication process of the memoir.
“I think especially for people that are interested in art or writing or children’s literature, just seeing the process that goes into [publication] will be beneficial,” said Cautilli, who attended the event as part of a class on children’s literature.
In February, a small exhibit featuring Bryan’s works will open on the sixth floor on Van Pelt entitled "Remarkable Figures: Women and the Art of Ashley Bryan," to coincide with Black History Month and Women’s History Month. Farrington said the Kislak Center hopes to expand the exhibit in the near future.
“I’m so happy that [the collection] could come here and be referenced later through the years, because it’s such a carefully kept archive,” Bryan said.
Correction: A previous version of the article misspelled Ashley Bryan's last name in the headline. The DP regrets this error.