Saturday, June 6, 2020

Unwavering Faith

Many, many years ago a professional teller of tales said that stories choose us.  At the time sitting there in that seminar, I was remembering the most recent story I read and learned to tell my students.  Given my situation then, her words rang true.

Today, June 6, 2020, is the 76th anniversary of Allied troops landing on the beaches of Normandy in France.  It is called D-Day.  On this day, my dad was serving in the Army of the United States as a sergeant in the infantry.  He was a part of the Aleutian Islands Campaign being stationed on the islands of Adak and Attu.   (He was inducted on October 24, 1941 and discharged on October 16, 1945.)  His stories of this time were few.  All I have are his Honorable Discharge paper, dog tags, medals, patches, buttons and ribbons and an album of photographs.

For this reason, I sent out this tweet in May of 2019.

I knew the experiences of this beloved author and illustrator would be vastly different from the experiences of my father during their service in World War II.  When the book arrived at my home shortly after its release date, it was placed in publication order on my stack.  I did not read it then, but I did this Wednesday, June 3, 2020.  It chose me.  It said now is the time.  In a single sitting, not pausing for anything but once, I read Infinite Hope: A Black Artist's Journey from World War II to Peace (A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book, Atheneum Books For Young Readers, October 15, 2019) written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan.  My single pause was to stand up at the dining room table where I was reading this book, now on page 4, and say aloud, "I wish you were alive Dad."  I know my father, a student of history, would want to talk with me about this book. I know it would open a door for discussions about World War II and his beliefs about race and racism.

From Student To Draftee
A Victory mural. That was what I, along with other art students, was busy painting when the notice arrived.  I was nineteen, into my third year at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City.  The notice was from the United States Army, stating that I was being drafted---drafted into the army.

In six chapters, author Ashley Bryan recounts in vivid detail with original artwork, letters, historical memorabilia, maps and photographs amid a captivating and compelling narrative about the battles in which he served during the war as a soldier and those he faced as a Black man then and now.  He begins with an overview of the political state of the world and his understanding of it.  His first shock is the segregation of Black soldiers and white soldiers at the induction center in New York City.  He has known prejudice, but not segregation.

Fortunately for Ashley he is assigned to training at a northern camp.  He is part of the 502nd Port Battalion, one of four companies of all Black servicemen in Company C.  After basic training he is given the rank of tech sergeant and 4th class winch operator.  As a longshoreman, his team will load and unload supplies from ships and freight trains. Ashley is an artist, not having the slightest idea what a winch is or how to operate one.  While in Boston, he and his fellow servicemen are housed in a schoolhouse.  Here on guard duty, Ashley befriends children, teaching them art in his spare time.

At their new location closer to the harbor, even when offered the opportunity to attend Officer Candidate School, Ashley declines.  He wants to stay with his friends.  When he explains why, our understanding of racism and discrimination deepens.  As his team of comrades work at the docks, it becomes apparent Ashley is not always able to concentrate.  Many times they will let him draw.  By now Ashley has drawings numbering over two hundred.  He sends them home to his parents before he and his company are shipped overseas to Glasgow, Scotland.

There Black soldiers are welcomed equally.  This does not please the officers who impose restrictions on the Black soldiers only, but regardless here Ashley is able to do something extraordinary due to his desire to pursue his passion for art.  He has to persist, but he succeeds.  His victory is cheered by his fellow soldiers.  After only a few months, the 502nd Port Battalion is headed to France on June 2, 1944.

The following portions are riveting and horrifying.  It is a description, day by day, unlike anything you've ever read before.  It speaks to the actions and tasks on June 6, 1944 and the following dates, the stages of the landing at Omaha Beach and the grim number of losses.  It is an intimate portrait of survival well into the autumn of 1944.

From guarding German prisoners of war, to relocating in Rouen, France, we like Ashley wonder when he can go home.  He is surrounded by the devastating loss of everything, life, landscape, food, shelter, and architecture, and the persistence of discrimination.  When Ashley speaks to readers about how he works to get the men in his detail home and how long he has to wait, it is heartbreaking and infuriating.  All the art Ashley has made has been sent home.  He stores it, unseen for decades.  He continues his studies of art becoming an icon in the children's literature community.  The closing pages of this book reveal what we've known all along.  Ashley Bryan is a man of extreme talent with a heart full of grace for humanity.

As we read the recollections of Ashley Bryan and the letters he wrote to Eva, we are presented with a doorway into his world.  When we walk through this doorway, we, through his meticulous observations, are able to view the manner in which he has lived.  We move from moments to months as waves of various emotions wash over us, as varied as the circumstances which Ashley Bryan reveals to us.  Here are several of many passages I have marked.

The sky, the sunlight---they enclosed us all equally.  But the United States's policy of segregation---dominant in the southern states, and now, I was to learn, in the US military---separated white people from Black people.  While I had experienced prejudice in my lifetime growing up in the north, I had never experienced segregation before.  And now, as a Black soldier, I found myself facing unequal treatment in a war that Blacks hoped would lead our nation closer to its professed goal of equal treatment for all.

What gave me faith and direction was my art.  In my knapsack, in my gas mask, I kept paper, pens, and pencils.  I would draw whenever there was free time, intervals in work.  I refused to sleep.  I had to draw.  It was the only way to keep my humanity.

The open and matching dust jacket and book case are the readers' introduction to the art process Ashley Bryan uses in this book.  It's an engaging blend of line drawings, photographs, and vibrant colored artwork.  The initial two-word title text is varnished.  The secondary title and all the page numbers are written by Ashley Bryan's own hand.  To the left, on the back, placed over a blue-line drawing on cream of a camp with Quonset huts and soldiers is a full-color painting of a single, seated soldier.

On the opening and closing endpapers is a glorious display of one of Ashley Bryan's floral paintings made on his island home.  This two-page image is also used, much lighter, as a canvas for the title page.  With each page turn we are presented with a collage of memories made visible through artwork and saved historical items.  There are newspaper clippings, a notebook from The Cooper Union, posters and the actual handwritten letters to Eva which are transcribed in smaller blue ink paragraphs and captions.  In the gutter on some of the pages are the spiral wires and holes like you would see in a notebook.

Each carefully placed element enhances the narrative, framing the words in a fluid harmony.  We walk through Ashley Bryan's history within these pages.  It is an honor.

One of my many, many favorite images is on page 33.  It is done in green paint, I believe.  It is a drawing of a man, a soldier, on his side resting.  Perhaps it is in sleep that we are the most vulnerable, our true selves.

This book, Infinite Hope: A Black Artist's Journey from World War II to Peace written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan, will linger in your mind for the rest of your life.  It is a book after the first reading, you will pick up again, reading certain portions, if not the entire title.  I can't imagine a United States history class without this book being required.  It is an impetus for a multitude of discussions.  At the close of the book is a section titled A Note About The Children, Expressing Gratitude, and an index.  This book is the recipient of several honors, the most recent being the 2020 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Award Winner.  This book comes with my highest recommendation to be placed in your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about the esteemed Ashley Bryan and his other work, please follow the link attached to his name.  At the publisher's website you can view interior images as well as listen to an excerpt from the audiobook.  This title is highlighted in a post at Publishers Weekly. This book is featured by author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson at her site, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  This book is showcased by Nick Patton at PicturebookingTravis Jonker and John Schumacher featured it as one of their Top 20 Book of 2019.  I hope you will take a few moments to watch the publisher's book trailer.

I encourage you to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the titles chosen this week by participants in the 2020 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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