I’m reading a beautiful picture book today that I picked up from the library: Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace, an autobiography by Ashley Bryan, Renowned Artist, Storyteller, Writer.
It’s a memoir, but it’s also a beautiful multimedia layout with photographs, sketches, paintings, letters, journal entries. The pages feel very open and layered — the layout design is gorgeous.
Ashley Bryan was an art student at Cooper Union in New York when he was drafted. He was assigned to an all-black company (the US Army was segregated) as a stevedore– the first time in his life he experienced segregation. He did basic training at Camp Myles Standish in Taunton, MA and then was assigned to a billet in South Boston where he worked at the docks. He was then in stationed in Glasgow, where he got permission to enroll in art school. He landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, lived on the beach in a foxhole, unloading ships. And then eventually was assigned to guard prisoners of war in Le Havre and then moved to Rouen before finally making his way back to the States.
Through it all he carried paper, sketchbook, pens and pencils in his gas mask case. He says that drawing is the only thing that gets him through the war, his lifeline. He sent packets of sketches home every chance he got so they wouldn’t be lost.
But when he came home he put those drawings away in a cabinet and didn’t look at them or talk about the war for forty years. Most of his acquaintances didn’t even know he was a veteran. But then he became a successful artist and children’s book illustrator. And he was involved in this project about the war and mentioned his sketchbooks– no one even knew he was a vet. So he dug them out and they used some of his sketches.
Then finally, fifty years later, he returns to those sketches and begins to paint from them, new, vibrant, colorful pictures that celebrate the lives of the men he served with that borrow colors and energy from the paintings of flowers that he’d been doing in his artist’s retreat on a small island off the coast of Maine. So the subtitle, about a journey to peace… it could be read as about the course of the war. But the book’s story doesn’t end with the end of the war. It ends with the creation of the paintings and of the book. So I think the peace he finds is an inner peace, the ability to finally tell his story and make new paintings from those old sketches. I love that the book ends with these beautiful, colorful paintings of soldiers playing cards and relaxing.
One of my favorite story arcs in the book: he was stationed in Boston loading ships before he was sent to Scotland. He befriended a bunch of local kids who he met when he was on guard duty and taught them to draw on his days off and bought them art supplies and they brought him fruit and candy. And when they were putting together the book one of the people working on his sketches tracked down some of those “kids” so he got to meet a couple of them again and renew their acquaintance. He’d totally lost track of them during his three years overseas.
All these letters in the book were sent to one classmate from art school, a woman named Eva, and they really unify the book. There’s no explanation of who she is in the book itself, but I found a bit more information in an article I found via Google. I assumed she was maybe a sister or a cousin.
He writes about the horror of war and the horror of segregation. The contrast between the way Black soldiers were treated by the Scots and Belgians that they met and the way they were treated by the US army. That in part it was the experience of how differently they were treated by the Europeans that helped to fuel the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement.
It’s such a good book to read and share with the kids. I highly recommend it. One of the best WWII memoirs for kids that I’ve read.
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