In April, the Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts opened its third exhibition devoted to Ashley Bryan (1923–2022), an African American artist best known as an illustrator and writer of children’s books. After two smaller exhibits that catered largely to an online audience during the pandemic—one featuring mid-1960s protest drawings and another sampling his portrayals of women—the Kislak Center marked the centennial of Bryan’s birth with displays ranging from puppets to cut-paper collages to paintings he made while serving in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II.

Ashley Bryan painting in his studio.
Writer and illustrator Ashley Bryan painting in his studio.

(Image: Monica Fonorow)

A bench in one corner of the Goldstein Family Gallery was piled with well-used copies of a dozen or so picture books: brightly illustrated collections of poetry, African folk tales, Black American spirituals with sheet music geared to a child with a C-recorder, and slim volumes like “My America,” a kaleidoscopic paean to the diversity of U.S. landscapes and citizens.

The exceptionally quiet Goldstein Family Gallery, which lone visitors frequently have all to themselves, is not a space given to people-watching. But it’s easy to imagine that many of those who came to “Beautiful Blackbird: The Creative Spirit of Ashley Bryan”—which ran through July 21—lingered with the picture books longer than they gazed into the richly varied glass display cases. Eight of Bryan’s books won Coretta Scott King Awards. He was honored in 2009 with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for “lasting contributions to children’s literature.” Encountering these color-daubed volumes in a university library registered as a rare treat.

Less rare, however, than it used to be. The Ashley Bryan exhibit, which drew from an archive donated to Penn Libraries in 2019, is emblematic of recent efforts by Penn librarians and the Graduate School of Education (GSE) to expand and diversify the University’s holdings of children’s and young adult literature. Van Pelt-Dietrich Library’s PZ section—the call numbers dedicated to “fiction and juvenile belles lettres”—is on the march.

The Ashley Bryan collection fits into a series of Penn Libraries initiatives that aim to document a more contemporary development in Anglophone children’s and young adult publishing: the fits-and-starts drive to diversify the range of authorial voices and thematic material available to young readers. As a historical phenomenon, this is a 20th-century story whose latest phase is reverberating in the form of school- and library-based book bans and other forms of reactionary backlash.

In 2014, Sibylla Shekerdjiska-Benatova, a senior conservation technician for paper at Penn Libraries who is currently completing a master’s degree at GSE, founded A Book a Day, a nonprofit that works to expand literacy among children in underserved and diverse communities. Her goal was simple: provide a multicultural population with books as varied in theme and authorship as the kids and families who’d be reading them. The organization focused on West Philadelphia students at the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander and Henry C. Lea schools, which serve large numbers of bilingual families. (Both schools also have partnerships with GSE.)

“You have lots of parents at Penn who take out the books that we have in the library, and bring them home and read them to their children,” says Lynne Farrington, the director of programs and curator of special collections. Her team ended up finding a lot of books about grandparents—visiting or receiving visits from faraway ones—and even more about food, an element of cultural heritage famous for sparking emotions ranging from nostalgia to shame in any number of immigrant children.

This story is by Trey Popp. Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.