They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a picture doesn’t tell the whole story.
Photos from the 2008 New York Public Library Lions Benefit show Islesford author and illustrator Ashley Bryan, one of the night’s honorees, standing alongside literary heavyweights Salman Rushdie, Edward Albee and Nora Ephron, all with gold medals around their necks. But Bryan said the medal was just for the photo op, not to wear at dinner.
“They kept taking it back,” Bryan laughed.
The medal has made its way safely to Bryan’s Islesford home, where it hangs around the neck of a puppet. Bryan slips it on for visiting friends who want photos of him with it.
Though the pictures provided by the library show a carefully crafted photo-op, the honor Bryan received on November 3 was very real. Being honored at the Library Lions benefit is a lifetime achievement award from the New York Public Library, one of the bastions of American literary culture.
“The individuals we are honoring this year embody the highest level of accomplishment in their respective fields,” said Library President Paul LeClerc. “We are proud to recognize them as Library Lions for their groundbreaking artistry and for their noble commitment to a life of ideas, inventiveness, exploration, and thought.”
Bryan praised the November 3 event, saying it was somehow able to be both a friendly and regal affair. The $25,000-a-table fundraiser had its own designer and a red carpet that the authors used for their long, applause-filled stroll to receive their awards.
“It would be like a fashion show,” Bryan said.
Through Bryan was among the honored at the event, he said the real honoree that night was the New York Public Library. The event raised more than $2.5 million in direct contributions and included a surprise announcement from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that a friend of Bloomberg’s would donate $100 million.
“It gives you another renewal of faith,” Bryan said.
Bryan said the event was especially moving because it captured the spirit of Brooke Russell Astor, the longtime honorary library chairman and a leading philanthropist who died in 2007. Astor is credited with helping the library rise out of financial ruin in the 1980’s to become an intellectual jewel of the city.
The night also featured short videos of each author describing the importance libraries had on their lives. Bryan, who grew up in New York City, first became drawn to a career in art by attending free classes funded through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression.
Later, he drew on the city library’s voluminous African art resources for his early illustrations. He began his professional career by trying to breathe life back into archived African folktales found in the library’s collections.
Bryan has since become one of the most celebrated children’s book authors and illustrators of his era. He has focused on helping children and adults realize the cultural contributions of African-Americans to all aspects of literature and art.
For example, when he discovered that there was no book of African-American spirituals for children, he edited and illustrated All Night, All Day: A Child’s First Book of African-American Spirituals. The songbook includes many songs that usually are referred to only as traditional American folksongs, but are more accurately American slave songs.
Because of his work, Bryan is no stranger to award ceremonies. He has won numerous awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award multiple times, most recently for his 2007 book, Let it Shine.
A longtime Islesford resident, he said that while his neighbors are discreet about his literary fame, they can’t resist showering him with congratulations. He tries to deflect the praise back to them for their own daily heroics.
“They made a big deal [about the award] here. I try to tell them they are the big deal,” Bryan said. “There’s no one superior to another.”
Despite the plaques and medals he’s won over the years, Bryan holds the recognition he received for his first book most dear, an ABC book he made in grade school. When he took his book home and showed it to his parents, they hugged and kissed him. “That was an award that can never be matched,” he said.
To young artists and writers who are dreaming of a life of literary fame, Bryan advises basking in the glow of creation and the praise of loved ones rather than waiting for a medal.
“You must get your awards right now,” Bryan said.