There is an popular saying that you can’t make something out of nothing. You can, however, make something out of everything, and this is just what author/illustrator/poet/artist Ashley Bryan has put on display with his newest book, Ashley Bryan’s Puppets. In 33 poems with accompanying photographs by Ken Hannon, edited by Rich Entel, Bryan introduces readers to his hand made puppets, crafted out debris such as shells, sea glass and fishing nets. Each puppet has a unique name, appearance and story, inspired by African folklore.
I have loved Ashley Bryan’s books for a long time. I was fortunate enough to see some of his artwork in person at a New York Public Library exhibition earlier in the year, and it was luminous. The work on display here is a completely different kind of art. Bryan has fashioned his puppets, sometimes beautiful, sometimes strange and unfamiliar, from detritus found while strolling on the beach. Natural elements like bones, shells and peach pits are matched with bedposts, buttons and fabric. Bryan’s poems bring life with the inanimate objects. There is “Nkosi – Ruler,” “Kitaka – Good Farmer” and husband and wife team “Serwaa – Jewel” and “Zawdie – Chosen Leader.” These poems are sometimes funny (like that of “Ewunike – Fragrant,” whose hair was made from a toilet brush) and sometimes sweet (like “Osaze – Whom God Loves”).
This book has been in my library for less than a month, but it has already garnered much attention. I The puppets are so detailed, and there is always so much to look at and discover that even the pre-literate can enjoy this book on their own. Longer than a traditional picture book, this is not exactly bedtime reading, but more of a book that would be poured over in different ways and different times. The poems can be read individually, or as one, in clusters or front-to-back and back-to-front. On the final page, the author reveals a riddle held within the pages: hidden puppets, and puppets waiting for the reader to create a poem just for them. This last element of surprise gives readers and listeners a chance to interact directly with the book.
With this book, Ashley Bryan is directly bringing African culture to the forefront, using names from across the continent and from the Yoruba and the Ma-Shona people. Backmatter reveals the geographical origin of each specific name and directs readers towards a resource to choose names for their own creations. Bryan plays with familiar characters like Anansi the Spider (“I’m Spider Anansi./ I spin without rest/ A close web of stories/ For cradle and nest.”) and the wise owl (“When poised and full/ I relive the music and wisdom/ Of winged lines,/ A feast of poems/ I’ve memorized.”), and introduces a numbers of new faces, as it were. The poem for one puppet, “Andito – The Great One,” references the African American spiritual, “Dem Bones,” proclaiming, “Oh! Hear the Word.” But the upcycled nature of the puppets reveals something of the Bryan’s own background, reusing discarded items during the Depression.
Ashley Bryan’s Puppets received three starred reviews when it was released this year. Kirkus Review calls it “A stunning work of creative genius sure to captivate the young and lend pure delight to beachcombers of any age.” School Library Journal called it a “captivating and beautifully designed book.”
Thankfully for all readers, everywhere, Ashley Bryan is nicely prolific, and has numbers of beautiful books on the shelves. From Coretta Scott King Award winner Let it Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals to The Ox and His Wonderful Horns and Other African Folktales to Bryan’s autiobiographical picture book Words to My Life’s Song, Bryan fans have plenty to entertain them. Readers interested in more African folktales can look to books like The Iroko-Man: A Yoruba Folktale by Phyllis Gershator, illustrated by Holly C. Kim, Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky by Elphinstone Dayrell, illustrated by Blair Lent or even everyone’s favorite eight-legged trickster in Anansi and the Moss Covered Rock by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Janet Stevens.
Bryan shows no sign of slowing down in his advancing age, and I for one couldn’t be happier.
Bryan, Ashley. Ashley Bryan’s Puppets. Photographs by Ken Hannon. Photographs edited by Rich Entel. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014. ISBN: 9781442487284