Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Infinite Hope by Ashley Bryan, or How I Failed to Evaluate a Masterpiece for the Newbery

This is how I read Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace

First, I read only the larger font, current day recollections of Ashley’s: from 1941 to 1945, from New York to Normandy and Ruen, from an art student, to draftee, to solider, to survivor of the devastation that is War, and to the accomplished and much celebrated artist with a bright outlook on life. The text is unadorned, detailing a Black soldier’s first hand experiences in the highly segregated, inequitable U.S. Army. The inequitable scenarios are described without many emotionally charged phrasing. On how the Black soldiers in his Company were “sent home” months after the war was over,

Segregation came into play once more. Ships departing for the United States took the white companies home first. Only if there was an empty space free might one or two Black soldiers be allowed on those first departing boats… And so it went, week by week, month by month, small groups of one or two or perhaps three made their way home — not to a reception as a unit, but in staggered, small groups without any fanfare, without recognition. (p. 82)

Readers have the task to read the emotional toll into such straightforward text.

Ashley also documents the important lifeline that is the opportunity to continue expressing himself through artistic creations. The memoir ends on a peaceful and hopeful tone — but the long hidden pang from his War experiences is no longer obscured.

Then, I went back to read through the correspondence and notes from the time he was in the army. Here the raw emotions leap out to me, loud and mournful, poetic and original, leaving me physically tense and often sorrowful with rage. I also took more time upon this second reading to closely examine the artwork and archival documents. Each piece makes the personal tale more alive and tangible. One of the accompanying letter to Eva on September 28, 1945 states – almost as verses in a poem:

That is now Eva.
The company is divided up.
After the years together. The close friendships. We wont go home. together. Best friends are separated. on paper.
They started leaving.
We watched them leave
watched them go
gone.

How would the Newbery Committee evaluate this title? All of the words are from Ashley, even if some of them are from more than 70 years ago – without editorialization. The text is clearly of two very different styles as I pointed out earlier. Does one consider only the larger font, current day recollection and treat the other as side-bars or even part of the illustration? Or, does one consider heavily the more immediate representation of his experiences in those primary sources from the past? Judging from the font sizes — it seems that we need to do the former — but, I feel that the texts from the past are the actual substance of the personal narrative. Both must be considered side-by-side: simultaneously or synchronistically. This is a book that demands re-reading and re-examination.

The third time reading must consist of considering the entire package. The primary sources of the sketches, postcards, letters, and other documents can only be discussed if they detract from the text — which they definitely do not. But how could one not consider the colorful renderings of Ashley’s wartime sketches? They echo stained glass art and resonates with the deeply affecting reading experience, much like sitting inside a church on a sunlit day: somber, reflective, and in awe of Ashley’s sense of “Infinite Hope.”

I can’t wait to share this book with my students who love to read World War II nonfiction so they could have a formerly less known perspective about the War. I’m also thinking of all sorts of ways that classroom teachers (history, English, art) could incorporate this title in their lessons.

But would I be able to convince fellow Newbery committee members that this is the most deserving and most distinguished book for children of 2019? (I think so — but how does one argue that when the components are so intertwined and some of them are not conveyed purely with text?)

I urge Heavy Medal readers to seek out this book, read it, and share your views on how would one evaluate this title for the Newbery. I am definitely nominating it in our December nomination round, even though I know it might be an uphill battle to convince others why this deserves a Newbery Gold.

Share
Roxanne Hsu Feldman About Roxanne Hsu Feldman

Roxanne Hsu Feldman is the Middle School (4th to 8th grade) Librarian at the Dalton School in New York City. She served on the 2002 and 2013 Newbery Committees. Roxanne was also a member of 2008-2009 Notable Books for Children, 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults, and the 2017 Odyssey Award Committees. In 2016 Roxanne was one of the three judges for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. You can reach her at at roxannefeldman@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Ashley is a national treasure and his books are clean,clear truth. What else is the medal for ?

  2. This review says a lot about this book. I have been sharing it every since I got it. I used it to help inform me of my father’s experiences serving in WWII since my father never really talked about his experience. This seems particularly common for WWII veterans. Having Ashley’s experience in mind has helped me think and talk about “A Real Whole Lot: A WWII Soldier’s Love Letters to His Wife” more fully.

  3. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Wow, this is a tough one, for the reasons Roxanne points out. The letters from his army time are by the author, but from 70+ years ago. And they do add to the impact of the book; and of course so do the illustrations (both the 70+ years ago sketches and the more recent paintings). Though it doesn’t convey the whole story on its own, the main text is very effective.

    With the D-Day section, for example, he gives a clear background of the historical situation; adds details from a soldier’s point of view (“the searing buzz of the Luftwaffe as they flew overhead like mechanical locusts” (60)); highlights elements of discrimination (the removal of dead Black soldiers so they wouldn’t show in newsreels (50)); shares his personal, emotional reaction to the “terrifying” situation (“So you think , I live or I die. And get on with it.” (60)); and weaves in the role of art in his life which runs through the whole book (“the harder it was to draw, the more important it was to do it” (61).

  4. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    In Newbery terms, the book is similar in some ways to ANTHEM, where the news clips and other material add visual impact and textual content to the prose of the author. It’s also interesting to compare the book to ENEMY CHILD, which is a very good personal story of the Japanese Internment. It’s a more conventional, straightforward format, but for me it didn’t have the same level of immediacy or emotional impact of INFINITE HOPE. But it’s hard to pinpoint how much of that impact in HOPE comes from the visual content and/or the letters from the past…

  5. Nat Fenton says:

    Ashley Bryan’s writings and artwork in INFINITE HOPE are the definition of the word “distinguished” as defined in the TERMS of the Newbery Medal. The TERMS also direct that The only limitation as to the character of the book is that it be the author’s original work i.e. text created by the author and no one else, and text that has not been published previously. I hope that this book will be held up in the future of what the best of a Newbery Medal winner should be. It’s a wonderful and moving book from one of the greatest of the Greatest Generation.

  6. I haven’t read this one yet (though I wish to do so soon!), but I don’t see why the earlier letters shouldn’t count as text for the purposes of the Newbery. We shouldn’t take into account the length of the process of creation. If Ashley Bryan had started writing this book 70 years ago, any material that he happened to create in the early stages of the process would definitely still be part of the text. Does it matter that he wasn’t intending to publish his letters in a book like this when he wrote them?

    • It’s a very short read — so as long as you can find the book, it will take anyone just one sitting (reading it through once or even a couple of times) to finish it. Alison, you raised a good question, “Does it matter that he wasn’t intending to publish his letters” in a book for children? The award is meant for the most distinguished contribution in children’s literature: so if the author didn’t intend to write for children, should the Committee reward him/her/them with such distinction? The current text is where the “intended for children” comes in — and does that part stand alone to warrant the Newbery, if we’re keeping the definition super narrow?

  7. Steven Engelfried Steven Engelfried says:

    Sticking just to the current text, I also think the last section expands and heightens the themes of the book. He moves from the immediacy of the WW2 experience to some brief highlights of his growth as an artist. But those highlights are directly related to the wartime experiences. The description of how he discovered that “swift, rhythmic sketching” (89) could be used as a source for painting, and that all of his work comes from “the rhythm of the hand” sets the stage for finally going back to those war drawings. He ties it in neatly with words:
    “I think of the men who were in the unit with me – I had such respect for what they could do, things I was so inept at. I remember their generosity toward me. I can never give them more than they gave me, so I would paint them in full color, filled with the vibrancy and life I had put into my garden paintings. I was ready.”‘ (94)

Speak Your Mind

*