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In 'Freedom Over Me,' Ashley Bryan wanted children to identify with slaves

Simon & Schuster

Ashley Bryan, the storyteller, poet and illustrator who was passionate about educating children about African and African American culture, died Friday at the age of 98, according to the Ashley Bryan Center in coastal Maine.

Bryan was an award-winning author and illustrator known for his children's books. One of Bryan's books, "Freedom Over Me," was based on documents he bought at auction in Northeast Harbor that listed the names and prices of 11 slaves in 1828.

Bryan said that he created paintings for each of the slaves and that he imagined their lives and what their dreams would have been were they not slaves. "Freedom Over Me" brought their lives and dreams to life.

"When I was 8 years old, I was given as a birthday gift to Miss Fairchilds. I never knew my mother and father. We children worked in the fields like grown-ups," a young boy named John says in an excerpt from the book.

Bryan said that he wrote "Freedom Over Me" because he thought children should learn at a young age about slavery with a caring adult by their side who could answer their questions. Bryan wanted children to see themselves in the slave children in his story, to understand that they were like them and only different because of the circumstances they were born into.

Bryan illustrated some 50 books with vibrant collages and paper-cut illustrations in a career spanning more than 60 years. He won multiple Coretta Scott King Awards, among others, for his books and illustrations.

Bryan summered and then retired on Little Cranberry Island off the coast of Maine. He died at his niece's home in Texas. A memorial service for Bryan will be held on Little Cranberry Island on July 13, his birthday.