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
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.
Filed under: Book Discussion
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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