"If the children ask, 'What color is God?'..."

"...You can choose whatever color you want. That's why I illustrated the hands here all colors."
--Ashley Bryan, speaking today about an illustration in his book, All Things Bright And Beautiful.

I'm in Los Angeles, California, at the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators' Conference. And to be quite frank, the main reason I knew I had to come was because one of my favorite illustrators of all time, Ashley Bryan, 87, would be here.
I remember when his book, Let It Shine, came out a couple of years ago. I checked it out from the library, along with the enormous stack of picture books I usually check out (how I've missed this ritual in Malaysia!) and one afternoon I opened it to read while my nearly one-year-old baby, Oscar, napped in my lap.

It's a book of three African American Spirituals, all songs I, myself, regularly sang in church growing up. And Ashley's art opened something inside me up that first time I read it -- just like a real, spiritual hymn does, when it's sung from the heart. I remember crying there on the spot, sitting in our rocking storytime chair, cradling my precious little Oscar. I read the book over and over, several times in a row. And I sang the songs the pictures illustrate. Thinking about that moment now, I'm reminded of one of my favorite poems, by the 14th century poet, Hafiz, Dropping Keys.

Dropping Keys
by Hafiz

The small man
Builds cages for everyone

While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the

To me it felt, and still feels, that Ashley Bryan's illustrations in that book are like the keys. They unlock and open something beautiful inside.

So that brings us back to today. Today also gifted me with a bit of magic. I spent an hour listening to Ashley Bryan talk about creating art. Eyes can tell you so much about a person. Ashley has the kind of eyes that dance. They are alive. (It might be my new biggest dream -- should I be so lucky -- to have my eyes do the same thing when I'm his age).

And his words, too, have the sort of spark that's contagious. By the end of the hour session, every person in that room looked more alive, fired-up, and ready to find and share the best of who they are.
Here's a few quotes (perhaps I should say they are as close to the real quote as possible, I tried as best as I could, but I might have missed the exact way he said them a bit):

"The Artist is not a special kind of person. Every person is a special kind of artist."

"Everyone of us is writing to pull something real and true out of ourselves and give it to the world."

"Whenever we start something new, it's good to affirm who we are within, that's why I start with reciting a poem."

"African American spirituals came from people who worked from the break of daylight to nightfall. But they still created. They found a way."

"My editor wanted me to get something written down about my life. So we talked about it. And in that conversation, she asked me, 'How did you persist through all the obstacles, in your life and somehow still manage to do what you do?' and, well, I answered, 'Isn't that the very story of life?' And isn't it? That's what we do as people -- we work to overcome obstacles. Life's about not giving up when you face challenges but plowing through those challenges. It's everyone's story."
Two more things I learned during the session. First, the xerox photos of scissors on the end-pages in Ashley's books are of his mother's embroidery/crochet scissors and his mother's dress-making scissors. He uses those two pairs of scissors to cut out every collage in his books. His mom never let him play with them as a child, but now he plays with them everyday. I LOVE this. So many artists use razors for cut-paper work. I'm with Ashley. I use a scissors. Scissors are a perfect thing.

Second, Ashley said he always carries around his recorder. As in the instrument. Because he never knows when it will be time to play some music. So he played for us. So fun.

I did take pictures from the session, but unfortunately I didn't bring my camera cord so I can't download them! I'll add them later. *UPDATE*: added them! Sorry it took so long.

Tomorrow Ashley will give the ending keynote address for the conference. You can bet that the last poem of the conference hasn't been recited yet.