A Reading Group Guide toInfinite Hope
By Ashley BryanAbout the Book
What was it like to be a nineteen-year-old Black American in World War II? In this vivid memoir, renowned children’s book creator Ashley Bryan takes you with him from New York City to boot camp, Boston, Scotland, and the historic D-Day landing. Through his drawings, paintings, letters, and narrative, you’ll encounter the camaraderie of fellow soldiers, the harsh prejudice of white officers, and the foxholes and death at Omaha Beach. He and other Black soldiers risked their lives for a country that treated them like second-class citizens, segregated even in the military. Art gave Ashley hope through the hard times, hope that’s conveyed through this remarkable illustrated journey.Prereading
1. Before reading the book, discuss the title and subtitle. What do they foreshadow about the story? Look carefully at the cover and its details. What does it tell you about the book’s content and tone? After reading the book, go back and discuss these same features. Do you see anything you missed the first time? How does having finished Ashley’s memoir impact the way you view the title and cover?Discussion Questions
2. What are some of the connections that Ashley made both with fellow army veterans and with outsiders through his artwork? Describe his interactions with children in Boston and why they mattered to him. How did he come to reunite with some of them later in life?
3. Why did an art school tell Ashley that his portfolio was “the best” they had seen, and yet refuse to admit him? What was his reaction, and those of his high school art teachers? How did he get into Cooper Union? What do these facts tell you about the limited opportunities for Black Americans during that time? How can biases like these have long-term effects on later generations?
4. Ashley also repeatedly encountered racial bias in the military. Find different examples of how officers treated Ashley and his fellow soldiers. Were there times when an officer treated Ashley well? Ashley had an opportunity to be trained as an officer, but he turned it down. Discuss why he was given the chance, and why he did not take it. Do you agree with his decision?
5. What is a stevedore
? Discuss Ashley’s assignment operating the winch and what it entailed. Why wasn’t he successful? How did his fellow soldiers help him out, and why did they assist him? Describe some of the other jobs he performed as a soldier.
6. “Blacks in the US Armed Forces served mainly in service units.” What does this sentence mean? Why was it so hard for Blacks in the military to become pilots, for example? Identify the different jobs given to Black soldiers mentioned in the book.
7. When Ashley was encouraging the children in Boston to draw, he wrote, “Hobbies, Hobbies, Give them hobbies now. It will make strong cultured Americans of them.” What does he mean? Name some hobbies besides drawing and how they can help children to become strong and cultured. What does his comment say about his hopes for the children he met?
8. Talk about Ashley’s time in Scotland. Why were the Scottish people such a surprise to Black soldiers from the South? How did officers try to keep Black soldiers from interacting with the Scottish people? Why did some of the officers resent the Scottish friendliness toward the soldiers?
9. Describe D-Day and Ashley’s role in it. What were the dangers that he and his fellow soldiers faced? What were living conditions like? What does he say about how art helped him cope with it all?
10. Ashley explained that he “gave up [his] fear of death” during the D-Day invasion and afterward. “So you think, I live or I die. And get on with it.” Talk about what this statement means, and how it helped him get through the dangerous experience.
11. About his life before being drafted into the military, Ashley said, “While I had experienced prejudice in my lifetime growing up in the north, I had never experienced segregation before.” What is the difference between prejudice and segregation? Describe Ashley’s first experience with segregation in the army and some of his later interactions. Which experience most surprised you? Which do you think you would have been most affected by?
12. What was Ashley’s role in trying to get his fellow soldiers home? Discuss the news item that read, “140 Negro Soldiers were taken off of homebound ships in Le Havre by the Navy because there were no provisions for segregation.” How does the related drawing express Ashley’s emotional reaction to the news?
13. Below that drawing, he wrote, “Race riot after race riot in the midst of a war of liberation when all strength is needed. And me a soldier. But there are the last futile signs of an ignorant opposition. We are on the last laps of a long and weary road.” What did he mean by that? Why were the segregation and prejudice even harder to bear at the end of the war?
14. Discuss the fact that Black military men and women risked their lives during the war for a country that had treated them badly, in a military that treated them as lesser members. What emotional impact did this have on Ashley and the other soldiers? Talk about Black vets who returned home and became “part of the impetus and inspiration for the civil rights movement.” Why do you think they were motivated to continue a different kind of fight on US soil?
15. Many of Ashley’s letters were written to a friend named Eva. What can you tell about their relationship from these letters? What do they have in common? How do you think writing letters may have helped Ashley deal with his experiences?
16. The letters and accompanying narrative are vivid and personal. Find examples of language that evokes sounds as well as sights, and talk about how the writing brings Ashley’s experiences to life for the reader. Find details in his descriptions that are especially effective, and explain why they stand out to you.
17. “Revealing aspects of the mystery of being human is life’s inexhaustible research. Through the adventures of art, we find the meaning of our lives.” Discuss what Ashley means by these sentences, and why he writes them near the end of the book. Then think about your own life. What are other ways in which you can find meaning in your life?
18. Why did Ashley put away his World War II drawings for so many years? What inspired him to return to them? What was his reaction as an artist when he started working with the materials from his past?Extension Activities
1. Honor Their Service.
Blacks have served in the military in all our country’s wars, including the revolution. Do some general research on Black men and women in the military throughout our history, and choose a topic to focus on. For example, the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the Civil War was made up of Black soldiers. Using print and digital resources, prepare a short oral presentation to share with the class.
2. Listening, Looking, and Reading.
With your classmates, listen to the interview with Ashley Bryan on American Public Media’s “The Story” in which he talks about his experiences in the war. The interview touches on many of the topics covered in the book. Compare reading the book with listening to the interview. What do the pictures, photographs, and letters add? What does hearing Bryan’s voice add? (Find the link to the interview at ashleybryancenter.org).
3. Eye-Opening Illustrations.
Choose any double-page spread and study the art and words closely. Is the art made up of drawings, paintings, collage, or all three? What colors and lines does it use? How do the pictures make you feel? What information do they add? How do the visual elements relate to the written word? How are the letters incorporated on the page? Share your thoughts with a partner and compare Infinite Hope
to other memoirs or autobiographies that you’ve read.
4. A Shelf Full of Books.
After your teacher has gathered together some of the dozens of books that Ashley Bryan has written and illustrated, spend time reading them. Most are fairly short picture books. Choose one that you especially like and compare the pictures and text to those in Infinite Hope
. What general age level is each book for? How do you react emotionally to each book? If possible, read one of the picture books to a younger child.
5. Dear Friend.
Imagine what it would be like to receive an illustrated letter from Ashley. Then choose someone in your life and compose such a letter to that person. Write about your daily life, describing parts of it and conveying your emotions. Illustrate it with drawings or with the kind of collage that Ashley uses in Infinite Hope
. Give or send the letter to the person you’ve chosen.
6. You’re in the Army Now. Infinite Hope
is full of words and phrases related to the military and war. Create a glossary of such terms by writing down unfamiliar ones as you read. First try to understand their meaning from the context. If that doesn’t work, look up the word in a dictionary. Here are some possibilities to start:
StevedoreLexile ® 990L https://ashleybryancenter.org Guide written by Kathleen Odean, a youth librarian for seventeen years who chaired the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She now gives all-day workshops on new books for children and teens. She tweets at @kathleenodean.This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit simonandschuster.net or simonandschuster.net/thebookpantry.The Lexile reading level has been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®