Ashley Bryan’s Puppets: Making Something from Everything
Reviewed by Anne Nydam
By Ashley Bryan, photographs edited by Rich Entel. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014. 80 pages. $19.99/hardcover; $12.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 4–14.Buy on FJ Amazon Store
Ashley Bryan’s Puppets is a book for browsing. It doesn’t tell a story or give instructions. Rather, it is a collection of strange and beautiful characters assembled from found objects, each one accompanied by a poem about the character. The “puppets” (I think I would call them sculptures, as they certainly don’t seem to be designed to perform) are beautifully photographed, with close-ups to highlight particular details. The short poems help bring the characters to life with allusions to their components and thoughtful reflections on the different ways they might experience the world.
But what does this book have to do with Quakerism? Nothing directly, but I can imagine some interesting ways it might be used with First-day school classes. The tone of the entire book celebrates finding new, creative uses for discarded things, and in his author’s note, Bryan explains how he goes about collecting cast-off bits and pieces and assembling them to create art. A short introductory verse states:
These treasures Washed in from the sea, Are cast-off challenges to me, I cannot rest till I create A life that we may celebrate.
This isn’t a book about recycling or cleaning up trash as a painful duty in a depressingly broken world. Rather, it is a celebration of the power of imagination to carry light wherever it goes, finding opportunities in whatever it might encounter. It also emphasizes the joy of sharing that creativity with others. Many of the poems celebrate storytelling, friendship, and peacemaking. This could be a great book to use with a unit on earthcare. Elementary-age children would enjoy looking at the photographs and identifying the components from which the puppets are made. “Where did that come from? Why do you think it was thrown away? What are his eyes? How did Bryan transform that?” Beyond that, the book might have a place in a discussion of simplicity or even community. “The puppets are pretty complicated and detailed, so is there a way in which they demonstrate simplicity? They’re all different, but what are some things they all have in common? How are they complementary?”
This is not a book to be read straight through to a child, but when sampled, shared, and browsed over with children ages 4 to 14, it could inspire thoughtful discussion of some ideas of concern to Quakers and spark many a wonderful art project.