When I saw the bulletin announcing Ashley Bryan’s passing on Feb. 4 at 98, I was alone in my office. Wanting to connect with someone who would understand the magnitude of the loss, I texted a friend, “Ashley. [Teary face emoji]Then I recited Langston Hughes’ poem “My People” to myself and imagined the children’s literature community recite it with me.

Ashley Bryan will be remembered for many things: his fine art, performed with power in a variety of mediums; his dolls, many made from driftwood that washed up on the shores of Little Cranberry Island in Maine, where he made his home; his children’s books, more than fifty that he illustrated, wrote or both; his passion for bringing African and African American stories and songs to children. I think I will remember him best as a lover of poetry and a deep belief in its power to forge connections.

Anyone lucky enough to see Ashley’s speech remember the way he drew an entire room into a poem. “Stuff!” he would proclaim. “Stuff!” his audience would chorus back to him. “By Eloise Greenfield!” he would add. “At Eloise Greenfield,” his audience repeated. Line by line, he led his audience through this story of a kid who buys candy at the corner store and builds a sandcastle on the beach only to realize, “I don’t have it anymore.” But: “Went to the kitchen / lay down on the floor / made me a poem / still get it / still get it.” It didn’t matter if he was in a church basement full of writhing preschoolers or a banquet hall full of librarians – the invitation was unreservedly submitted and accepted in kind.

He had a repertoire that became familiar to those of us who gathered to celebrate children’s literature: Greenfield’s “Things”, of course, but also several of Hughes’s, including “I, too, sing AmericaTo dream,” and always,”my people† It occurred to me more than once to marvel at how the shared recitation of Hughes’ celebration of Black beauty welcomed a multiracial audience into the beloved community. That was Ashley’s magic.

In quieter, more private moments, he talked about learning German through the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke while on Fulbright in Europe in the 1950s, sharing excerpts in both languages. One evening he stopped by my family on his way from a conference we were both attending in Vermont as he made his long way back home to Downeast Maine, a storm that prevented the ferry from sailing. He and my husband tossed lines of a Robert Hayden poem back and forth until they got it right.

Ashley Bryan gave us 98 years of beauty, joy and community. The world is a colder place without him, but those of us he put together with poetry have memories to keep us warm.

Vicky Smith is director of access services at the Portland Public Library in Maine and a former young reader editor at Kirkus