Law professor and journalist Kevin Noble Maillard makes his debut as children’s author with Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, a picture book celebrating Native culture and history through the tradition of baking and eating fry bread. A member of the Mekusukey band of the Seminole Nation, the author draws on his own childhood memories and current practice of making and eating this time-honored food, which began as a means of survival and has become a symbol of the resilience and endurance of Native peoples in America. Due from Roaring Brook on October 22, Fry Bread is illustrated by Pura Belpré Award winner and Caldecott Honoree Juana Martinez-Neal, whose portrayal of a jovial contemporary family, in concert with Maillard’s evocative verse, bridges the traditional and modern and highlights both the bonds and diversity among Native peoples. PW spoke with the author and the illustrator about the making of their book.
Kevin, what initially sparked your interest in writing a picture book?
When my oldest child was born in 2012, I wanted to buy a diverse selection of books for him. We are a multiracial family, blending African, Native American, and Asian heritages, and I began looking for children’s books that reflected that. But I had a difficult time finding them. Most books on Native culture were either about Pocahontas or Thanksgiving and there were virtually no stories featuring Native children in everyday situations—like a story about a girl and her cat or about playing outdoors on a snowy day. And so I decided to write my own.
Why did you gravitate toward fry bread as the focus?
Making fry bread was an important part of my childhood, since this tradition is so central to Native families. My mother is from the Seminole nation, Oklahoma, and I grew up making fry bread with my aunts, who made it all the time. My mother didn’t make fry bread, so after the elderly aunts died there was no one to make it. And I thought to myself, “This tradition is going to die out in our family unless someone carries it on,” so I decided to take the reins and began making fry bread—which is quite a laborious process, taking five to six hours.
What is the historical significance of fry bread?
It started off as survival food. In contrast to the amicable relations taught at school and celebrated in American homes every Thanksgiving, the vast majority of relations between Indian nations and the American government have been marked by war, genocide, and conflict. When the government removed Native people from their ancestral lands—originally everyone in my tribe was from Florida and was forced to move to Oklahoma—government representatives would come in with commodities like flour, sugar, salt, and yeast. People had to make do with what little they had, and from these simple ingredients they made fry bread. It was a food that had its beginnings due to deprivation and the absence of food they were used to. And now fry bread has become a food central to the lives of most Native families—and something very celebratory.
Once you decided to write about fry bread, did the story come easily to you?
Not right away. I started by writing a rhythm-y board book that I could read to my kids at bedtime, and after Connie Hsu at Roaring Brook saw my very cute but horrible first draft, she suggested I write in a more lyrical, abstract style. I followed her advice and, after many edits, Fry Bread came to be.
Juana, what was it about Kevin’s manuscript that appealed to you as an illustrator?
The very first thing that appealed to me was that it was sent to me by Connie Hsu! I had met Connie in 2012, when she was at Little, Brown, and I liked her immediately. I’d been hoping to work with her since then, but it took a number of years for her to find what she thought was the right manuscript for me.
Did you agree with Connie’s assessment that Fry Bread was right for you?
Once I read the manuscript there was no doubt in my mind that I must work on this book—I loved it! I am from Peru, where we face a similar dilemma as Native Americans do about identity, and what it means. In Peru, we too deal with stereotyping. By default, when people hear I am from Peru, they immediately assume I live in the Andes, wear traditional clothing, and have a llama. Well, growing up in Peru, I lived near the ocean, didn’t have a llama, and never even saw Machu Pichu until I was much older.
And, as in the U.S., native Peruvians have many different appearances. There are people who emigrated from many places, including Eastern Europe, China, and other areas in Asia. At the same time, there are Indigenous people who are often mistreated and disrespected. I was not raised that way—in fact, both my dad and grandfather were artists who painted Indigenous people from Peru. Even though I am not Native American, I related emotionally to Fry Bread very deeply.
What inspired your depiction of Fry Bread’s diverse characters?
I had seen pictures of Kevin’s family, and was very interested in the multiple layers of his heritage. He is Native American and also black, which to me was fantastic. As I did my research, I discovered that this is a heritage that is not common—and is definitely not often seen in books. I wanted to include this in the illustrations, to honor Kevin and his family. And as I started drawing, I found myself thinking I needed another character—and then another and another—to tell the story, until the book had a huge cast of family members with a range of skin tones and hair types. So, when it came time to paint the pictures. It was an endless amount of work!
Kevin, what was your initial reaction to Juana’s visualization of your story?
I first saw Juana’s sketches in a PDF that I opened on my phone while riding on the New York City subway. I had no preset notion of what the art was going to look like, and when I saw the multiracial Native characters she had created, I suddenly realized I was crying—and I am not a crier!
And when Juana added color to the art, it was just breathtaking. I really had an intense reaction to seeing the images and realizing how they represented experiences from my whole life. I was especially moved by her addition of a wall featuring an alphabetical list of Native American tribes, which is expanded on the endpapers. It is powerful to me to think that Native kids can point to the names of their tribes and realize they are included in this book. What a validation and affirmation of their identity!
Fry Bread has received four starred reviews, including one from PW. Juana, how do you feel about the enthusiastic response to the book—and the praise your artwork has garnered?
It is fantastic! Being Peruvian and not native to this country, it was so important to me that everything I did was done right—and at times I was so worried about it that I became short of breath while I drew. Finally, I got to the point that I told myself, “You’ve done your job and now you just have to step back and let it go.” So, it’s amazingly gratifying to see this response from reviewers and know that it was well worth all the stress!
And what’s your reaction to your book’s early critical success, Kevin?
When I think that I started out to write a little board book for my own kids, and then to see our project receive this kind of attention is crazy, amazing, and very rewarding. I hope that Fry Bread will bring the contemporary Native family into the public eye, and that Native children will see themselves reflected on its pages. I also hope this book will introduce all readers to Native culture and traditions—and will inspire other Native writers to share their own stories.
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard, illus. by Juana Martinez-Neal. Roaring Brook, $18.99 Oct. 22 ISBN 978-1-62672-746-5