Fry Bread: Children's book explores the connection between cooking and colonization

Award-winning children's book explores big questions about colonization and identity.

Kevin Noble Maillard on his award-winning book Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story

Kevin Maillard is the author of Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, which explores big questions about Native American history and expropriation. (Chris Owyoung and Juana Martinez-Neal)

Kevin Noble Maillard's first picture book, Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, explores big questions about Native American history and expropriation, adding to a small canon of Indigenous children's stories. 

The book explores how fry bread became an essential Native American food tradition after communities were forced from their ancestral lands and required to rely on small rations from the United States government. 

"Fry bread was born from this story of survival, of resilience, of existence — continued existence," Maillard told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild. 

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story won the Robert F. Sibert Medal for 2019's most distinguished informational picture book. Kevin Noble Maillard is a journalist and law professor at Syracuse University. Below is part of his conversation with Unreserved.

Kevin Noble Maillard is an author, journalist and law professor at Syracuse University. (Chris Owyoung)

So you already work as a journalist and a law professor. What made you decide to try writing a picture book? 

I started off as an academic, focusing a lot on Native issues, on identity, on mixed racial and cultural identity. And then after being a professor for awhile, I started to branch out into journalism. I started writing for The New York Times, which I still do now, still writing on all the same issues, but for a larger audience. 

And then also with children's books, it's the same topic, but just a different audience. And I like to think it's just like an audience of short people.

This book seems perfectly suited to the time we are all living in right now. It's about food, it's about family. And as you said, identity. What's the story you're telling in Fry Bread?

This wonderful food that comes from a very dark place in Native culture and Native families' lives. Fry bread would have started out with the Diné people, the Navajos in the southwest of the United States who had their land taken away from them. And then they're displaced and they're forced to live in new places. 

All old foods that they would have known before and like the kind of things that they would hunt, the fruits, the vegetables that they would eat are all different now.

Like the Seminole people who started off in Florida — that had been ancestral lands for, you know, hundreds, thousands of years. And ... Florida's tropical. So after the Seminole wars, removal occurred to Oklahoma ... Oklahoma is a completely different climate than Florida. What are you going to eat while you're on the moon?

They don't have the same kind of soil, air. So then the government gave people commodities. And so what are these commodities that people are given? Flour, fat, sugar — other kinds of things … that don't expire. 

And now when we fry bread, I like to think of it as a communion of sorts … doing these rituals, and it reminds you of something that happened previous in time. And it's also a way for people to get together. It's all about community. You always have to cook it for like 40 people. You can't just make a single serving of fry bread — it's impossible. So it's a coming together of loved ones, of friends, of new friends. And you're all sharing in this bread together. 

And then in a way, it reminds us whenever we eat, this is where we came from. And it also attests to the fact that we, as a Native people, we are still here.

That is a complex history wrapped up in a seemingly simple food. Now you have little children. How did they inspire you to write this book?

When my children were small — actually just my older son who's seven now — when he was born and I started looking for books … I wanted something that was a little more diverse that spoke to their many heritages.

This was long before I even thought about becoming an author of children's books. I just wanted them to see themselves in the picture.

Maillard saw a lack of diverse books that talked about non-white characters. 'This is a travesty and I'm just going to write my own book.' (Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal)

But when it came to issues and pictures and depictions of Native people and Native people that are alive today, there was nothing. I found one book from a tribe in the Midwest and it was about babies. I also found some books by Julie Flett, who's Canadian, who's Métis, and also by Cynthia Leitich Smith. But that is like five books out of thousands. 

There is a group that researches the subject matter of children's books every year. So they've been doing this for about 20 years. And the numbers of diverse books that talk about non-white characters — it's less than like 10 per cent of the entire children's book industry. If there are about 3,000 children's books that are published every year, the number has always hovered around 20 to 30 books, if that.

So I thought, "This is a travesty and I'm just going to write my own book."

What book are you reading or what book are you reading with your kids these days?

One book that is really beautiful right now that I've been reading with them is Rabbit and the Motorbike.

It's just a beautifully illustrated book, and it's about friendship and the cycle of life and what happens when your friends go away and what is it that you learn from your friends. It's such a touching book. And it was really wonderful to hear my seven-year-old son say to my partner — he brought the book to her — and said, "I want you to read this book for when you are sad."

He was doing this wonderful thing, saying, here's literature and this is something that can help you and make you feel better … He understands books and the magic of what they can do.

Q&A edited for length and clarity