I don’t usually read by flashlight—it’s honestly hard on the eyes—but, by God, I was going to finish my twenty-fourth Sealey Challenge book of the month, and I did, even if I couldn’t post it here. And so, by flashlight, in the midst of a massive storm, I finished Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martínez-Neal’s Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story.
First I’ll address form and function: one could probably fight with me about this selection! Is it really verse? (The publisher says so!) I mean, I don’t think it’s prose, at all. There’s a kind of rhythm about the text: it moves and flowers, starting with a declarative, moving through explanations, across every page. The author’s note, by the way, is fantastic: an explanation of every page, and of the ways in which the author and illustrator worked together to create a masterpiece of culture and heritage. Definitely read that author’s note. (It is prose.)
Maillard’s text and Martínez-Neal’s illustrations make clear that fry bread is a (created) tradition, and also a tradition that lives—just like the people who first made it. Maillard uses simple verse to tell a complex history, writing: “Fry bread is history / The long walk, the stolen land / Strangers in our own world / With unknown food / We made new recipes / From what we had.” In Martínez-Neal’s hands, it becomes a scary story elders tell to young folks, who hunker close and hold their cats for comfort—even as they lean in for every word.
Maillard’s genius lies in his ability to use incredibly simple language to tell complex stories—stories that Martínez-Neal echoes in her illustrations, and stories that only get more complex on a second reading. From the tattoos showcased to the bowls held, from the recipe Maillard includes at the back of the book to the hand-written names in one of the images, every image and every world holds multiple cultural meanings. It is, truly, a gem of a book, and an incredible example of the power of collaboration between author and artist.
Fry Bread is deceptively simple, a story about fried deliciousness that is actually about the survival of people and culture in the face of violence and continued attempts at destruction. Maillard’s words and Martínez-Neal’s illustrations are incredibly deliberate, but they never feel that way—they feel fresh and warm, sometimes a hug, sometimes a scary story. It’s a book written for young folks, to be sure, and there’s a reason it won the Sibert Medal. But it’s not just for kiddos. It’s for all of us—a reminder of cultures that continue, and of the warmth and power and community we can find in our culinary traditions.