When Kevin Maillard, Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, became a parent, he looked around the children’s book landscape and noticed there were very few written about Native people today.
What he usually found in bookstores or online were stories set, “like 300 years ago.”
“Everything I seen was Thanksgiving or Pochahontas or Sacagawea,” Maillard said. “Nothing about [Native] people that were actually alive and living today.”
In fact, he said when he first started thinking about writing a children’s book in 2012, only six out of 3,600 were by or written about Native people. So he decided to write a children’s book of his own and “Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story” was born.
The Syracuse University law professor and New York Times contributor said he had made a number of professional contacts over the course of his career that would make this book a reality. Although, it didn’t happen overnight.
When he first approached an editor at MacMillan Children’s Publishing Group, Maillard said he had a very cute but not intellectual story about two kids that made frybread with their grandma and how much they enjoy it.
“All I wanted to do was just make a book for my kids and other Indian kids so that they would see themselves represented in literature,” he said.
However, the editor told him to go back and give another shot; to be more abstract, theoretical and lyrical. So Maillard approached it like writing a poem, which worked to both of their surprise.
It would be four years before ‘Fry Bread’ would hit the market, but there was still work to be done.
Looking for someone to illustrate the book, Maillard wanted to find a person who was of Native ancestry or who had a personal connection to indigeneity. Ultimately, Peruvian artist Juana Martinez-Neal was chosen by Maillard and his editor but she was busy at the time. Maillard put the project on hold.
“I was like, ‘Okay, we can wait. This is important enough ‘cause I want this to be right, I want the art to be good,’” Maillard recalls thinking.
Both Maillard and Martinez-Neal said the collaboration between them was unique because authors don’t normally communicate with illustrators while they do the art for children’s books. One of the reasons for that Martinez-Neal said is because she grew up in Lima, Peru, and she wanted to accurately portray modern Natives.
To assist, Maillard would send her information on baskets, dolls, pottery and other things. Martinez-Neal, who has lived in the United States for 25 years, also drew inspiration from photos of Maillard’s family.
“I wanted the family to be today, I wanted it to be more of an urban family and not rural,” Martinez-Neal said. “Try to break those preconceived ideas of what it is when you think of Native Americans.”
A few examples include not using reddish tones on the cheeks of the adults in the book because Maillard didn’t want it to convey the use of alcohol. He also didn’t want the kids to be barefoot which “may signal poverty.”
“She was really great about the back and forth about it,” Maillard said. “She also told me that this was the hardest illustration project that she’s ever done.”
Another idea that came to Martinez-Neal early on was to have the end pages include the names of all the tribes across the United States, including state-recognized tribes and tribes who have applied for recognition. Along with Maillard, she said they wanted kids to feel recognized.
“My idea was for people finding their nations and you know, that feeling of reading your name, looking for it and finding it,” she said. “That feeling of being there, like part of it that you are seen.”
The duo have both been pleasantly surprised at how the book has been received and Maillard has already begun thinking of his next project to create positive representation for Natives in the mainstream.
“I’m so glad that children are enjoying the book and their parents can enjoy it,” Maillard said. “It’s a different way of celebrating Native culture for children.”
Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org