Fry Bread

Cover of Fry BreadFry Bread disappeared from my elementary-school library desk before I had the chance to process it with plastic and barcode stickers. When I then crossed paths with the eager student who had borrowed it, she looked up at me with a smile matching that of the baby on the book’s cover who has just snagged a piece of fry bread from their grandmother’s bowl. “It was the bread, Ms. Prabhaker! The bread pulled me in!” she said, and then, gesturing toward the cover, “The bread pulls everyone in!” Sitting down now to think about the book in a Calling Caldecott way, I know exactly what she means.

I was pulled in, too, by the specificity of the illustrations — the careful graphite with which Juana Martinez-Neal depicts each strand of this grandmother’s hair; the fry bubbles on the differently hued, cloud-shaped pieces of bread; the pattern on the bowl that holds them. Throughout the book, Martinez-Neal’s illustrations depict symbolic imagery: the tattoos on the father's wrist; handmade dolls and coil baskets from both the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and the Seminole Tribe of Florida (as revealed in the back matter). While this book tells an essential “Native American Family Story,” as described on the cover, it is tribally specific and not pan-Indigenous. 

Before the story even begins, we are shown on the endpapers a collection of the names of each of the federally- and state-recognized tribes within the United States, as well as the names of those currently seeking federal recognition. The kerning on this wall of names is tight, and still they cover every mote of space of front and back endpapers, underscoring the book’s essence of inclusion. These rows and rows of nations tell a story that existed before the United States, a story of survival against unimaginable violence and oppression. Later, when the wall of names appears again within the interior pages of the story (behind parents pointing out to the children the names of individual tribes), they tell a story of visibility, of the moment of being recognized for possibly the first time. 

As the story begins, we quickly see that the children in these illustrations resist sameness, the commonly held assumption that Indigenous people all look a certain way. The faces in these pages demonstrate the same wide range of colors as the various fry breads: "Golden brown, tan, or yellow / Deep like coffee, sienna, or earth / Light like snow and cream." We see also that these children are contemporary, wearing sneakers and T-shirts. 

Martinez-Neal reveals so much of the book's theme through how characters hold themselves, relate to one another through eye contact, and (physically and emotionally) lift one another up. This is perhaps most evident on a spread showing a moment where the grandmother shares the painful story of the times when tribes, taken from their individual lands and the crops they once cultivated, were forced to eat a standardized diet of government-issued foods. (These details are provided in the book's back matter, not the main text; the text merely reads: "The long walk, the stolen land / Strangers in our own world / With unknown food / We made new recipes / From what we had.") The listening children's body language shows them taking in the weight of their history.

This moment speaks to the Caldecott criterion of "excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience." As I read this part with a second-grade class, I watched as multiple students assumed the poses of the children in the picture. When I asked what was happening in this illustration, one said, “They are hearing a very scary story”; another said, “That boy’s mouth is open and he’s leaning forward like he’s surprised”; and another said, “That girl is hugging her hands close to herself, because she doesn’t feel good about what she is hearing.” One student then shared, “I think I’m starting to put this together. The sad story is why they had to start making fry bread.”

At the same time, this book has room for celebration. The children are shown with dreamy smiles and gazes in front of the fresh vegetables, fruits, honey, and cheese that they will eat with their own fry bread. They play with dolls and dance in the kitchen. The indigo-blue of shadowy wall paintings representing the legacy of their ancestors is juxtaposed with the brighter colors of the current-day narrative.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Fry Bread.]

The Caldecott manual defines a picture book as one that "essentially provides the child with a visual experience." To read Fry Bread is to experience a visual metaphor — the puff of flour dust that is also the stars in the sky; the edges of the land that the children perch on while reading and stretching and balancing that are also the crisp borders of fry bread; the moon that shines down on each of them that is also that delicious round piece of dough.

As we close the book, and if we take off the paper jacket, we see the spellbinding case cover that shows the bread on the table, all made and now being feasted upon by each of the hands we saw in the story. And in the bottom left-hand corner we see two hands cradling a cup of chamomile tea and a Peruvian pan francés. It's the illustrator, seated nearby but apart. I hope that the Caldecott committee will take a look at the illustrations created by these hands that, more than anything, read as a resounding love letter to Indigenous families and children — one that says, again and again, like the names on the endpapers, We see you. As one of my students said when I asked what medium Martinez-Neal might have used to make her illustrations, “It looks like she uses a lot of love in them.”

Emily Prabhaker
Emily Prabhaker
Emily Prabhaker is the librarian at Campus School of Smith College.
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Vasanthi Prabhaker

Wonderful way to illustrate the sameness and the beautiful way the different people exist and create a web in this universe !Thank you for making our minds dig deep!

Posted : Dec 05, 2019 05:01


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