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Fry Bread, A Native American Family Story: A Love Letter to Indigenous Nations and Communities

Written by Kevin Noble Maillard

Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal

Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2019

ISBN 978-1-62672-746-5

Grades K-8

Book Review

Winner of the 2020 Robert F. Sibert Medal for most distinguished information book for children and an American Indian Youth Literature Honor recipient, Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story is a love letter to Indigenous nations and communities centered around a simple food that represents a complex history of survival, relocation, and resilience. Using the refrain “Fry bread is…”, Kevin Noble Maillard, a member of the Seminole Nation, Mekusukey Band, invites readers to the sensory-filled, community-building, and culturally-affirming experience of making and eating fry bread together. Written as a concept book and organized as a series of two-page spreads, Maillard’s lyrical text begins with “Fry bread is food” and ends with the affirmation “Fry bread is you.” Maillard uses occasional first-person narration to speak directly to Indigenous children and to explain the cultural, historical, and familial significance of fry bread with lines such as: “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.” The extensive and detailed eight-page Author’s Note offers additional information about the content of each two-page spread and explains such things as the origin of fry bread, Maillard’s own family fry bread story, and the ways in which the book honors the inclusivity of Native pride. Maillard also includes his recipe for fry bread as an invitation for families to create their own fry bread family stories. Using a palette primarily of blues and brown, illustrations by Peruvian-American Caldecott Honor winner, Juana Martinez-Neal, depict a joyful celebration on every page. The comfort of family is evoked through the warm smiles and closeness of the diverse Indigenous characters. The endpapers list Indigenous tribes creating an arresting statement on the solidarity and forced invisibility of American Indians. The text and illustrations together powerfully remind readers that “Native America is not a past history of vanished people and communities. We are still here.” Through its accessible, informational writing and joyful illustrations, Fry Bread is a groundbreaking work of literature for young readers to better understand the diversity and unity of Native Americans and Indigenous peoples of North America both past and present. 

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Making Fry Bread: Literacy Connections. Find out if students make their own versions of fry bread at home using a similar or different recipe. Create a sensory experience for students by following the recipe in the back of the book for students to try. Remind students “it is commonly believed that the Navajo (Diné) were the first to make fry bread over 150 years ago”. Draw students’ attention to the shape and sound of the fry bread at each stage of the baking process from the formation of dough to the sound of it in a pan. Invite students to take notes and draw sketches on the shape, sound, and color of the fry bread at each stage. Some students may want to take photographs of the cooking process. Have them compare what they noticed about the fry bread you make to Maillar’s descriptions in the first few pages of the book as well as to Martinez-Neal’s illustrations. Have them consider how they would describe fry bread. Use these ideas and their drawings and photographs to create a class fry bread book. 

Family and Community Food Stories. Using Fry Bread as a guide, support students to think about food that is important to their families or communities. Do they have an equivalent of a “fry bread lady” who is the keeper of a special recipe that gets passed on? Do they have foods that are important to family or community get togethers such as holidays? Invite students to interview family members or adults in their community or faith community about food stories. Ask students to find out how certain foods became important and who have been the recipe keepers over time.  Invite students to choose a genre that best supports what they learned such as an informational book, poetry, song, wordless picture book, or family story. Invite families and community members to bring in the featured food for a class potluck and writing celebration. 

I Never Knew: Gathering Facts. The Author’s Note is full of important facts about the diversity of Native American people, the removal and displacement of Native Americans, data about where Native Americans live in the United States, and federally recognized Native American tribes and the recognition and denial process. Much of the information may surprise and may even enrage students. Support students to read with a lens towards “I never knew” as they approach the Author’s Note. Have students record what they never knew and their reaction to the information. Have a class discussion to have students compare the facts they recorded and how they felt about them. 

Exploring and Writing Concept Books. Fry Bread is considered by the Sibert Committee to be a concept book, a subgenre of nonfiction. Have students share what they notice about how the book is organized. Use this conversation as a way to draw their attention to the use of headings, the repetition of “Fry bread is…”, and the use of four or five lines of verse to explain each topic. Gather other concept books in your classroom or school library and have students explore them taking note of similarities and differences in how the books are organized. Brainstorm with students topics they could create concepts books about using Fry Bread as a mentor text for writing and illustrating. 

Duet Model: Bread.  Compare and contrast Fry Bread with Bread, Bread, Bread by Ann Morris, a photographic “round-the-world” tour of bread. Consider the way in which “breaking bread” is significant for families and communities. How do both books broaden our thinking about bread and its community-building nature? Both books are considered information. In what ways do the authors and illustrators convey information differently? 

The Sibert Informational Book Medal and Genre Blending. Share with students the criteria for the Sibert Informational Book Medal given annually by the American Library Association. How does the committee define “information books”? What would students add to that definition? Gather past winners and have students explore the variety of ways authors and illustrators convey information. What are the ways in which elements of narrative are woven into some of the Sibert titles such as use of first person and dialogue thereby blending narrative and information? If dialogue is invented, is the book really nonfiction? If it is from source material does it “work” as dialogue? At The Classroom Bookshelf, we have written about past Sibert winners or honor recipients and recommend exploring these winner based on the age range of students: 2017 winner March: Book Three by John Lewis, 2016 winner Funny Bunny: Posada and the Day of the Dead Calavaras by Duncan Tonatiuh, 2016 honor recipient Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown, 2013 winner Bomb: The Race to Build –and Steal—The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin, 2012 winner Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet, and 2011 winner Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot by Sy Montgomery. 

Critical Literacy, Grades K-8

Diversity and Unity of Native Peoples. Students may not initially realize that all of the characters illustrated in the book are Native American. Support students to challenge their assumptions about Native peoples by drawing their attention to the diversity of the characters depicted, such as the range of hair color and skin tone in the book. Read about the diversity of Native Americans in the Author’s Note, especially in the “Fry Bread is Color” section. Also, support students to note the ways in which the characters are unified. How do the illustrations create a feeling of belonging? What do the facial expressions reveal about how the characters feel about fry bread, one another, and historical injustices? How do the illustrations defy a “single story” representation of what it means to be Native American? What do students learn about the complexity of what makes a person American Indian? 

Critical Literacy, Grades 4-8

I Never Knew Extension. Extend the I Never Knew fact gathering engagement (above) with older students by comparing the information given in Fry Bread with social studies textbooks by noticing the overlap and elimination of facts or historical events. Support students to ask questions about why there might be eliminations or omissions of facts and events. 

Who Counts? Learning More About Recognized, Terminated, and Unrecognized Tribes. Share with students the endpapers and use the Author’s Note to learn more about the recognition process for tribes. What is their reaction to the denial of Native American status for tribes even though their ancestors have been in North America for thousands of years? Define sovereignty and discuss why it’s important to remember that Native nations pre-date the United States. Have a discussion about the ways the endpapers invite readers to think about the importance of sovereign tribes and how the list gives voice to Indigenous nations and communities within the United States. Extend this learning by reading the New York Times articles “Who Decides Who Counts as Native American?” and “After a Century of Waiting, the Little Shell Celebrate Recognition”.  Use Fry Bread as a scaffold to reading Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell and Indigenous People’s History of America by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese. In particular, support students to use these books to further investigate the recognition of tribes, termination of tribes, and the complicated process of who gets to choose or claim their identify. (Note: American Indians in Children’s Literature co-author, Debbie Reese, has a note about the state-recognized groups listed in the endpapers that she would not consider tribes or nations). 

Food Deprivation and Resilience. As explained in Fry Bread, the origin of the food comes from the government-caused deprivation that happened when people were isolated from meats, fruits, and vegetables of their native land through the forcible removal of Native people. As federal rations of powdered, canned, and other dry foods were issued by the government, fry bread was born. In what ways did forced relocation cause food denial and hardship for Native peoples? What do students think about this history? In what ways does the book help readers to learn about the role of food in the survival and resilience of Native peoples? Maillard explains that some Native people are pushing back on making and eating fry bread because of its lack of nutritional value. Yet, Fry Bread draws our attention to the larger problem of a lack of access to farmable land or fresh food markets. Extend this learning by researching with students school lunch guidelines and federal funding regulations for free and reduced meals that have been put in place or dismantled in recent years. In what ways is access to healthy food a right that governments should be supporting rather than limiting?    (We recommend awareness and sensitivity to parallels students may have to food insecurity in their families and communities during this discussion.) 

Further Explorations 

Digital Resources

American Indians in Children’s Literature Review by Debbie Reese

American Indians in Children’s Literature Blog by Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza

“Who Decides Who Counts as Native American?” New York Times

“After a Century of Waiting, the Little Shell Celebrate Recognition” New York Times

How America’s Past Shapes Native Americans’ Present

American Indian Youth Literature Award

National Congress of American Indians

Native American Rights Fund


Dunbar-Ortiz, R., Mendoza, J., Reese, D. (2019). An Indigenous People’s History of the United States for Young People. Beacon Press.  

McManis, C.W. & Sorell, T. (2019). Indian no more. New York, NY: Lee and Low Books.

Paul, Miranda. (2019). Thanku: Poems of gratitude. Millbrook Press. 

Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.