We Are Grateful

Fry BreadWe have to con­fess to book envy — that is encoun­ter­ing a pic­ture book and wish­ing that we had writ­ten it. The book’s approach is so arrest­ing, the heart of the book so big, the images so rich. Such books not only make us wish we’d done them, they change what we want to do and what we can do. We always learn from them. Fry Bread could be one of those books — the heart is so big, the lan­guage so beau­ti­ful, the sub­ject so encom­pass­ing — but we nev­er could have writ­ten this book. It had to be writ­ten by Kevin Noble Mail­lard, a mem­ber of the Semi­nole Nation, Mekusukey band.

In this sim­ple book about one food — fry bread — Mail­lard deliv­ers a com­plex and beau­ti­ful paean to the Indige­nous Peo­ple of the Unit­ed States. Begin with the end pages, filled with the names of Indige­nous tribes. The illus­tra­tor, Jua­na Mar­tinez-Neal has said that she imag­ines fam­i­lies of read­ers por­ing over the end pages look­ing for their own par­tic­u­lar tribe.

The poem to fry bread starts with sens­es: ”Fry bread is food/Flour, salt, water/Cornmeal, bak­ing powder/Perhaps milk, maybe sugar/All mixed togeth­er in a big bowl.” “FRY BREAD IS SHAPE,” “FRY BREAD IS SOUND/ The skil­let clangs on the stove/…Drop the dough in the skillet/The bub­bles siz­zle and pop.”/FRY BREAD IS COLOR,” “FRY BREAD IS FLAVOR.” Each page gives us anoth­er char­ac­ter­is­tic of fry bread — time (hol­i­days, fam­i­ly cel­e­bra­tions); art (sculp­ture, land­scape); his­to­ry (“The long walk, the stolen land/Strangers in our own world/With unknown food/We made new recipes/From what we had/”) and more. One of our favorite spreads is “FRY BREAD IS US/We are still here/Elder and young/Friend and neigh­bor.”  But the book doesn’t end with the poem. Exten­sive end notes include a recipe and instruc­tions for mak­ing fry bread. In an author’s note Kevin Noble Mail­lard ampli­fies the his­to­ry of fry bread — “Many tribes trace the ori­gin of mod­ern Indi­an cook­ing to this gov­ern­ment-caused depri­va­tion. From fed­er­al rations of pow­ered, canned, and oth­er dry, gov­ern­ment-issued foods, fry bread was born.”  He anno­tates every spread with more infor­ma­tion includ­ing the fact that a dai­ly diet of fry bread exac­er­bates health prob­lems. He com­pares it to Hal­loween can­dy — an infre­quent but spe­cial treat, but also notes that Native Peo­ples often don’t have access to “con­ve­nient places to buy fruits and vegetables.”

Fry Bread
illus­tra­tion © copy­right Jua­na Mar­tinez-Neal, Fry Bread: A Native Amer­i­can Fam­i­ly Sto­ry, Roar­ing Brook Press, 2019

In the note accom­pa­ny­ing “FRY BREAD IS COLOR” he reminds us that Native peo­ple may have blonde hair or black skin, tight corn­rows or a loose braid. This wide vari­ety of faces reflects a his­to­ry of inter­min­gling between tribes and also with peo­ple of Euro­pean, African, and Asian descent.”

Mail­lard has said he wrote this book part­ly so his own chil­dren could read about Indige­nous Peo­ple, but it is a gift to all of us. The infor­ma­tion in the end papers is so exten­sive, so well writ­ten (and foot-not­ed!) that it will enrich the mind of every read­er. This is a book to savor, to leave in Lit­tle Free Libraries, to give to grand­chil­dren, nieces, and nephews.

All of that, plus this book makes us want to make fry bread. “FRY BREAD IS US” reminds us of com­mu­ni­ty and how shared foods and shared meals bind us togeth­er.  Although this Thanks­giv­ing will be one in which many of us will cel­e­brate in our own homes with­out extend­ed fam­i­ly to try to stem the spread of the coro­n­avirus, we will find ways to be togeth­er — face­tim­ing while cook­ing, zoom­ing while we eat. Cook­ing, eat­ing, shar­ing will still hold us togeth­er, even when we are geo­graph­i­cal­ly apart.

Johnny's PheasantCheryl Min­nema has writ­ten anoth­er book wor­thy of any writer’s book envy—Johnny’s Pheas­ant (illus­trat­ed by the won­der­ful Julie Flett and pub­lished by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press). John­ny and Grand­ma are on the way home from the mar­ket with “a sack of pota­toes, a pack­age of car­rots, bun­dles of fresh fruit and frost­ed cin­na­mon rolls” when John­ny notices “a small feath­ery hump” in the ditch. They stop and it turns out the hump is a sleep­ing pheas­ant. Grand­ma thinks it was hit by a car but would love to have the feath­ers for her crafts. So they put the pheas­ant into a bag and the bag into the trunk.

At home, John­ny finds a card­board box for the pheas­ant and Grand­ma agrees that it can stay in the house while he builds a nest of sticks. John­ny is so hap­py he runs around the yard, “hoot, hoot,” “hoot, hoot.”

As John­ny heads out the door, sur­prise! The pheas­ant hoots and flies out of the box, around the room, and lands on Grandma’s head, sway­ing his tail in front of Grandma’s face. Then it flies out the door. The pheas­ant lands on top of the swing set briefly and then flies away.

Johnny's Pheasant
illus­tra­tion © copy­right Julie Flett, John­ny’s Pheas­ant, Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2019

But the sto­ry is not over. John­ny finds one pheas­ant feath­er at his feet after the pheas­ant leaves. He runs around the yard with it and even­tu­al­ly gives it to Grand­ma. “Howah,” says Grand­ma. John­ny says “hoot, hoot.” We learned from Deb­bie Reese’s “Amer­i­can Indi­an Children’s Lit­er­a­ture” that “Howah” is an Ojib­we expres­sion mean­ing “oh my!”

What we love about this sto­ry is the affec­tion­ate lin­ger­ing on details. We know exact­ly what they have bought — and note the poet­ry, the love­ly sounds — “a sack of pota­toes, a pack­age of car­rots, a bun­dle of fresh fruit, and frost­ed cin­na­mon rolls.”

Some might think a child run­ning around the yard is not enough dra­ma, but they don’t know chil­dren, don’t know the pow­er of excite­ment at hav­ing brought home a beau­ti­ful bird. They don’t know the joy of one beau­ti­ful feath­er gift­ed by a bird, and gift­ed again to a grand­ma. This book is a won­der­ful reminder to pay atten­tion to the dai­ly adven­tures of liv­ing in the world. And the joy of being right — the pheas­ant isn’t dead, as Grand­ma thinks. 

Cheryl Min­nema is a mem­ber of the Mille Lacs band of Ojib­we. Julie Flett is a Cree-Métis who lives in Cana­da and whose work we have loved since we first saw it.  Her use of white space makes her deep, bril­liant col­ors stand out even more — the red truck Grand­ma dri­ves and the flow­ers on her sweater, the orange car­rot tops with green frondy leaves in the white gro­cery bag, the grassy green road­side where they find the pheas­ant, Grandma’s yel­low skirt, Johnny’s dark blue shirt, the turquoise sofa where Grand­ma sits while play­ing cards. The ear delights in Minnema’s poet­ic spare text, and the eye soaks up the illus­tra­tions. This book is a feast.

We Are GratefulIn We Are Grate­ful by Traci Sorell, an enrolled cit­i­zen of the Chero­kee Nation, the author explains that in Chero­kee cul­ture show­ing grat­i­tude is part of every­day life through­out the year. In fall, she writes, we are grate­ful when shell shak­ers dance in the Great New Moon Cer­e­mo­ny, when we have a feast for the Chero­kee new year, col­lect branch­es for bas­kets, and remem­ber the ances­tors on the Trail of Tears.  In win­ter, we are grate­ful for elders shar­ing sto­ries, bread and soup, tra­di­tion­al crafts and games, for remem­ber­ing those who have passed on, and for babies cra­dled in arms.  In spring, we are grate­ful for spring’s first food, for plant­i­ng straw­ber­ries, for an ancestor’s sto­ries, for a rel­a­tive head­ing off to serve our coun­try.  Sum­mer is the time to be grate­ful for catch­ing craw dads, for har­vest in the green corn cer­e­mo­ny, for lis­ten­ing to trib­al lead­ers speak.  Every day, every sea­son, the book con­cludes, we are grate­ful.  Thread­ed through­out the book are Chero­kee words, and each sea­son con­tains the Chero­kee word for, “we are grate­ful,” Otsaliheliga. 

We Are Grateful
illus­tra­tion © Frané Lessac, We Are Grate­ful, Charles­bridge Pub­lish­ing, 2018

We are grate­ful to have read this book, which reminds us that grat­i­tude is a dai­ly prac­tice, and that we have much to be grate­ful for, from spring onions to the pass­ing on of cul­ture from one gen­er­a­tion to anoth­er. And in uncer­tain times being grate­ful for the small things can be a calm­ing con­stant for young and not-so-young.

Like the illus­tra­tions in Fry Bread, Frané Lessac’s bright, cheer­ful, con­tem­po­rary illus­tra­tions show a range of skin tones that reflect the diver­si­ty of native people.

My Heart Fills with HappinessJust look­ing at the cov­er of the board book My Heart Fills With Hap­pi­ness makes us hap­py — a First Nation child, seen from above, the skirt of her blue dress pat­terned with white birds swirling as though she is twirling with arms out stretched, her face bliss­ful.  White flow­ers scat­ter around the yel­low back­ground — a bright cheer­ful and, yes, hap­py, image. Writ­ten by Monique Gray Smith of Cree, Lako­ta, and Scot­tish descent and illus­trat­ed by Julie Flett, the book cel­e­brates hap­pi­ness through the sens­es and con­nec­tion with oth­ers: the smell of ban­nock bak­ing in the oven, the sun danc­ing on one’s cheeks, singing, danc­ing, drum­ming, walk­ing bare­foot on the grass, lis­ten­ing to sto­ries, hold­ing the hand of a loved one. Flett’s art makes these seem­ing­ly sim­ple acts luminous. 

My Heart is Filled with Happiness
illus­tra­tion © Julie Flett, My Hearts Fills with Hap­pi­ness, Orca Books, 2016

The book con­cludes with an image of the child in a yel­low rain slick­er perched on an elder’s shoul­ders, view­ing the ocean where nar­whals swim.  The last line asks, what fills your heart with hap­pi­ness?  It’s a ques­tion to give seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion:  hap­pi­ness is a form of resis­tance, and we need to pay atten­tion to what makes us happy.

You Hold Me UpMonique Gray Smith is a new-to-us author.  When we looked at oth­er books she has writ­ten, we also fell in love with You Hold Me Up, illus­trat­ed by Danielle Daniel.  In the same sim­ple, lyri­cal prose, Smith cel­e­brates the ways in which we hold each oth­er up:  when you are kind to me, when you share with me, when we learn togeth­er, when you play with me, laugh with me, sing with me, com­fort me, lis­ten to me, respect me.  The book con­cludes, “You hold me up.  I hold you up.  We hold each oth­er up.” In this try­ing and some­times ter­ri­fy­ing year, we am grate­ful for all those who help hold us up and who, we hope, we help hold up, too. 

This month’s books help us remem­ber that our strength is in con­nec­tion and com­mu­ni­ty.  And we are grateful.

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