Friday, November 6, 2020

Keynote: Kevin Noble Maillard "Creating My Informational Picture Book, Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story

Kevin Noble Maillard is a professor of law at Syracuse University and writes for the New York Times and The Atlantic. He is originally from Oklahoma and is a member of the Seminole Nation, Mekusukey Band. His debut picture book, Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story (illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal) is the winner of the 2020 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal and a 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Picture Book Honor Winner.

April Powers, SCBWI's Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at top, sign language interpreter Brian Truitt (center), and Kevin Noble Maillard (lower.)

April Powers introduces Kevin Noble Maillard, sharing that November is Native American Heritage month, and that “At the SCBWI, we wish to acknowledge that we are gathered/hosting today on the occupied territory of the Ventureño, Gabrieleño, Tongva, and Fernandeño people, who stewarded this land for generations. We now call it Los Angeles.”

Kevin starts by sharing a story from his summer - encountering a 65 year old memorial for a dog at the top of a mountain in New York state. The connection to the dog's owner Kevin felt, and how it was a story. He transmitted his emotions onto this monument... and now when other people see the monument, he relays to them what he felt. That's what we do when we write."

We learn (and see photos) of Kevin's family ancestors, and he considers how he's been a minority within a minority inside other minorities - and the isolation he's felt from that experience.

In his writing for the New York Times and elsewhere, Kevin focuses on "who are we, and what does it mean to be who we are?" He's written articles such as "What's So Hard About Casting Indian Actors in Indian Roles?" and speaks of his interest in authenticity, membership, and qualifications, "and this is what I brought to Fry Bread."

The lack of books he could share with his own children about Native kids "written by one of us," was motivating. "I was so incensed about this, that I decided I would write my own book."

He shares a Toni Morrison quote that inspired him:

"If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it." 

He tells how he connected with Connie Hsu at Macmillan, and shared a "bouncy" rhyming manuscript with her. And then, how she helped him find something "more lyrical, something close to you, something that evokes some kind of emotion. And I did that again, and it worked."

Kevin reflects on how "I didn't realize that the process was so, so, so extensive," and how the questions back and forth with Connie led to the extensive backmatter. 

And for the illustrations: "We would have talked about the shape of Grandma's hips for weeks, and weeks, and weeks." The color of Grandma's cheeks, clothes, facial features.

White people's lines of the country versus the lines of nature defining the continent.

Kevin speaks of Native authenticity, and the book's big metaphor: "Fry bread can look like might taste different... but what unifies all Native people together... is that everyone else is wrong" (about how they make fry bread!)

In closing, Kevin asks us to think about our stories, and how we're going to get that information out there. 

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