Sherman Alexie, one of the most beloved authors of young-adult fiction, is about to publish his first picture book. “Thunder Boy Jr.” is full of spirited fun, but it also has been designed to help correct an ongoing problem: the lack of brown-skinned kids in literature.
Illustrated by Mexican American artist Yuyi Morales, “Thunder Boy Jr.” has had a long gestation period: “I signed the deal for it 10 years ago,” Alexie says by phone. “I thought this would be easy, but it wasn’t at all. I tried 30 or 40 different ideas.”
What he eventually hit on is a delightful story about a Native American boy trying to carve out his own identity. “I am named after my dad,” the energetic narrator says. “He is Thunder Boy Smith Sr., and I am Thunder Boy Smith Jr.” And that’s the problem: Little Thunder loves his father, but, he says, “I want my own name. I want a name that sounds like me. I want a name that celebrates something cool that I’ve done.”
Call it the anxiety of influence for the kindergarten set.
Alexie, who is a junior himself, traces the idea of this book to his father’s funeral in 2003. “As they lowered the coffin into the ground, there was his tombstone with my name on it,” he says.
“My father had wonderful qualities and some really terrible qualities. He was a loving, gentle man — and a lifelong alcoholic who would leave us for days, sometimes weeks at a time to go drinking. He was a man of contradictions.”
Nothing in the ebullient “Thunder Boy Jr.” hints at such despair, but the book definitely captures a child’s desire to establish his own special quality.
“When you talk about the Native American search for identity,” Alexie says, “it’s almost always a story of loss and pain. I wanted to write a picture book in which a kid goes on a search for identity in the context of a loving family.”
The need for such a book can’t be exaggerated. A report compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison indicates that only 14 percent of the children’s books released by U.S. publishers last year were about people of color.
One of Alexie’s inspirations was “The Snowy Day,” a picture book by Ezra Jack Keats that broke new ground in 1962 by focusing on an African American child. “I so strongly identified with that,” Alexie says. “I wanted to replicate that experience, because in literature in general, there aren’t many Native American children.”
Alexie won a National Book Award in 2007 for his first young-adult novel, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” The autobiographical story about a boy on the Spokane Indian Reservation has sold more than 1 million copies and is read in schools nationwide. For its references to drugs, gambling and sex, it also shows up frequently on the list of most-banned books, but, fortunately, Alexie Jr. keeps thundering on.
Ron Charles Jr. is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On May 19 at 6:30 p.m., Sherman Alexie will be at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G St. NW, Washington.
By Sherman Alexie
Illustrated by Yuyi Morales
Little, Brown. $17.99. Ages 5-8