Illustrated by Yuyi Morales
“Don’t get me wrong. My dad is awesome. But I don’t want to have the same name as him. I WANT MY OWN NAME.”
Thunder Boy Smith Jr. loves his dad, Thunder Boy Smith Sr., aka Big Thunder. But he doesn’t like sharing a name with his dad, and he really doesn’t like the nickname that comes with it, Little Thunder. “That nickname makes me sound like a burp or fart,” he complains. So Thunder Boy Jr. starts brainstorming ideas for his new name, and tries to figure out how to talk to his dad about his feelings.
Sherman Alexie’s new picture book Thunder Boy Jr. is an examination of the concepts of identity and family, as a child tries to figure out his own place within his family and culture, and also who he is separate from those things. Though he enjoys a happy and loving relationship with his parents, he is starting to think about who he is apart from them. The inspiration was drawn from Alexie’s own life, since he is himself a Junior (indeed that was also the name of the character in his semi-autobiographical YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian). Surprisingly, the seed of the idea for the book came to him at his father’s funeral, when he was struck by the reality of seeing his own name on his father’s tombstone.
Thunder Boy Jr. is illustrated by Yuyi Morales, who received a Caldecott Honor for Viva Frida in 2015, and is also a multiple winner of the Pura Belpré Award. The background colour palette is relatively muted, with occasional splashes of colour, but the bright colours show up more prominently in the clothing of the characters, and also in Thunder Boy’s imaginative sequences. Both background and foreground are beautifully textured, adding depth to the colours. Morales scanned many of the colours and textures from “the remains of an antique house in Xalapa, Mexico,” and incorporated them into her digital paintings to achieve this effect.
Over at American Indians in Children’s Literature, Debbie Reese has written a number of thoughtful and interesting pieces about Thunder Boy Jr. She addresses a few potential issues, including the fact that no tribe is specified to contextualize the naming traditions depicted (potentially leading to the idea that all Native American tribes are the same), and also raises concerns about how the story might further the appropriation of those traditions. She called for an author’s note to address some of these problems, since the 100, 000 copy print run of the book makes it evident that the audience will reach well beyond insiders who already have the context to understand this without explanation.
After the sequence in which Thunder Boy Jr. imagines a variety of possible names he might take for himself that celebrate his own actions and identity, he says “I love my dad but I want my own name. What do I do? What do I say?” For me this seemed like the natural place to address some of these issues with a conversation between Thunder Boy and his father about his feelings. So when I turned the page, I was a bit disappointed to find that rather than addressing the importance of communication, Thunder Boy Sr. just knows how his son is feeling, and decides it is time to give him a new name. “My dad read my mind! My dad read my heart!” Thunder Boy Jr. enthuses. And while this was a touching moment, it felt like an easy out.
Despite these issues, Thunder Boy Jr. is a humourous and touching children’s book dealing with significant themes. Thunder Boy has an honest, child-like voice, and I think kids will delight in the potty humour of his perception of his nickname. Hopefully we can all read responsibly and not take this as an invitation to demean or appropriate Native American naming traditions.