Sherman Alexie on Writing ‘Thunder Boy Jr.’ for Brown Kids and Growing Into His Own Name
Posted on Jun 21, 2016
By Emily Wilson
Poet, playwright and novelist Sherman Alexie has tackled a new genre: the picture book. In “Thunder Boy Jr.,” illustrated by Yuyi Morales, Alexie tells the story of a little boy in the midst of an identity crisis, wanting his own name instead of the same one as his father.
“I want a name that sounds like me,” Thunder Boy says in the book. “I want a name that celebrates something cool I’ve done … I like to go to garage sales with my mom, so maybe my name should be Old Toys Are Awesome.”
Alexie, a “junior” himself, got the idea at his father’s funeral when the coffin was lowered into the grave and he saw his own name on the tombstone.
Alexie’s books include “Reservation Blues,” “Indian Killer” and “War Dances.” In his National Book Award-winning novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” he wrote about a teenager going through something similar as he had: leaving the school at the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington state where he grew up to attend the much better all-white high school 22 miles away. His hero in that book, Arnold Spirit Jr., was also struggling to separate from his family and his tribe. With this new picture book, Alexie wanted to look again at issues of identity and family, but for an audience of little kids and in the context of a warm, loving Native American family.
Alexie recently read “Thunder Boy Jr.” to enthusiastic kids and their parents at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, Calif. He also mesmerized an audience in a conversation with Daniel Handler (who writes children’s books under the name Lemony Snicket)—only losing them slightly when he said his favorite basketball player was LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, against whom the Golden State Warriors were playing in the finals.
Alexie sat down with Truthdig to talk about what Ezra Jack Keats’ book “A Snowy Day” meant to him, telling a brown kid to rebel, and how doing readings of his latest book has been a joy.
What was hard about being a “junior”?
I think it was tied into all the tribal traditions and the idea that I had a preset destiny. I was supposed to be not only like my father, but in that context, also like the tribe. I was supposed to be the same or similar to everyone else.
Do you think that’s stronger if you’re a junior?
I think it’s stronger if you’re in an organized tribe. I think. [Laughs.]
You have said you got the idea for this book at your father’s funeral.
I happened to be standing at the foot of the grave when the coffin was lowered. And my name was slowly revealed. My name is Sherman Alexie and I was going, “Ohh, there’s a gravestone with my name on it a half-mile from my house.” I know my father didn’t think about that. So if nothing else, if you’re going to name your kid after you, at least ponder that moment in their life, that if things go naturally, you die and then your son has a tombstone with your name on it. You’re also gambling when you do that, that you’re going to have a good relationship with your kid. You’re just assuming. And what if you don’t?
Why did you make it a picture book?
That’s what the tribal critics are angry about. That I’m telling a little brown kid that it’s OK to be a rebel. I mean there’s all sorts of fundamentalism in brown communities. I would venture there’s many brown-skinned leftist progressives who are progressive and leftist in the world but who, when it comes to their own cultural traditions, turn into fundamentalists. So there’s all sorts of left-wing Native Americans who are left-wing in their national politics, but when it comes to their tribal politics, they are as conservative as any fundamentalist Christian: This is the way you do it, this is the only way you do it and if you don’t do it this way, then you’re not a member of your tribe or you’re not Indian enough.
Are some people telling you this book isn’t Indian enough?
They are. They’re online. It’s only a few. What happens is that white people give any public-figure Indian more authority than they should have. I shouldn’t have authority. I don’t speak for all of Native America. I don’t even speak for my own family. If my wife were here, she’d be disagreeing with me. [Laughs.] It’s like, well, here’s another opinion, and that’s not what happens. I should not have any authority. I barely want it over myself. [Laughs.]
You’ve said this took you a long time to write. What was hard about writing it?
To write a book that is interesting to kids and adults. I perfectly enjoy silly kids’ books. There’s silly element to this book—farts and burps, silly, funny kids’ stuff. But I also wanted a book that had ideas. And that those ideas would be understandable by kids and adults at the same time. That’s what’s difficult to create, the idea of hearing and rebelling against tradition. A kid reads it and thinks of being yourself. An adult reads it and hopefully thinks of the larger concept of questioning tradition.
Did you ever think of doing it as a young adult book?
Not this theme—it didn’t appeal to me. In a way, that’s what Arnold Spirit Jr. is doing, is looking for a new name in my teen book, but in the context of a lot of pain. I wanted a picture book where that search for self-identity was in a positive, loving Native American family. I don’t know that would be all that interesting artistically inside of an older book. There’s less drama.
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