Sherman Alexie on mining his childhood for his first picture book, 'Thunder Boy Jr.'
He's explored his Native American childhood in poems, YA novels, even films. Now Sherman Alexie can add children's-book author to his résumé
“My mom always said I was born with a suitcase in my hand,” says Sherman Alexie, who was just 3 years old when he carefully packed a tiny suitcase full of picture books and a spare pair of glasses and set his sights on the road for the first time. “I was ready to leave!” he says, laughing. “It’s one of my earliest memories.”
As Alexie — best known for his National Book Award-winning YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian — points out, his wanderlust was unusual. He grew up on a reservation in Washington where it wasn’t normal for anyone, child or adult, to want to leave home. “I was dreaming about the outside world almost constantly,” he says. “In a tribal context, that’s weird.”
Alexie thinks that his yearning sprang in part from the fact that he spent his early years in and out of hospitals (he suffered from a brain condition called hydrocephalus). Spending so much time with doctors and nurses made him realize how much he wanted to go to a school that would challenge him, even if it meant leaving his family.
He brought that experience to True Diary, which helped teens across races and cultures come to terms with their own identities. Now his new picture book, Thunder Boy Jr., gives little ones a chance to start piecing together who they are, too. He considers Thunder Boy a “companion piece” to True Diary: “It’s not the same person, but they have similar lives. I wanted to write a book about a positive, loving family. An intact family. I thought it was important for a Native American picture book to feature that.”
In the story, Thunder Boy Jr. loves his namesake father, Thunder Boy Sr., but isn’t interested in being a diluted version of Dad: “People call him Big Thunder. That nickname is a storm filling up the sky. People call me Little Thunder. That nickname makes me sound like a burp or a fart,” he moans, proceeding to list all the names he’d rather have.
Alexie explains, “I bring the ancient tradition of a kid earning his or her name as an adult because of something they’ve done, and I put it in a contemporary context.” For him this issue is deeply personal. “I’m Sherman Alexie Jr.,” he says. “I’d always struggled with being named after my father.”
In the end, Thunder Boy Sr. helps his son choose a new name, giving him the same freedom to shape his future that Alexie’s own father did. “My dad did something very similar to the dad in that book, but at an older age: He let me go. He let me leave the rez for the white school,” Alexie explains. “I was 14.” Quoting from Thunder Boy Jr. but clearly speaking about his own father, Alexie says, “He read my mind. He read my heart.”