Sherman Alexie has long been known for giving voice to the Native American experience. Engaging his pen in “fancydancing” has paid off. He has received numerous accolades for his poetry, novels, and short stories.
In 2007, Alexie broke into the young adult genre with the semi-autobiographical novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). Not only has it received high praise, including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, it has also raised its share of controversy, having been banned in several school districts.
“I think I get banned for the absolutely best reasons: Because I am honest about the way in which we flawed and fragile humans operate in this flawed and fragile world,” concedes Alexie. “I write about the glorious mess of being a walking, talking primate. And people sometimes get scared of that.”
But Alexie does not let the criticism get to him. He continues writing about the themes and issues he believes need to be addressed, especially in relation to living between the two worlds of Indian reservation and white society.
“Fancydancing, as a ceremony practiced by Native Americans, is a continually evolving art form based on ancient traditions. I hope my writing is the same.” — Sherman Alexie
“I have been so grateful for the response to my young adult novel,” Alexie shares, “and have received such amazing letters from young folks about how much the book means to them. And I just kept thinking that I needed to write a book for even younger children. Essentially, I wanted to write the kind of children’s book that I wish was around when I was a kid.”
That book he wished for is being released May 10, 2016 as Thunder Boy Jr. (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). In this book, a Native American child wrestles with discovering his own identity even though he is named after his father. As with many of Alexie’s other literary works, this picture book hits a nerve with Alexie and conveys messages he believes need to be addressed.
“My father was the primary source of my reading ambitions. He read everything and handed me books all the time. And they were books of all kinds. I am an egalitarian reader to this day because of my father. I read in all genres.” — Sherman Alexie
“I am vehemently against naming our children after ourselves. It’s too possessive. I always struggled with being named after my father, with the expectation that I would be like him. I think I rebelled precisely because I didn’t want to be exactly like my father. Turns out, you can’t avoid being mostly like your father and mother. I am good with being Sherman Jr. now, but I suspect that I would have given myself a name like Zephyr or Wonder Horse when I was a kid. Or Dr. Alexie, since my original life plan was to become a pediatrician.”
Though Thunder Boy Jr. is told from the perspective of a young boy, the illustrations by Yuyi Morales help bring all the characters to life. “I created the concept of the book as a story of a family in which they all let us hear their voices,” says Morales. “I decided that, even though the story is told from the point of view of Thunder Boy, there will be an opportunity to see the story evolve in conjunction with the family interaction—and the family as a part of the world. I knew that I wanted to make a connection between the intimate search for identity with family, community, and the people and things that we care for. I also wanted to explore how we all learn who we are from each other. As Thunder Boy builds strength and detaches from his father into his very own person, his sister is also observing Thunder Boy, wanting to play with him, fight with him, follow in his footsteps—all of it in her own search of learning who she is. At the end, nothing is separate, because we all find out about who we are as we learn from and care for each other.”
Morales is known for her boldly colored, dream-like illustrations. And though Thunder Boy Jr. incorporates features of her signature style, overall it is a departure from what she’s done in the past. “As I accepted to illustrate this book, I was looking for my own place to live and work, and I found a run-down house. The roof and many walls had to be re-built, and as the building came down, I realized how beautiful the old material was … bricks and wood that had been textured and colored by the weather and time. Not only did I use the rubble to rebuild the house and my studio, I also decided I would create the illustrations for Thunder Boy Jr. with all the colors and textures that were the core and bones of the house where I would be living this part of my own story.
“What I did in order to create the illustrations for Thunder Boy Jr. was to begin collecting the most luminous, out-of-the-ordinary, and even rotten pieces of wood from the piles of rubble that the construction workers were gathering. My own contractor would tell his workers, ‘Do not throw anything away until La Señora has had a chance to come and collect all that she wants from the garbage.’ He is my friend and was making fun of me, but what was true was that those pieces of discarded material were my treasures.
Interior spreads from Thunder Boy Jr.
“I scanned all those pieces of wood and the clay I had been collecting, and I created a digital palette in my computer. From the sketches, I painted the line-work using ink on textured paper, and then I also scanned those drawing into my computer. Then I began painting. Taking from all the colors and textures I had, I began filling up the blank spaces of the world of Thunder Boy Jr.”
“Thunder Boy Jr. came to me as I had just moved to live in my birth-town, Xalapa, in Mexico. I had for a while decided that I would only illustrate my own stories. When I got the manuscript for Thunder boy Jr. I was very taken by the fact they thought of me to illustrate a story written by one of my favorite authors ever (Sherman’s books have been very present in our home while my son was growing up). And then … the story is about one’s search for identity, which is something that had been very present during this time of change for me.” — Yuyi Morales
Thunder Boy Jr. has received excellent early reviews. But both author and illustrator have found fulfillment in creating Thunder Boy Jr., making it a success in their eyes. “I am very pleased with the illustrations in Thunder Boy Jr.,” admits Morales, “but not only because I created these images, but because I was able to add my voice in proposing an exploration between children and parents, and among learning, emotions, and conquering challenges. I was able to be part of a narrative in which children know they do amazing things as they live everyday lives. Sometimes the biggest mountains to climb are right there on the shoulders of our elders, and the most amazing universe to discover is the world of our community.”
Satisfaction is short lived, however, and Alexie and Morales have moved on to new projects. So what can readers expect to see from them in the future? Morales shares, “What you will see next is RUDAS, a new Niño book, this time a celebration of his rude little sisters.” And from Alexie? “I am under contract for seven wildly different projects, so you’ll get something soon. I just don’t know what. And I plan on writing more picture books, yes, and am developing a few ideas now. I next want to write a book about an Indian girl’s adventures in the world. My ambitions are global and impossible to achieve, but they keep me motivated. I hope everybody in the world eventually reads one of my books.”