Sherman Alexie has written a picture book, and it’s hilarious. Of course. It’s also heartfelt and beautiful, the kind of book that makes being human feel great. Thunder Boy Jr., illustrated by Caldecott Honor winner Yuyi Morales, tells the story of Thunder Boy Smith Jr., aka Little Thunder, a small Native American boy who hates his name.
As he ponders what else his name could be, we see him exploring what he loves and thinks and does, and how those things relate to who he is.
“I once dreamed the sun and the moon were my mom and dad, so maybe my name should be Star Boy. I like to go to garage sales with my mom, so maybe my name should be Old Toys Are Awesome.”
In the pictures, we see Little Thunder’s family in action. We see him and his little sister squabble over a ball. We see Thunder Boy Sr., aka Big Thunder, intervene, revealing his sternness and tenderness. Little Thunder captures our hearts, but through Morales’ illustrations, we also have insight into his dad’s perspective. Sometimes Little Thunder looks like a bona fide brat, while Big Thunder looks as weary as any preschool dad. (His mom, meanwhile, is roaring in and out awesomely on a motorcycle.)
Eventually, Little Thunder is given a new name, a name that is both his own and one that connects him to his dad.
Thunder Boy Jr. is a book that can stand up to endless readings. Its humor, beauty, and humanity reward both kids and adults. It isn’t made out of snark or smarm. Thunder Boy and his family feel like real people, and his story is so specifically his that it becomes universal.
Alexie says that the most common response people have to the book is to share the meaning and origins of their own names. This is fiction that succeeds in fostering empathy and healthy human connections, and does it while being spot-on hilarious.
Thunder Boy Jr. feels like a classic whose pages are still fresh and unhandled, its yellow-overalled protagonist an icon waiting to happen.
Check out our interview with Sherman Alexie here.