Back in June, I did a Father’s Day craft and story time, and I’m finally finding the time to blog about it. Rather than stick with the more tried and true “I love you” stories, which I didn’t think would capture the attention of the older kids in attendance, I intentionally chose three newer books that show three more unconventional relationships between child and father. This was one of the ones I used.

Thunder Boy Jr..jpgTitle: Thunder Boy Jr.
Author: Sherman Alexie
Illustrator: Yuyi Morales
ISBN: 9780316013727
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Little Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, c2016.
Awards: 2016 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Honoree

But I am named after my dad. He is Thunder Boy Smith Sr., and I am Thunder Boy Smith Jr.
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. (unpaged)

Thunder Boy Jr. hates his name. He understands the importance of where it comes from, being named after his dad who he loves. However, he wants his own name, that “sounds like me” and celebrates him. Trying out several new names throughout the book, his father realizes the problem and together they come up with a name that reflects where he came from, as well as the boy’s own individuality.

I choose it because it presented a “stereotypical” family (mom, dad, two kids, dog) but with dark skin, and my current community is heavily diverse. The family was slightly unconventional (mom rides a motorcycle –how cool!) but it presents a very typical problem of a child being unhappy with their name, and explains the thought that might have gone into choosing a name. The pictures by Yuyi Morales are bright, colorful and full of action, quite frequently bursting off the edge of the page.

However, when presented to a group of children in conjunction with a father’s day program, they laughed at the names the little boy came up with as possible replacements. Although that ensured they were more engaged in the reading of what is essentially a laundry list of names and life events, I was unsure (and still am) on how to respond to the delightful mirth that came from the suggestions. I can’t speak for the validity of those types of suggested names, and whether they are offered in jest or in all seriousness. Some of them, like “Full of Wonder” and “Star Boy” sound to my admittedly untrained ear as a legitimate option. Others, like “Old Toys are Awesome” present as absurdly unpractical and possibly meant to elicit laughter, like Phoebe in the television show Friends changing her name to “Princess Consuela Banana-Hammock”. Written by well-known and well-respected award-winning author Sherman Alexie, does the author’s Native American heritage prevent us from seeing what could be construed as mocking the naming conventions of different cultures? Does Alexie realize that the name finally chosen, Lightning, is also the name of a popular cartoon sports car character in a multi-film franchise, or did he do that intentionally so that it would be more accepted by the audience as a “legitimate” name? Lightning is no less unusual in the modern world than Thunder Boy, although it is slightly shorter.

After some quick searching, I found Debbie Reese over at American Indians in Children’s Literature also had some of my same concerns about the book, with an equally mixed reaction. With the recent uproars over the presentation of African American history in books like A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George, and the long standing arguments that sports teams named after Native Americans are cultural misappropriation, where are the calls of misrepresentation here? Does diversity only apply when it is something as politically divisive and visible as African American history?

I still like the book, as the problem of liking or disliking and choosing names is universal. I’m still hoping to use it again for other story times, but I feel like I may need to add some context the next time I use it. The audience laughter over what the little boy himself calls a not normal name still bothers me.

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