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Bringing diversity, identity and brown faces to children’s books

Celebrated writer Sherman Alexie has just published his first children’s book, “Thunder Boy Jr.” He talks with Jeffrey Brown as part of our series on great summer reads and makes the case that books for kids need to show more diverse faces — but are getting better.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now we continue our summer reading series, as Jeffrey Brown looks at how a writer and an award-winning illustrator are updating the look of children’s literature.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In “Thunder Boy Jr.,” a young Native American boy tells us early on, “I hate his name.” Why? Well, he is named after his own father, and he wants his own name, his own identity.

    Award-winning author Sherman Alexie has written numerous popular books for teens and adults. “Thunder Boy Jr.,” illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is Alexie’s first picture book.

    At BookExpo America in Chicago recently, I asked him why he wanted to write it.

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE, Author, “Thunder Boy Jr.”:

    Because, you know, I have two sons. And I just kept thinking about the way picture books meant to them.

    Like, their favorites were “Taxi Dog” and “Go Dog Go” and the hundreds, the thousands of times I read those books to them, and how important those picture books were to my sons. I thought, I want to try to capture that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. So, how did you approach it? What was different about doing something like this?

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Oh. Well, the big thing is, you spend — probably you want the book to be about 70 percent for the kid and about 30 percent for the adult reading to the kid.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Because you have the parent in mind.

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Exactly. You have to.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. Thank you, I guess all parents are saying.

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Yes. You have to.

    So — and that balance is really difficult, finding that balance, where you make the book hold up to repeated readings for the kid and the adult.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, can you give me an example?

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    This book ended up being — I tried to get the intellectual idea in place first. Like, what is this book going to mean, and how is that going to apply to two different levels?

    So, the thing that got to me was the idea of identity, especially in relation to being named after your father. I’m named after my father. I’m Sherman Alexie Jr. And he died in 2003. And at his funeral, the coffin lowered into the grave, and I was staring at a tombstone with my name on it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Wow.

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    And it had never occurred to me. The existential weight of being named after your father hit me in such a way. And I thought, I knew I would have to write about it.

    And, you know, even though it seems odd, it ended up being that that moment became the genesis of this picture book, the idea of the weight of being named after your father and what happens when you don’t want to be named after him anymore. What happens when you want to turn away from his legacy and create your own, even when you’re 5 years old?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. And that’s what this is.

    So, it’s a young boy, Thunder Boy Jr., son of Thunder Boy Sr., right?

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Saying, I want — but I’m not Thunder Boy, right?

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And trying to figure out who he is, in a sense.

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    This idea of the kid in search of his own identity.

    This is a loving, supportive Native American family. And I thought that was important to show as well.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And he goes through all his experiences and says, maybe I should be named this, maybe I should be named that.

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Yes. And it’s a mix of, you know, contemporary and tribally influenced names.

    Like, he’s a grass dancer, so maybe his name should be Drum, Drums and More Drums. But he also loves going to garage sales with his mom, so he says, maybe my name should be Old Toys Are Awesome.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    So he’s a kid. He’s a Native American kid. He’s both at the same time.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    How important is that aspect to it, of being a Native American kid?

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Oh, it’s absolutely vital, especially in this era where we need diverse books. Children’s books really are not representing the diversity of the United States.

    They’re just beginning to. So the idea of having a book where a brown-skinned kid, not just a Native American, most especially a Native American, because I am, but any kid that’s brown-skinned can look at this character, at Thunder Boy Jr., and his family and see his reflection, much in the same way in 1969 when I first picked up Ezra Jack Keats’ picture book “The Snowy Day.”

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I was wondering about that. Of course, yes.

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Yes. That was the only book that existed for me where the kid even remotely resembled me. It was an African-American kid wandering through the city after a blizzard.

    And I so strongly identified with his solitude, his sense of adventure, his wandering, and I had never felt that with a book before.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The absence that you feel of these kinds of books in our culture, it’s interesting, because the growth of books for children, this huge number of books.

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Oh, it’s exponential. It’s the largest rapidly growing market.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. And yet you still don’t see enough diversity?

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    And I think, if every giant cultural system is like, you — trying to change direction is like trying to change a cruise ship’s direction. And we have just started that cultural process of changing the cruise ship called publishing and called children’s publishing to start looking at the diversity of the country.

    We can see it played out in all sorts of ways right now, the demographics of voters, the demographics of each state. I mean, the number of brown kids in the country is exponentially growing. So we need to address these kids culturally. We need to make them feel like they belong.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Let me just ask you in our last minute here, the other discussion in the culture is, are kids — is anybody reading anymore? And, you know, kids seem to be reading, but what happens to them after that? What do you see?

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Well, you know, I was one of the Chicken Littles about e-books, very much so. I thought it spelled doom.

    But the thing is, e-books have actually plateaued and in some cases declined in sales. So I think — I think e-books are just going to be another way to sell books. And they’re not going to take over. I think there’s no substitute for the tactile — a kid needs this. A kid learns math by crawling.

    The connection between the brain and physical activity is obvious and well-studied and well-researched. And I think the same thing with books. The connection between language — the connection between language and movement, the connection between language and all your senses are vital. And kids know that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the book is “Thunder Boy Jr.” by Sherman Alexie Jr.?

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, thanks so much.

  • SHERMAN ALEXIE:

    Thank you.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You can watch many more of Jeff’s author interviews from BookExpo America and other book festivals. You can find them at our Web site, PBS.org/book-view-now.

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