Friday, June 10, 2016

Naming Names: Thunder Boy Jr.

I appreciated Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie from my first read of it earlier this year. It made me laugh out loud even as I felt buoyed by the meaning this story would undoubtedly have for many children, but especially Native children.
I also appreciated the review of Thunder Boy Jr. by Debbie Reese on the American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) blog.  It made me stop and think, and it helped me further my understanding of the broader contexts in which Thunder Boy Jr. exists and is shared.
I like the book. I like the review. These two things are not mutually exclusive.
Reading Thunder Boy Jr. is such a delight. It’s a well-crafted narrative with a distinct, childlike, emotionally honest voice, and full of good-hearted humor, all set against illustrations by Yuyi Morales that are playful, warm, and full of surprises.
In her AICL review, Debbie Reese writes:
Alexie's much-loved humor is front and center of this story. Because Thunder Boy's dad is a big man, his nickname is Big Thunder. The words "Big Thunder" are extra large and bold on the page, inviting readers to boom it out as they read it. That makes it all the more inviting as a read aloud. If his dad is Big Thunder, that means Thunder Boy's nickname is Little Thunder, and that is not ok with him:

“That nickname makes me sound like a burp or a fart.”
… I look at the illustration of the two kids [Thunder Boy and his little sister] and my heart goes right to my sister's grandchildren and memories of them playing and dancing together at my niece's wedding last week. I think they'll like this book very much.
The review expresses appreciation for the book, but also asks questions about whether the fact that the author is Native (Alexie is Spokane) makes the fact that he has written what she also sees as a “Pan Indian” story alright. She states she doesn’t have an answer to that question.
I confess this was my introduction to the term “Pan Indian.”  I realized it refers to a lack of cultural specificity that implies there is universal Indian identity rather than many distinct Native cultures. Now I have the term to name what I’ve so often seen and described to teachers and librarians when talking about evaluating books about Native peoples critically.
I had not considered Thunder Boy Jr. in this context, because I knew Alexie is Spokane.  But nowhere in the picture book text itself or in an author’s note, the review points out, are Thunder Boy and his family (or Alexie himself) identified as being Spokane.
In a follow-up post to her review, Debbie Reese writes about why she thinks Thunder Boy Jr. needs a note to readers—one that identifies the story’s cultural specificity and even provides specific information on Spokane naming traditions. She leads with an anecdote about someone on Twitter who wrote about having kids pick new names after reading the book, and then shares a worksheet her cousin’s child brought home from school last year—a worksheet in which the children were given information reinforcing broad stereotypes about Native peoples and their names before being invited to choose their own names.

The underlying implication and takeaway of the worksheet, and, she’s concerned, of Thunder Boy Jr., for non-Natives is that all Native peoples and their naming traditions are the same. She notes that naming traditions are culturally specific, and for some cultures like her Pueblo one, names are conferred in private ceremonies. Activities like the worksheet her cousin’s son brought home not only strip Native cultures of their individual identities, but they reinforce stereotype after stereotype, along with decades if not centuries of cultural appropriation.
As I've noted, 100,000 copies of the book were published. I'm hoping that Little, Brown (the publisher) will include a Note in the next batch, providing a "do not use this book as an activity for which kids pick a Native American name," an explanation for why that is not a respectful activity, and a bit of information about Native naming. If you've got a copy, or if you get one of the 100,000 copies, I hope the information I share here is helpful

Inevitable: Tweet from someone who read Alexie's Thunder Boy Jr. to kids and then did activity where kids picked their Indian names.

Fact: Imagine being a Native kid in that class, who already has a name, given to them in ceremony, being asked to make up a new one.

Question: Would it help adult readers NOT do that activity if there was a note inside the book about Native peoples and naming?

A truth: A white teacher asking a Native kid to choose a new name harkens back to boarding schools where teachers asked Native kids to point to a blackboard to choose a new name.
I found myself thinking a lot about Thunder Boy Jr. and the broader context—the wider world—into which not books but children live and breathe and, we hope, thrive after reading Debbie Reese’s review and follow-up post. What she wrote didn’t change my appreciation for Alexie’s wonderful story, which it’s clear she also values. But it did expand my understanding and, I hope, critical thinking. Her willingness to ask questions that don’t have clear answers, and to share her perspective as it unfolds, and to teach as well as critique, is not only risky, but as remarkable in its own way as the lovely, lively, meaningful picture book about which she was writing.


Monica Edinger said...
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Monica Edinger said...

I've been thinking a lot about this lately. That is, how explicit cultural insiders need to be. Where it came to mind for me is with Atinuke's Anna Hibiscus books where she has made a deliberate decision not to identify the African country in which the books are set. "I chose Africa because I did not want to write specifically about Nigeria [Atinuke’s country of birth]. I wanted to inhabit a more fictional world. And for people to know that Anna’s happy middle class world exists all over Africa."{ (From KT, in a comment on my blog post about this, also wrote that she said, when she visited CCBC, that she did it"because Anna Hibiscus’s stories would resonate with children in many parts of Africa, and she didn’t want to want to limit the them by being specific to one place." (KT's comment is at this blog post::

Eric Carpenter said...

I had the chance to hear Mr. Alexie speak about his book last month during his tour. During his reading of the book, Mr. Alexie pointed out how much of the book's narrative is told through Yuyi Morales' art. Mr. Alexie pointed to multiple illustrations of the sun throughout the book. Mr. Alexie explained to the audience that the Spokane people are "Sun People", my interpretation of Alexie's remarks is that (he believes) the sun iconography (yellow overalls, actual images of the sun and rays, etc) throughout the book identify Thurderboy's family as Spokane.
How often do we praise picture books for their ability to "show not tell"?
Is this an instance where the art fails in this task or do we as readers fail the art?

I will be interested to see if Mr. Alexie and Ms. Morales more explicitly name the families as Spokane in his follow-up book about the mother and daughter.

Sam Bloom said...

Eric, I think Megan and (in her posts) Debbie ARE praising the book for all of the good points, and what you just said about Alexie's comments makes me appreciate it even more. But at the same time, I don't think it's an either/or thing in terms of anyone "failing": this is a situation where the gray area is massive. I'm sure that for Alexie, the symbolism you mentioned may make it obvious, but for the majority of the reading public I don't think it will be apparent. Hence the call to include an author's note. At the very least, I think it is important to be aware of the nuances in this conversation so that when sharing this book with children we can be sure that we are getting it right and not reiterating stereotypes (purposefully or not).

Helen Frost said...

I first heard of this "Choose a Native American Name and illustrate it" assignment last fall from someone (not Native) whose kindergartner had been asked to do this at home with parental help--the child's mother expressed her discomfort and was considering how to respond. I searched "Native American Name Worksheet" and the (or a--there may be many variations) worksheet came right up; close-by I found a depressing amount of past-tense, Pan-Indian, cultural appropriation being assigned to children. It's everywhere out there.

I was at least heartened to have this called to my attention and be offered an opportunity to help the mother form a response. If we all make it our business to become recognized as someone to whom this is important, we may be given more opportunities to address it.

For sure, don't ask children to pick a Native American name. Maybe instead, think about what different names may tell us; perhaps invite children to learn what they can about how they came to receive their own name, and share if they wish to--in a diverse classroom, this could lead to some interesting geography and history about many cultures.

cj said...

I'm torn on this subject. I think there times when having children participate in a multicultural activity can help them to have a deeper understanding and appreciation for that culture. On the other hand, as a woman of color myself, I don't like when I see my own culture being 'appropriated'. There must be a middle ground in this minefield, right?

Katy A said...

Like many things, how you approach an activity can color it in different ways. In the book, the main character spent most of the time considering what he might call himself if given a choice. He thinks about things he loves and things he has accomplished and considers what he might call himself based on those joyful parts of his life. As an activity to get kids to consider their own unique strengths, joys, or accomplishments, an activity like "I love ____ so my name could be _______" doesn't seem to comment on Native Culture; rather it is a response to the main character's expression of his awareness of his strengths. I think sometimes we overreact when dealing with cultural books - books with characters of different cultures might have multiple themes and they are not all culturally specific themes - just like in books with white or majority characters. In my opinion, this book is not about a naming ceremony, it's about a kid that wants to discover his own unique identity. But what do I know - I'm just a middle aged white lady.