The inspiration for Sherman Alexie’s exuberant new picture book, Thunder Boy Jr. (Little, Brown, May), began at the most somber of events: the 2003 funeral for his father, for whom Alexie was named.
“I was at the foot of his grave, and as they lowered his coffin into the ground, the tombstone came into view and what I saw was my name,” Alexie says. “The weight of that moment really hit me—the good and the bad of being named for your father, the tremendous pressure, and the weirdness of seeing my name on that tombstone. It hit me hard.”
Sherman Alexie Sr. had been a bookish and loving man, but also an alcoholic who would disappear for days at a time. In the years immediately following his death, his son finished what would become his bestselling—and to date his only—YA novel, which Megan Tingley, his publisher, calls a “cultural phenomenon”: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Alexie’s first YA novel won the 2007 National Book Award in the young people’s literature category; eight years after publication, it still appears regularly on bestseller lists.
But until now, Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian whose writing for adults has won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, and the PEN/Hemingway Citation for Best First Fiction, has not published another work for young readers, though he signed a multibook contract with LBYR in 2006. For Thunder Boy Jr., he returned to a personal truth he had unearthed while writing Part-Time Indian: his father had given Alexie not only his name but also a way to distinguish himself, when he allowed the 14-year-old boy to leave the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash., for a better education at a high school 22 miles away. “Despite 10,000 years of tribal traditions, which are essentially conservative, my father made the incredibly liberal decision to let me go find my own name,” he says.
The eponymous hero of Thunder Boy Jr. is not old enough to think about leaving home yet, but, like Alexie, he closely resembles his father, Thunder Boy Sr., in appearance and is in search of his own identity. In a conspiratorial whisper, he pulls readers close to relate how he feels about his name and, especially, his nickname: he hates them both. People call his father Big Thunder, and the boy Little Thunder. “That nickname is a storm filling up the sky,” the boy explains. “That nickname makes me sound like a burp or a fart.”
Because Alexie “thinks in poems,” he assumed that writing a picture book would be easy: “I thought it would be as simple as finding the right combination of intelligence and beauty with absolutely no condescension at all.” But not so, he says. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write. And I probably tried 12 different ideas before I got this one to work.” He estimates he wrote 30 drafts before he even submitted the manuscript to his editor, Alvina Ling. Then, at her direction, he rewrote it another dozen times.
Once the text was ready, Ling sent books to Alexie from half a dozen illustrators, seeking his input. “I didn’t care if it was a man or a woman, but I certainly wanted somebody brown,” he says. The artwork he favored most appeared in Yuyi Morales’s Niño Wrestles the World (Roaring Brook/Porter, 2013). “I liked the little-boy energy in her work, I liked how much fun there was,” he says.
One problem: Morales, who won a Caldecott Honor last year for Viva Frida (Roaring Brook/Porter), wasn’t accepting new assignments. “It’s been a while since I made the decision that I wasn’t going to illustrate for anybody else, I was just going to do my own books,” Morales says. “But then they told me the text was by Sherman Alexie. That changed everything.”
Morales’s son, now a college student, had been a big Alexie fan as a teen; her family had read his books and passed them around. “Still, even though it was Sherman, whom I admire a lot, I would not blindly say, ‘Yes, I’m going to do it.’ Then they sent me the text and it is one of those that can be illustrated in so many different ways. I could create my own narrative in the art, which is what I’m always looking for. I don’t want to just put images to the text.” Her answer was yes.
Morales had just finished remodeling an old house to create a studio in her hometown of Xalapa, Mexico, when she began work on Thunder Boy Jr. She loved the colorations and stains in the rotting wood and antique clay bricks that had been removed, so she scanned them into her computer and used those colors and textures to digitally paint the illustrations, incorporating motifs and patterns from Mexican art into the images.
Morales also gave dimension to Thunder Boy’s family. Thunder Boy Sr. towers over this tiny children but treats them tenderly. The mother rides a motorcycle in a flowing skirt embellished with a huge red hibiscus. Though it’s never directly mentioned in Alexie’s text, Thunder Boy’s little sister acts just like many little sisters do, shadowing him as he recounts all the cool things he’s done and can do that would better describe who he is.
“She mimics the process,” Morales explains. “Just as Thunder Boy admires his father but wants to be his own person, the sister is following the brother around, admiring and learning from him. When he is touching the teeth of a killer whale, the sister is right there, watching.”
Morales’s finished sketches brought Alexie to tears. “I felt like I was the screenwriter and the director, and she’s this amazing cinematographer.” He is especially thrilled to produce a book that shows a happy, intact Native American family. “I searched for my own identity out of desperation, but I didn’t want this kid’s search to be desperate.”
According to Tingley, the in-house reaction has been that the sum is even greater than its parts. “We know there are two creators behind this book, but the result is so seamless and powerful, it feels as if it all evolved from a single voice and vision,” she says. “Everyone who has seen it has been blown away by the sheer force of these two enormous talents bursting off the pages.”
Thunder Boy Jr. also represents a creative breakthrough for Alexie, who, despite having two dozen books under his belt, admits to suffering from bouts of writer’s block. He prefers writing poems and short stories to novels and has struggled mightily with a YA follow-up to Part-Time Indian.
Tingley says Alexie “became somewhat overwhelmed by the prospect of writing a companion” after Part-Time Indian’s incredible success. (A completely different YA manuscript, Radioactive Love Songs, was scheduled for 2009 but never released.) Alexie says he is his own tough act to follow. “The problem is I am trying to write The Empire Strikes Back but I am deathly afraid I’ll produce The Phantom Menace instead,” he quips.
Readers, however, have not forgotten the hero of Part-Time Indian, Arnold Spirit Jr. Since the book was published, Alexie has received 10s of thousands of letters. “I don’t get them every day any more, but I do get at least one a week,” he notes. Film interest in the novel has also been strong, but Alexie, who wrote and co-produced Smoke Signals (adapted from his short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven), has so far turned away everyone who has approached.
“It’s so personal to me that I just can’t give it up,” Alexie says. “If it ever happens, I’m going to do it all by myself with my rudimentary filmmaking skills.” (Smoke Signals won the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.)
Next up is a memoir about Alexie’s late mother, Lillian, who raised six children while sewing quilts and working at the Wellpinit Trading Post. Little, Brown will publish the book in 2017. For now, his publisher is thrilled to see his name on its list again.
“Everything has come together so magnificently and now, 10 years after the contract was signed, it’s finally a book,” Tingley says. “It was totally worth the wait!”