the power of a name and the love of a family

THUNDER BOY JNR
by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales – Little, Brown and Company, 2016
ages 2 to 8 years / diversity, s.o.s.e.

From the story of Adam & Eve to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, literature has reminded us that names matter. Henry David Thoreau wrote:

"A name pronounced is the recognition of the individual to whom it belongs. He who can pronounce my name aright, he can call me, and is entitled to my love and service."

Thoreau was talking about friendships and the impact of language—and Thunder Boy Jr. finds himself thinking similar thoughts about his own name.

Thunder Boy Jr. knows that his name speaks to who he is and he wants it to be a true reflection of him, not a shadow of his father for whom is named. He wants his name to be spoken (or pronounced) in a way that shows who he really is.

He loves and admires his father; he just doesn’t want the same name. So he starts brainstorming.

"I once dreamed the sun and moon were my mom and dad, so maybe my name should be STAR BOY."

I love pow wow dancing. I'm a grass dancer. So maybe my name should be DRUMS, DRUMS, AND MORE DRUMS!.”

I dream of travelling the world, so maybe my name should be FULL OF WONDER.”

In the end, his dad reads Thunder Boy Jr’s heart and gives him a new name—a name that is his alone and one to live up to: Lightning! And Lightning, like Thoreau, offers his own version of 'love and service’ to his dad:

Together, my dad and I will become amazing weather. Our love will be loud and it will be bright. My dad and I will light up the sky.”

Thunder Boy Jr. will strike a chord in many young hearts—here’s why:

It explores identity in a way that is distinctly Native American, but still resonates with others. Lightning and his family are Native Americans—they're clearly proud of that heritage. But even more than their heritage, the thing that binds them is love. Sherman Alexi, the author, said he wanted to create “a picture book with a healthy Native American family where they respond to big questions in healthy ways." He continues: "And what's the bigger question than, you know, 'Who am I?"  The way the family responds to Lightning’s existential crisis is both instructive and encouraging.

The exuberance that Lightning has for the life he lives and his enthusiasm for his own accomplishments are contagious. By the time you’ve finished reading, children will likely be thinking about all the things that make them great too: their ambitions, their skills, their bravery and more.

The pictures are full of story—they tell us more about Lightning and his family than the words alone. Lightning’s mum rides a motorcycle, though it’s never mentioned. His dad plays guitar. Lightning rides a pushbike. There’s a lot to ‘read’ in these pictures.

It’s important to note that there's no reference to a traditional Native American naming ceremony here. Alexie says, "This book isn’t a ceremony. There’s no sacred thing going on. It’s a father and son talking about nicknames."

A couple of small reading hints:

There's some discussion online about cultural insensitivity to the importance and sacredness of the Native American naming ceremony as a result of this story: those discussions are always good to have and Thunder Boy Jr. opens up an opportunity.

And you might find that this is a good place to start talking about naming traditions around the world. You can read about some of them here—they vary dramatically, but they all have a common love for the child and a desire to connect the child with heritage.

Picture books that celebrate diversity without making a caricature of culture are rare but Thunder Boy Jr. is one of those books. The culture of the family is central to the story and they are in every way happy and loving ... children of all cultures deserve to be part of a family like that.

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Names in this book – Thunder, Lightning, Lillian, Agnes, Sam