by Sam Juliano
Thunder Boy Jr. has a problem. He has been saddled with the most unconventional name since that imp like creature, who possessed the skill to turn straw into gold disappeared after losing his temper many years ago. Though the tyke who looks like a younger version of Elvis adores his father, he wants his own identity. One’s name in life the way Thunder Boy thinks is an all-encompassing label that embodies all he does, all he represents, all he accomplishes. As such this fiercely independent toddler rejects any notion that his name must be patterned on the characteristics or exploits of any member of his kin. He wants a normal name. His mom is known as Agnes, his sister is Lillian – those don’t attract any kind of attention, nor a second thought. Secretly he abhors this cursed identification, as it flies in the face of what he has done and what he hopes to achieve. It is almost as if he is a clone, with his entire life spoken for in advance. The boy thinks his father is awesome, but he is a different person who must make his mark in the world. Creativity and world view are not attributes to be passed down from generation to generation, they are to be developed and stood for. But there is a hitch in this unique scenario. This family is native American, and the significance of a name far outstrips its regard in a conventional household where it is largely an afterthought.
In the life-affirming, universal picture book Thunder Boy Jr., written by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales, a personal aspiration that transcends parental expectation eventually segues into a common understanding via the bonding of father and son, which is the central dynamic in the book, even with mother and daughter a vital part of this baptism-under-fire equation. Alexie, himself a Native American, is a celebrated, award-winning writer, whose noted works of fiction include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Reservation Blues, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Like his titular character he was named after his father. But the real challenge in Thunder Boy Jr. was to bring a compelling cultural element to a story with an omnipresent theme, to bridge the past with the present, but in so doing amplify a tradition that held a vital importance in Indian households. Even the book’s electrifying resolution doesn’t disavow the familial institutions that made passage particularly meaningful, but rather brings these all-too-enterprising kinsfolk to a shared understanding of cultural assimilation.
Morales, a Mexican-American who won a Caldecott Honor two years ago for her kaleidoscopic picture book biography of her once fellow country woman, Frida Kahlo, titled Frida has also won a bevy of other accolades for her prolific work, and this year she has also released a vivacious sequel to her wildly popular Nino Wrestles the World named Rudas Nino’s Horrendous Hermanitas, which is also slated for full treatment in this ongoing series. The trademark of this remarkable artist is her bold lines, strikingly balanced colors and shapes and the unstinting effervescence exhibited by her characters, all of whom at the end of the day are loyal and loving. Each canvas in Thunder Boy Jr. gives the appearance of being created from polished mixed media elements, but the illustrator states right at the outset that they were made “from the remains of an antique house in Xalapa, Mexico, where Morales presently maintains a studio.” Remarkably it is further explained that “when the rotting roof and some of the walls came down, she picked out old wood as well as clay bricks that she later scanned and used their colors and textures to digitally paint the illustrations.” Hence, Morales created a wholly original form, one not only unique in the situational creativity but also imbued with a makeshift quality that somehow accentuates the book’s deep rooted and soulful quality.
In the opening spread we are introduced to a seemingly ebullient boy strumming a fancy guitar; he announces himself as Thunder Boy. His younger sister, holding a florescent red and yellow ball clarifies the incomplete declaration by adding the last name, the most common stateside. That strikingly ubiquitous all-purpose ball, the guitar and the dazzling floral design on the mom’s apron-dress (is she pregnant?) practically jump off the page in the next canvas where the boy laments the fact that his mom wanted to name him Sam, which is “a good name, a normal name.” Much further removed of course from the mores of his ancestors, this independent lad deduces his birth name is anything but normal. In fact he subsequently determines that there isn’t one other person on the planet, aside from the one who holds the copyright -his Dad- who answers to such a name. Alexie amusingly quips “Or so you would think” to emphasize how kids are easily intimidated by the likelihood of situations. Morales presents the father -called Big Thunder in metaphorical terms. The nickname literally fills the sky as the mass of a man shown here in Brobdignagian fortitude, defying even the bolt of lightening. The boy says that people call him “Little Thunder” by way of association, and the younger students always delight when he adds “That nickname makes me sound like a burp or a fart.
Thunder Boy Jr. has concluded that his name is abnormal and then after promising to let the listener in on a secret, the absolute truth is blurted out in uncompromising terms. Morales projects the intensity of how much he despises it in three colorful bubbles, each showcasing black line drawings of exasperated wild creatures. Thunder Boy retreats a bit when he assures anyone listening that he thinks his father is awesome, though he needs his own separate identity. At this point both the narrative and pictorial genius of Thunder Boy Jr. is launched in a series of double page spreads that document the boy’s list of “accomplishments” that he asserts will give cause to attach the corresponding titles. Readers are treated to various staged situations where the kids believe what the parents have fabricated. The wild orca Thunder Boy Jr. touches is Dad wearing a costume -the boy suggests his name should be “Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth” and while standing at the top of a teepee he recommends “Touch the Clouds.” The swirl of colors in the pages where the boy and his sister play in the mud and ride bicycles as a defining example of gravity yields two more kid-literal titles – “Mud in His Ears” and “Gravity’s Best Friend.” Morales responds with delirious pictorial bliss that includes the family dog and Dad in pursuit. The pink pants on sister, the yellow play clothes on Thunder Boy Jr. and that color dotted helmet are gorgeously highlighted. Then the boy asserts that he once “dreamed the sun and the moon were my mom and dad, so maybe my name should be………Star Boy! This idea is quickly enough supplanted by the glorious array of toys -a robot, pink elephant, rattle, top, wooden dog with wheels, jump rope and others, and Thunder Boy Jr. is more than willing to make his name a happy realization that Old Toys Are Awesome! Morales overlaps these two thoughts with the illustration of a beaded yellow sun at the center -Dad plays guitar and Mom rides motorcycle (a fact we knew earlier on) and there isn’t a kid around who isn’t wishing they were in on the mayhem.
The dog gets his turn in a acrobatic tapestry dominated by the bright colors, where the canine chases his tail and that of the boy who is dressed in a fox costume. Little sister is also having a ball. My own favorite canvas is the one where your creative young adventurer concludes that his name should be “Drums, Drums, and More Drums!” The Indian head dress with all the colorful simulated grass blades seem to give the boy special dancing talent, and even the three creatures envisioned earlier in the “hate my name” panel are evoked in line drawing banging drums in support, as young sister proposes the ceremonial name change. The “Full of Wonder” allows for an airy depiction of the earth -the boy’s three friends are there again -bear, snake and fox and by now we know there is something distinctly connected to folklore here- but while Mon and dog look on approvingly Dad plays his guitar while the kids pedal into the air in a scene that is boosted by a spiritual undercurrent. The boy’s final plea, following a statement of his case and the first expression of love for his father is finally rewarded when the family matriarch decides it is time to honor his son’s preference. Morales goes minimalist to showcase this critical time of attainment -this epiphany, the time when father and son can be labeled as different, yet -and Alexie expresses this state of nirvana magnificently bringing them together in a meterological union – thunder and lightening, visually radiant and aurally deafening – together they will move mountains, but more importantly as partners, not twins. Alexie says so much in that final atmospheric canvas, and Morales summons a real celestial event in her vivid shadings.
Thunder Boy Jr. is a picture book masterpiece, one of the very best works in this or any other year, and the positive energy it generates is as potent as the lightning bolts that strike around our rejuvenated kin. For Alexie this is a stirring cultural breakthrough, for Morales one of her illustrative capstones, that by any barometer of measurement should place her square in the middle of Caldecott deliberations. There could well be some symbolic meaning in those celebratory end papers, unbeknownst to its extraordinarily compatible creators.
Note: This is the twentieth entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.