Sherman Alexie on Creating Contemporary Native Characters for His New Children’s Book

By Sameer Rao Jun 27, 2016

In a new interview, celebrated author and poet Sherman Alexie described his recently-released picture book, "Thunder Boy Jr.," as an unexpected challenge.

"I thought writing a picture book would be easy, because I write poems," said Alexie to Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN). "But, it was pretty tough. It’s hard to write a book that’s fun for kids and for the adults [reading] the book to the kids."

Alexie, who is of partial Native descent and grew up on the Spokane Native Reservation in Washington, spoke with ICTMN about the book and the struggles Native youth encounter while finding themselves. He said "Thunder Boy Jr." is "about a little Native boy and his search for self-identity," as well as "a family that loves him so much that his search is okay." According to Amazon, the book’s titular protagonist seeks a new name that matches his own adventures. Alexie, who gave his own sons the names Joseph and David, commented on the significance of Native children straying from their parents’ and ancestors’ paths—and how that’s all right:

There are all sorts of Native people who don’t even have the chance to participate in a naming ceremony. I would say our children do not belong to us. And their futures belong to them. We can give them our culture. We can teach them things, and then they make their own decisions. We can’t punish our children for not wanting to be like us. Do you think you’re anything like your ancestors of a hundred years ago?

He elaborated on being a role model, touching on questions of authenticity that concern Native communities and some of his critics:

I am a role model. There are hundreds of Native kids writing because of me. I’m tired of having this conversation. It’s been happening for twenty years. It’s limiting to all of us … to the people who read me, to other writers … to Natives in general. It keeps us trapped in one place. I would say to [my critics], I’m sure there’s something amazing that happens to them every day. And it’s completely unpredictable, the great things that happen to us. It may not happen to us because we’re Indian, or it may. But our lives are so amazing. To spend our time worrying about how Indian something is, or not, is limiting. 

Read the full Q&A here.