Picture Books about the Native American Experience

Posted on August 8, 2018

by Eric P

A lot has happened…

since we began the process of including Sherman Alexie’s “Thunder Boy Jr.” in our 101 Picture Book Challenge. Most notably, numerous credible accusations of sexual harassment have been publicly leveled against the author, leading to reduced book sales, rescinded awards, removal from syllabi and websites, and an ongoing diminishment of Alexie’s place in the literary canon.

So that’s an ugly situation.

But what about the book?

Thunder Boy Jr by Sherman Alexie

Thunder Boy Jr.,” vibrantly illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is narrated by the title character, a young Native American boy who’s dissatisfied with his name. That’s partly because he has issues with sharing a name with his father – he’d prefer one that reflects his own individuality – and partly because he’s self-conscious about having a name that’s out of step with his non-Native peers. It’s a lively, exuberant book, with explosive interpolations of hand-lettering that encourage a rambunctious read-aloud experience. And its themes – about grasping for one’s identity, and the urge to fit in, and the anxieties of cultural diversity, and the looming shadow of a larger-than-life parent – are engaging and relatable.

But even before Alexie’s shameful behaviors became widely known earlier this year, some readers were voicing concerns about “Thunder Boy Jr.” Debbie Reese noted on the terrific website American Indians in Children’s Literature that Alexie’s failure to assign these characters a specific tribal background means that his book neglects to either acknowledge or communicate that cultural practices vary widely among the more than 500 recognized Native nations in this country.

Pages from Thunder Boy Jr by Sherman Alexie

That diversity of cultural practices includes naming customs, a concept which occupies a big chunk of this book (as the title character tries to decide if he should call himself “Mud In His Ears” or “Can’t Run Fast While Laughing”). And some have argued that Alexie’s generalized, homogenizing approach to these details does both his subject and his readers a disservice. Not to mention that kids or teachers who use this book as a springboard for activities like making up playful or jokey Native names for themselves or their classmates may risk being accidentally insensitive to Native people in the process.

So this is just a terrible picture book, then?

Not at all. “Thunder Boy Jr.” is a funny and good-natured depiction of a loving family, buoyantly illustrated. And there are so few picture books about Native American experiences that even a broadly general pan-Indian story has some merit. But you may find your appreciation of this book to be diminished by your knowledge of its author’s behavior, or by its lack of specificity regarding Native culture. In that case, we also recommend some other…

Picture Books about the Native American Experience

When We Were Alone by David Robertson
The Good Luck Cat by Joy Harjo
Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk
Powwow summer : a family celebrates the circle of life by Marcie R. Rendon
Hungry Johnny by Cheryl Minnema
Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Smith
Kamik Joins the Pack adapted from the memories of Darryl Baker
The Hunters Promise by Joseph Bruchac
Dragonfly Kites by Thomson Highway
Tasunka : a Lakota horse legend told and illustrated by Donald F. Montileaux ; Lakota translation by Agnes Gay
Chukfi Rabbits Big Bad Bellyache by Greg Rodgers
Fox Song by Joseph Bruchac
Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle
When Turtle Grew Feathers by Tim Tingle
Saltypie by Tim Tingle
Buffalo Bird Girl by S D Nelson

What is the 101 Picture Book Challenge?

The 101 Picture Book Challenge is for anyone at any age. Librarians hand picked the titles on the list which includes classics, new titles and everything in between.

101 Picture Book Challenge - book cover collage

To get started, register online. You can track your progress online or if you prefer a paper log booklet, pick one up at your neighborhood Library. The books are organized into categories but you can read the books in any order and at your own pace. When you read all 101 titles, you earn a free picture book (while supplies last).

This is the latest in a series of blog posts exploring some of the things we love about these books.

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