Sherman Alexie on the Search for Self-Identity and Becoming the Person You Are

A wise and witty exploration of one of the single greatest challenges facing every child — the formation of self-identity.

cover of thunder boy jr

“Become such as you are, having learned what that is,” counseled the Ancient Greek poet Pindar. The advice concerns one of life’s greatest challenges: the search for self-identity and the struggle to become an independent individual. Younger readers who have difficulty comprehending abstract philosophical concepts will appreciate Thunder Boy Jr. (public library), a children’s book that provides a practical and pictorial spin on Pindar’s sage advice. 

For author Sherman Alexie, the search for self-identity started anew after his father died. “As they lowered the coffin into the grave, his tombstone came into view and on the tombstone is Sherman Alexie — his name, my name,” he mused in an interview with NPR. “I’d always struggled with being named after him,” he said, “but the existential weight of being named after your father really, really becomes clear when you’re looking at a tombstone with your name on it.”

Alexie’s first picture book, Thunder Boy Jr. examines the issues surrounding self-identity from the perspective of a young boy (“Thunder Boy Jr.”) who, like the author, is named after his father (“Thunder Boy Sr.”). Thunder Boy Jr. loves his father, but he recognizes that he is an altogether different person, and he daydreams about having a different name and separate identity.

Hello, my name is Thunder Boy. Thunder Boy Smith. That’s my real name.

My dad gave it to me at birth. My mom wanted to name me Sam. Sam is a good name. Sam is a normal name. Thunder Boy is not a normal name.

There is nobody on earth with the same name as me. I am the only Thunder Boy who has ever lived. Or so you would think. But I am named after my dad. He is Thunder Boy Smith Sr., and I am Thunder Boy Jr.

Artwork from Thunder Boy Jr.

Artwork from Thunder Boy Jr.As a Native American who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State, Alexie was always interested in creating a book with strong Native American characters.

I was really interested in creating a picture book with a healthy Native American family where they respond to big questions in healthy ways. And what’s the bigger question than, you know, ‘Who am I?’

With beautiful artwork reflective of Native American culture, the book is a colorful celebration of a culture foreign to many Americans. The front matter provides details on how Yuyi Morales created the illustrations.

The illustrations for Thunder Boy Jr. were made from the remains of an antique house in Xalapa, Mexico, where Yuyi now has her studio and where she created this book. 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.

Artwork from Thunder Boy Jr.

Artwork from Thunder Boy Jr.

Thunder Boy Jr. daydreams and experiments with a number of fictional names for himself. At the end of the story, Thunder Boy’s wish is granted. He gets a new name, and he takes an important step in the journey to discovering the person he is.

‘Son, I think it’s time I gave you a new name. A name of your own.’

My dad read my mind! My dad read my heart!

‘Son, my name will still be Thunder but your new name will be Lightning!’

Artwork from Thunder Boy Jr.

Artwork from Thunder Boy Jr.

For adult readers, Thunder Boy Jr. serves as a tender reminder of the daily self-identity challenges faced by our children. Most of us have overwhelmingly fond memories of childhood. When seen from the comfortable vantage point of adulthood, our younger years were filled with unbridled discovery, reckless play, limitless excitement, first love, and courageous acts of bravery.

But if we’re being honest, that’s only the half of it. Childhood is also full of daunting challenges, humiliating mistakes, and crushing failures. By any measure, growing up is an arduous process. It’s fraught with innumerable trials and tribulations that — once surmounted — add up to maturity and adulthood.

Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie (Photograph: Seattle Municipal Archives)

The formation of self-identity is one of the greatest challenges facing every child — a challenge that typically persists long into adulthood. Phrased as a question, the challenge is this: Who are you, and what is it that makes you different and unique from everyone else?

To become whole, children need to develop their own unique identities — those which differentiate them from parents, teachers, and other individuals. In so doing, children effectively stake out their place in the world. They lay claim to the personality traits and characteristics that make them genuinely unique. They embrace the talents and virtues with which they have been born. They discover the path to themselves and start blossoming into mature adults.

Thunder Boy Jr. acknowledges and celebrates this process of self-discovery. Children and adults alike will discover that they can learn a lot from this beautiful book. Complement with Trombone Shorty and Those Shoes, two other books with important life lessons featuring diverse characters.

Those Shoes: A Lesson in Coping with Consumerism and Rampant Fads

“I have often been touched by the generosity I’ve witnessed in children and their willingness to share, even when it’s tough to do so. These selfless acts have a way of shaping lives.”

Cover of the book Those Shoes

Globalization has brought with it many benefits, but freedom from advertising and consumerism isn’t one of them. In virtually every nation, childhood is becoming increasingly commercialized and commodified. Companies spend $17 billion dollars a year marketing to children, and the average American child watches an estimated 25,000 television commercials per year according to the FTC.

Those numbers have a big impact. The majority of children have seemingly insatiable appetites for toys, clothing, and other products designed for exclusively for kids. In fact, children influence up to $500 billion a year in family buying. According to Dan Cook, an assistant professor of advertising and sociology at the University of Illinois, the psychological effect is detrimental to children and parents alike.

What is most troubling is that children’s culture has become virtually indistinguishable from consumer culture over the course of the last century. The cultural marketplace is now a key arena for the formation of the sense of self and of peer relationships, so much so that parents often are stuck between giving into a kid’s purchase demands or risking their child becoming an outcast on the playground.

Kids’ consumer culture takes a most intimate thing — the realization and expression of self — and fuses it with a most distant system — the production of goods, services and media in an impersonal market.

Cumulatively, this fusion has been forged cohort by cohort and generation by generation over the twentieth century, making each of us a small conspirator in its reproduction. The process is so insidious that by the time a child gains the language and capacity to grasp what is occurring, his or her attention patterns, preferences, memories and aspirations cannot be neatly separated from the images and poetics of corporate strategy.

Author Maribeth Boelts and illustrator Noah Jones tackle this issue and others in Those Shoes (public library), a thought-provoking and heartwarming children’s book. In addition to consumerism, the story touches on many of the other big problems experienced by little people — stuff like bullying, peer pressure, and poverty — while also serving as a poignant reminder that children are capable of incredible acts of kindness and generosity in the face of overwhelming social pressure. The result is an unforgettable lesson in empathy, perseverance, and compassion.

The story starts with the hero, a boy named Jeremy, dreaming about some expensive shoes.

I have dreams about those shoes. Black high-tops. Two white stripes.

‘Grandma, I want them.’

‘There’s no room for want around here — just need,’ Grandma says. ‘And what you need are new boots for winter.’

Artwork from the book Those Shoes

Of course, it seems like virtually everyone else in school has “those shoes,” except for Jeremy. When his shoes fall apart during a kickball game, Mr. Alfrey, the guidance counselor, helps him find a new pair in “the box of shoes and other stuff he has for kids who need things.” When he walks into the classroom wearing them, the entire class laughs at him.

When I come back to the classroom, Allen Jacoby takes one look at my Mr. Alfrey shoes and laughs, and so do Terrence, Brandon T., and everyone else. They only kid not laughing is Antonio Parker. At home, Grandma says, “How kind of Mr. Alfrey.” I nod and turn my back. I’m not going to cry about any dumb shoes.

Artwork from the book Those Shoes

On Saturday, Jeremy learns that Grandma has saved a bit of money and might be able to buy him the shoes. But the shoes are too expensive. They find a pair used at a thrift store, but they’re too small for Jeremy’s feet. Jeremy buys them with his own money anyway.

Artwork from the book Those Shoes

Jeremy sees that Antonio’s are falling apart too, and he notices that Antonio’s feet are smaller than his. He decides to give Antonio those shoes he bought at the thrift store.

That night, I am awake for a long time thinking about Antonio. When morning comes, I try on my shoes one last time. Before I can change my mind, the shoes are in my coat. Snow is beginning to fall as I run across the street to Antonio’s apartment. I put the shoes in front of his door, push the doorbell—and run.

Artwork from the book Those Shoes

Artwork from the book Those Shoes

The story ends with Antonio thanking Jeremy, and the two of them running through the snow in their new boots.

Boelts, a former preschool teacher, says that the story was inspired by the kids she worked with. “I have often been touched by the generosity I’ve witnessed in children and their willingness to share, even when it’s tough to do so,” she said. “These selfless acts have a way of shaping lives.” Jones, the illustrator, says that he can identify with the main character. “I know exactly how Jeremy feels in this book, wanting something so badly it becomes all-consuming,” he said. “In my case it was probably a new, crazy action figure with ‘kung fu’ grip.”

Advertising, peer pressure, and consumerism pose real threats to children, but parents can help. Those Shoes is a deeply moving children’s story that delivers a powerful lesson of empathy and compassion. Complement it with Last Stop on Market Street, a Caldecott Honor Book about a boy who takes a bus ride through the inner city with his grandmother.

The Inspiring Autobiographical Story of Trombone Shorty: How a Homegrown New Orleans Musician Blazed His Own Trail

“I’m living proof that as long as you work hard, you can make your dreams take flight.”

Cover of the book Trombone Shorty“People of color have a constant frustration of not being represented, or being misrepresented, and these images go around the world,” the great film director Spike Lee told an interviewer when asked how Hollywood portrays African Americans in movies. What’s true on celluloid is also true in children’s literature. Fourteen percent of Americans identified as black on the 2010 US Census, but a report shows that African Americans author only three percent of children’s books, and that only five percent of children’s books are about African American children. In short, children’s books are still predominantly white.

Trombone Shorty (public librarybreaks the mold in spectacular fashion. This award-winning book is an autobiographical portrait of author Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews’ life as a child growing up in the New Orleans neighborhood of Tremé. Surrounded by music and musicians, but poor and with no real instruments of their own, Troy and his friends form a band and start playing instruments they make themselves. That is, until the hero of the story finds a broken trombone.

Then one day I found a broken trombone that looked too beaten up to make music anymore. It didn’t sound perfect, but finally with a real instrument in my hand, I was ready to play. The next time the parade went by my house, I grabbed that trombone and headed out into the street. My brother James noticed me playing along and smiled proudly. “Trombone Shorty!” he called out, because the instrument was twice my size!

Illustrator Bryan Collier filled the book with artwork that’s tough and uncompromising. The eye-popping combination of pen, watercolor, and collage is both realistic and a little startling. Taken collectively, the story and the artwork really capture the unique feel of New Orleans and its jazz music.

Artwork from the book Trombone Shorty

Artwork from the book Trombone Shorty

Trombone Shorty practices his trombone until he’s mastered the instrument.

From that day on, everyone called me Trombone Shorty! I took that trombone everywhere I went and never stopped playing. I was so small that sometimes I fell right over to the ground because it was so heavy. But I always got back up, and I learned to hold it up high.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, he says that “the only reason I succeeded as a musician was because I practiced every day.” Readers learn that the grown-up Trombone Shorty has played music for President Barack Obama at the White House and performed with artists like Lenny Kravitz, U2, Green Day, Eric Clapton, and B.B. King.

Artwork from the book Trombone Shorty

Artwork from the book Trombone Shorty

One of the most exciting parts of the story is when Trombone Shorty gets invited onstage to play with the great musician Bo Diddley.

One day my mom surprised me with tickets to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the best and biggest music festival in town. We went to see Bo Diddley, who my mom said was one of the most important musicians of all time. As I watched him onstage, I raised my trombone to my lips and started to play along. He stopped his band in the middle of the song and asked the crowd, ‘Who’s that playing out there?’

Everyone started pointing, but Bo Diddley couldn’t see me because I was the smallest one in the place! So my mom held me up in the air and said, ‘That’s my son, Trombone Shorty!’

‘Well, Trombone Shorty, come on up here!’ Bo Diddley said.

Artwork from the book Trombone Shorty

In real life, Trombone Shorty is now a famous musician who regularly tours with his band Orleans Avenue, but he’s never forgotten his roots. In the author’s note at the end of the book, he explains why he shared his story.

While I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world and share my music, I always return home to New Orleans. Nothing has been more inspiring to me than working with the children there. I wanted to write this book to try to inspire hope in kids who might be growing up under difficult circumstances but who also have a dream, just like I did. I’m living proof that as long as you work hard, you can make your dreams take flight.

With the help of Tulane University, the author created the Trombone Shorty Foundation to help other children in New Orleans discover music. Please join us in making a donation.

Photo of Trombone Shorty when he was a child
Trombone Shorty parading through the New Orleans neighborhood of Tremé

Trombone Shorty won the Coretta Scott King Award and was named a Caldecott Honor Book. The book won’t revolutionize the white world of children’s literature all by itself, but it’s a step in the right direction. As author and illustrator Christopher Myers wrote in an essay, books like Trombone Shorty can change the world’s perception of African Americans.

The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects. But if people can see us as young dreamers, boys with hopes and doubts and playfulness … perhaps they will feel less inclined to kill us.

The beauty of Trombone Shorty is that it stands on its own merits. Forget the color of the author’s skin — the story is as incredible as it is inspiring. Heroes are heroes no matter what they look like. This is a wonderful book to share with kids interested in music and instruments. Complement it with Last Stop on Market Street, another book that prominently features children of color.