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Thunder Boy Jr.

thunder-boyYuyi Morales first appeared on my radar in Spring 2012. Running late for a baby shower, I had popped into our local bookstore to purchase a gift. As I walked past the “New Picture Books” table, Georgia in Hawaii caught my eye. Twenty seconds later, I was headed toward the register with Georgia in Hawaii on the top of my purchase pile. After the shower, I pored over the book, struck by the way Morales’s illustrations imbued the story with a kind of magical realism. Enchanted, I immediately ordered nearly all of Morales’s books and now consider them mini works of art that live on my bookshelf. Needless to say, I was intrigued and excited upon hearing about a Sherman Alexie/Yuyi Morales picture book. Thunder Boy Jr. exceeded expectations and is worthy of every bit of its Caldecott buzz.

Thunder Boy Smith Jr, the story’s young narrator, hates his name because it is “not even close to normal.” But that is the name his father, Thunder Boy Smith Sr. (known as Big Thunder), gave him. Though he loves his father, Thunder Boy longs for a name of his own – a name that “sounds like me” and “celebrates something cool that I’ve done.” After Thunder Boy tries out several alternatives that reflect his identity and dreams (“I love playing in the dirt, so maybe my name should be MUD IN HIS EARS”), his father decides to give him a name of his own.

Morales’s art transforms this story from a seemingly simple childhood sentiment to an emotional journey exploring feelings of identity, significance, independence, and familial idiosyncrasies. The background color palette is muted shades of tan; shapes, wood textures, and deliberate patterns subtly reflect and extend the energy of each page. The juxtaposition of the muted backgrounds and colorful foregrounds accomplishes two things. First, it communicates mood. Thunder Boy is troubled, but he still finds great joy in his life activities. Second, the juxtaposition causes Morales’s radiant illustrations of Thunder Boy and his family to pop off the page. And pop they do!

Morales’s masterful use of characterization through facial expression, body language, color, and movement gives each member of this Native American family a distinct personality. Thunder Boy’s mother gazes at her children with a kind, maternal smile. His little sister, with her cute toddler-belly midriff, expresses a plethora of emotions throughout the book. Like most toddlers, Lillian’s wide range of emotions is always on display, adding a humorous dimension to the story that is missed if one reads the text alone.

However, it is Morales’s use of placement, perspective, and size of Thunder Boy Jr. and his father that speaks volumes. On the first spread of the book, Thunder Boy Jr. is standing on a chair looking happy and confident. After the page-turn, his father enters the scene, and though Thunder Boy is still standing on the same chair, his entire demeanor has changed. Dwarfed by both his father and the chair, he appears timid and perhaps a bit confused. A few pages later, the background turns to dark stormy clouds and the reader’s perspective becomes that of a small child, with Big Thunder, arms crossed, towering above. As Thunder Boy imagines new names for himself, Big Thunder’s placement and prominence on the page and in his son’s imagination shifts. He goes from being the shark and mountain, to completely disappearing for a few illustrations, to reappearing as a viewer watching his son riding away on his bike “traveling the world” and “FULL OF WONDER.” Finally, right before he christens his son with a new name, Big Thunder lifts his son above his own head: Thunder Boy Jr. now has the higher position. Look at the last illustration – the deep father-son bond and fondness between the two is unmistakable. Thunder Boy Jr. (now Lightning) is on his father’s shoulders, with his hands hugging his neck and head. The loving gaze speaks for itself. Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood, or information through the pictures? Check.

As an elementary school librarian, I have the immense joy and privilege of sharing Caldecott contenders with children. Without fail, children’s observations, perspective, and wisdom are invaluable. Their comments on Thunder Boy Jr.’s illustrations were full of insight. Prior to reading it aloud, I underestimated the importance of the names being in speech bubbles – it is brilliant! Without prompting, the children joined in when I read the names. Afterward, there was a pleasant chatter of “I don’t like my name either!” and “My name should be…”  among the students. One class was particularly fascinated with Morales’s use of circles.  Circles on the endpapers, the ball that is on several pages, circles above Thunder Boy when he declares that he hates his name, circles on his bicycle helmet, circles on the drums, circles behind the Thunder Boy and his sister, the circular green earth … circles, circles, circles. Tracing the bear, snake, and wolf motifs through the book was another thrill for the students. Excellence in presentation in recognition of a child audience? Confirmed.

Another class noticed one of my favorite parts of Morales’s art – the rich use of mixed media she weaves into the clothing of her characters. I took this moment to flip to the front matter and read aloud the paragraph explaining how Morales created the illustrations (from wood and bricks from an old house near her studio), which then prompted a visit her website to look at photographs of her new studio. One little girl pointed out that it looks like the pictures are “drawn with a sharpie” and then filled in with “paint and maybe photographs,” leading us to discuss the unique way Morales layers the illustrations. Her excellent use of transparency (shapes, colors, and textures layered upon each other) is masterful, adding yet another dimension to her artwork and enhancing its overall energy. Like the theme of the story itself, Morales’s art accomplishes a huge feat — it is simple with a touch of genius. Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed? Most definitely.

I am enthralled by Yuyi Morales’s exquisite art in Thunder Boy Jr. Maybe my name should be THUNDER BOY JR. FOR CALDECOTT.

 

Emmie Stuart About Emmie Stuart

Emmie Stuart is a school librarian at the Percy Priest Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Comments

  1. I too am entranced by this book. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis.
    When I read it aloud as part of my Caldecott reading program, I take a few minutes to introduce Sherman Alexie and talk about American Indian culture just a bit (my mother was Indian). I talk about names and naming. I find this helps the children grasp the significance as well as the humor in Thunder Boy Jr.’s list of names he runs through. There are more questions rather than puzzled looks and nervous giggles.
    I am always hopeful when it comes to anything by Yuyi Morales.

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