Sherman Alexie, who won a multitude of awards for his young adult book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, here enters the children’s market with his first picture book. He explained to Ron Charles of The Washington Post that he wanted “to help correct an ongoing problem: the lack of brown-skinned kids in literature.”
Alexie’s sense of humor comes through in this fun story about a young boy who is a “junior,” named after his father. While the boy loves his dad, he wants an identity of his own, and throughout this story, proposes all sorts of alternate names. He wants a name that, as he says, “celebrates something cool that I’ve done.” He then lists some of these cool things, such as the time he touched a wild orca on the nose, or climbed a mountain.
As with his book for young adults, a lot of the humor is self-deprecating. For example, he confesses that “I learned to ride a bike when I was three, so maybe my name should be ‘Gravity’s Best Friend.’”
The names he comes up with are quite humorous, but some Native American readers have expressed the worry that the book will provide ammunition for those who wish to make fun of Native Americans for the whole “Indian names” issue. I can see their point, but in my experience bullies don’t really need outside help; they are plenty able to be nasty with or without guidance. And when they can’t assemble facts, they merely adduce “alternate facts.” So why should we give up the positive aspects of the book for something that could happen in any event?
On the contrary, I would like to think that young children exposed to diverse cultures might learn to appreciate them in a positive way.
Illustrator Yuyi (pronounced “ZHOO-zhee” ) Morales is a 2015 Caldecott Honor winner, as well as the recipient of several Pura Belpré Awards. In this book she clearly had fun putting the text into pictures. She also employed speech bubbles, based on what was already in the text, making them part of the illustrations.
The author told NPR what he hopes kids will take away from this book:
“The idea that, you know, you don’t have to be like your family to be a part of your family; that in fact you can extend the borders of your family. As one person, as one member of a family, you can make your unit larger with your ambitions and your ideas about yourself.”
Evaluation: This is a delightful book that one hopes will mitigate the negative elements of the current environment in which non-white cultures are disparaged. With proper guidance, the story in this book can be used in a positive way to illustrate the diversity of American culture.
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2016