Book Reviews: Three Books About Native Kids


Thunder Boy Jr.
Written by Sherman Alexie • Illustrated by Yuyi Morales
(the most powerhouse team in the history of ever)

Thunder Boy Smith Jr, named after his father, Thunder Boy Smith Sr., loves his father dearly. People call his father Big Thunder, which “is a storm filling up the sky,” while he is called Little Thunder, which he believes sounds “like a burp or a fart.” Thunder Boy Jr loves his dad, but he has a secret. He hates his name! He wants his own name. He wants to be himself.

Reasons I love it:

  1. Little Thunder tries to solve his problem by brainstorming new names that reflect his personality and accomplishments. He has once touched a wild orca and wonders if “Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth” might be a better name. He loves going to garage sales with his mom, so possibly, “Old Toys Are Awesome” would work. The dog likes to chase Thunder Boy Jr.’s tail, so perhaps, “Can’t Run Fast While Laughing” is the way to go. His brainstorm is sweet and funny.
  2. It shows a modern-day Native American family, not the romanticized or caricatured historical version that gives children the idea that Native peoples exist only in ancient history.
  3. It illustrates the importance of remembering one’s heritage while also embracing one’s unique identity. It is an empowering tale that honors tradition while celebrating individuality. Alexie does this in in prose that is simultaneously thoughtful and hilariously funny.
  4. It is fundamentally about the powerful and loving relationship between a father and son. My husband complains that there aren’t enough books about fathers’ relationships with their kids. He loves this book.
  5. I am in love with Yuyi Morales’ illustrations! Not only are they a perfect fit for the story, but they also weave in an additional story layer that I didn’t notice until my fourth read through. Morales created the illustrations from the remains of the antique house in Mexico where she worked on the book. She selected old wood and clay bricks, scanned and used their colors and textures to digitally paint the illustrations. So cool! The bold colors add glowing energy to each page, while the grey-toned backgrounds give the tale depth and weight. Each illustration is filled with incredible detail while managing to look deceptively simple. Much like the story itself.

One Wish: No wishes for this one. I can’t imagine a more powerhouse team! I love this book!

Mama, Do You Love Me?
Written by Barbara Joosse • Illustrated by Barbara Lavallee

The tender story of a young Inuit girl testing her limits, even as her mother reassures her over and over again that a parent’s love is unconditional.

Reasons I love it:

  1. This story of unconditional parental love is set in Northern Alaska amongst the traditions, culture and lifestyle of an Inuit family. The combination of this universal theme and an underrepresented people enable readers to feel an immediate connection as they learn about (what is likely) a different culture.
  2. The lyrical writing is beautiful to read and easy for young children to follow.
  3. The story introduces readers to new animals and vocabulary words. Carter calls this the “mukluk book” or the “umiak book.” The hardcover edition includes an illustrated glossary of terms, traditions and symbolic meanings.
  4. The vibrant watercolor illustrations are stunning. They are well-researched and filled with deep symbolic meaning. They also depict elements of Inuit life not included in the text.

One Wish: The text and illustrations are beautiful. However, this book does cause me to question who has the right to tell a story? How would the story and illustrations be different if they had been created by Inuit artists?

The Unbreakable Code
Written by Sara Hoagland Hunter • Illustrated by Julia Miner

John, a young Navajo boy who is about to leave the reservation, finds comfort as his grandfather tells him the story of Navajo code talkers during World War II. His grandfather’s story begins as Navajo children were forced into government boarding schools and punished for speaking the Navajo language. However, the Navajo language becomes the unbreakable code that saves our nation during World War II.

Reasons I love it:

  1. It tells the story of a little-known piece of U.S. history in simple, yet captivating language. Though it is wordier than a typical picture book, and may be suited to slightly older children, the grandfather’s shares a story that every child should grow up learning.
  2. In child-friendly terms, the story reveals the historical legacy of hypocrisy and injustice toward Native peoples in the United States. As an introductory detail, forced boarding schools may be lost in the excitement of the heroic story, but is nevertheless a dark chapter in history with generational consequences. Punishment for speaking one’s native language is another detail that illustrates the dehumanizing treatment Native peoples endured. Even the example of the American soldier who heard the grandfather code talking and mistook him for a Japanese spy shows the perspective of Native peoples as foreigners in their own land. The government was happy to use them when the Japanese couldn’t break their language code, but as we can see today at Standing Rock, injustice continues.
  3. The story is filled with pride at the pivotal role Navajo code talkers played on the world stage.
  4. The painted illustrations are soft, subtle and gentle. They lend an air of humility and natural strength to the story.
  5. A glossary of original code and code highlights is included in the back.

Two Wishes: John’s introductory storyline doesn’t flow well with the rest of the story. The grandfather’s beautiful story is sandwiched between two slightly awkward and forced ends. Additionally, neither the author nor illustrator is Native; I wonder how many details and nuances are missed as a result, despite their copious research efforts.

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