DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The writer Sherman Alexie has just put out a joyful new picture book for children. And the inspiration came from a surprising place, his dad's funeral.
SHERMAN ALEXIE: As they lowered the coffin into the grave, his tombstone came into view. And on the tombstone is Sherman Alexie - his name, my name. I'd always struggled with being named after him. 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.
GREENE: Sherman Alexie channeled that angst into "Thunder Boy Jr." It's the story of a little boy coming out from the shadow of his loving father to become his own person.
ALEXIE: (Reading) I am named after my dad. He is Thunder Boy Smith Sr. And I am Thunder Boy Smith Jr. People call him Big Thunder. That nickname is a storm filling up the sky. People call me Little Thunder. That nickname makes me sound like a burp or a fart.
GREENE: It's a funny and sweet little book. And it has none of the darkness that came with the humor in Sherman Alexie's National Book Award winner, "The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian." That novel dealt with his father's alcoholism and his own experiences leaving the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend a white high school. As Alexie explores issues of identity in this new book, he wondered what it would have been like to grow up with, as he put it, an alternative father.
ALEXIE: 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? And being a father myself of two boys, all throughout their lives they've had these existential questions. Any parent knows that - that you can have a 2-year-old having an existential crisis - or as my son called it when he was little, Dad, I'm having an extra pencil crisis.
GREENE: Your son said that at 2?
ALEXIE: Yes. Yeah, so that became his thing. He understood the concept but misheard the words.
GREENE: So talk about that a little bit. I mean, you grew up with a father who - I mean, I gather you loved him, but you sort of wished that you had a different father in some ways.
ALEXIE: Well, I wish I had the sober version. I mean, he was - he had a similar life to me. He went to a Catholic high school, maybe the only native of his generation to go to Catholic school on purpose. And he was an outstanding athlete and scholar. He was jitterbug champion of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in 1958. And he was so successful in high school that on my first book tour in 1993, his old classmates would show up all over the country at my readings thinking it was going to be him.
GREENE: Oh my.
ALEXIE: And I was meeting, like, really talented, accomplished classmates of his. And then they would tell me these amazing stories about - there was one story. I met a professor of philosophy, his classmate. And my dad for years told me that one time there was a flu epidemic at his high school. And everybody got sick except him and another guy. And they were a track team. And the other guy did all the long-distance running. And my dad did every other sprint and field event. They won the meet. And I thought, oh, dad.
And then I met this philosophy professor and he was saying, I remember once there was this flu epidemic in our school. And your dad and I were the only members of the track meet, and your dad won every event.
GREENE: Story confirmed.
ALEXIE: Yes, story confirmed. You know, and then they'd ask me what he was doing. And then I would say well, he's a randomly employed blue-collar reservation alcoholic. And the look of sadness in their eyes, the idea that he did not become who they thought he could be.
So for me, my mom said I was born with a suitcase in my hand. But when I was 3 I packed up comic books, an extra pair of glasses and a couple sandwiches and ran away. I made it down to the end of the road before they came and got me. So...
GREENE: What were you running from?
ALEXIE: You know, I mean, as an adult I can look back and I can say expectations or the lack of expectations.
GREENE: They sound like two very different things.
ALEXIE: And they're not. The idea that I could still live on the reservation and have a completely acceptable life, I mean, that's one of the beauties of tribal culture is the tolerance of idleness. In fact, it can be seen as a form of political rebellion for a Native American not to participate in Western civilization.
So I could have done that and not been ambitious about making a name in the world or pursuing a dream separate from my family and my tribe, but I always wanted that.
GREENE: If you were a kid reading your book now, what do you hope you would have gotten from it? That you look back and say, you know, I didn't know that or I didn't think about that?
ALEXIE: As a parent and as a kid I think about it. The idea that, you know, you don't have to be like your family to be a part of your family. You can extend the borders of your family. You can make your unit larger with your ambitions and your ideas about yourself.
GREENE: Well, I do want to ask you about one quote of yours. You once said I firmly believe in the power of one story to change one life at a time. And I could see some seeing that as sort of simplistic. But it really does, in listening to you, seem like a belief that speaks to who you are and your work.
ALEXIE: Yes. My life changed dramatically and started to change dramatically when I read "A Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats. I was 4 or 5 on the reservation. And it was the first book I ever read with a brown-skinned character. This, you know, inner-city black kid wandering the snow-blanketed city all by himself.
And the book spoke to me in a way few books have ever spoken to me throughout my life. But in that instant, I had this recognition that there was another person in the world who was like me. I reached across the fiction on the real barriers and boundaries to connect my heart to him. And that's why I'm here now. That one book made me a writer. I am constructed of stories that have changed my life.
GREENE: Sherman Alexie, his new picture book is called "Thunder Boy Jr." And let's go out on a reading, as Thunder Boy Jr. imagines different names for himself.
ALEXIE: (Reading) I once touched a wild orca on the nose, so maybe my name should be Not Afraid Of Ten Thousand Teeth. I once climbed a mountain, so maybe my name should be Touch The Clouds. I love playing in the dirt, so maybe my name should be Mud In His Ears. I learned to ride a bike when I was 3, so maybe my name should be Gravity's Best Friend.
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