Mixed Grades for Big Name Author Picture Books

Recently two big name authors of books for adults have forayed into picture books: Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie.

cover thunder boy

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So how’d they do? I’m giving Alexie a B+ and Smiley a C. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but adult novels aren’t the only works that deserve some serious critical attention.

Of the two, I started out inclined toward Alexie. Mainly because in an article in the New York Times, he said, “It’s maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever written.” And he says the book Thunder Boy Jr. took about 70 drafts.

Jane Smiley didn’t seem find it so hard. Other than learning to let the images speak for themselves and cutting down a descriptive prose, apparently, for her the story was “a breeze” (although to be fair, those words are those of the New York Times reporter). Perhaps because as Smiley noted, “It doesn’t have a plot.”

If true, I’m afraid the difference in effort shows.

Alexie did a great job coming up with an idea and an execution that spoke to a univeral kid issue and, yet, was uniquely Native American, too. Thunder Boy Jr. was named by his father, Thunder Boy Sr. It’s not a normal name like Sam and Thunder Boy Jr. hates it.

hate my name

Little Thunder, as he’s called, wants his own name one that celebrates something cool that he’s done. He imagines all kinds of names for himself from Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth (after he touched a wild orca) to Mud in His Ears for his love of playing in the dirt.

ten thousand teeth

The names are fun and imaginative. And kids will love this part and I have no doubt will be coming up with a lot of great names for themselves, and, undoubtedly, less than flattering names for their siblings. (I’m betting Poop and Fart make frequent appearances.)

At any rate, Thunder Boy Jr. doesn’t want to be a small version of his dad. He doesn’t want to be exactly like him. He wants to be mostly himself. But he’s worried about how he can tell his dad because he loves him very much.

Not to worry, Dad suddenly announces that it’s time to give Thunder Boy Jr. a new name. It will be Lightning! And Little Thunder happily concludes that together he and his dad will light up the sky.

dad and son

The language is clear and graceful with a nice rhythm and pacing to it. The names identify this boy with both contemporary life and his Native American heritage. And, as mentioned, the basic idea of picking a name for yourself has a lot of kid appeal.

But I would have liked a more organic ending. Alexie does the classic no-no in children’s books, which is to have an adult solve the problem for the kid. Not only does Dad spontaneously offer to change Thunder Boy Jr.’s name, he is the one to bestow the new name. And, arriving at the name Lightning could have been more clearly developed. The litany of possible new names that Little Thunder runs through show an energetic little boy. He loves drums and being chased by his dog and old toys from garage sales, but this list doesn’t really make the case that Lightning is the name he should have or would have chosen for himself.

I don’t think any of this will make a difference to the success of the book. It’s already been named an Honor Book for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. And I think kids and parents will genuinely enjoy sharing it. It has a great, well-realized premise, and Alexie shows a respect for and an awareness of the particular demands of the picture book form.

Because Smiley seemed to find writing Twenty Yawns fairly easy, I have to admit I was less ready to like it. She’s right. There isn’t really much of a story here and what is there is pretty pedestrian.

dad in sand

Oddly, although the story is basically a bedtime story, it starts with a rather mundanely described day at the beach. Lucy covers her dad with sand and they “laughed and laughed.” Later, Lucy “rolled and rolled’ down a soft warm dune. Okay, I admit I have a visceral reaction to this particular wording in kids writing. Describing people who laugh and laugh, and animals who sit down and think and think, and kids who run and run just feels lazy to me.

The point of the day at the beach seems to be to establish that this has been a long, busy day, so tonight will be an early bedtime. So perhaps Lucy will struggle to sleep? There is a teeny bit of that. And for me the story starts about 12 pages in with this lovely arresting moment: The moon shone through the window, a silver veil that fell across the floor. Everything looked mysterious, even Lucy’s own hands on the bedspread. Suddenly, Lucy was wide awake.

IMG_1933 (1)

It even gets a little surreal or creepy: She looked around. Everyone in the pictures seemed to be watching her—Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Elizabeth, Mom, and Dad.

So maybe the story will be about how Lucy deals with her unease? Lucy slips out of bed to get her bear, Molasses, but as she carries him back to her bed, the other toy animals are looking at her and seem lonely. So she takes them all to bed, snuggles down with them and everyone proceeds to yawn including the people in her drawings. And Lucy goes to sleep. That’s it.

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Smiley seems to think it’s okay that this is a book without a plot. And certainly there are picture books that don’t really have a story: board books, concept books, some of the more impressionistic books (like All the World). But there’s a difference between not having a story and not having a point.

Smiley doesn’t even really deliver on the promise of the title. There are indeed 20 yawns in the book, but there is no point to the yawns. Nothing is developed like perhaps number concepts or the different yawns different people or animals might make or a promise that no one can make 20 yawns without falling asleep. Surely something could have given this story some drive.

Bottom line: even if Thunder Boy Jr. was submitted by Anonymous Boy Jr., I think it would have been snapped up. If Twenty Yawns was the work of J. Frownly, I suspect it would have received those familiar words of rejection many of us know only too well—too slight.

9 responses to “Mixed Grades for Big Name Author Picture Books

  1. Really enjoyed your review, Bonny, made me think about the books more than what I had. I haven’t read Sherman’s book yet, but I read Twenty Yawns the other day. I think Lauren, who is one of my favorite illustrators, injected a beauty into the book, but like you, the story for me really began at the bedtime. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Kaye. I think our editors would have told us to cut out the beginning! But maybe it’s hard to tell such an accomplished writer as Jane Smiley what to do.🙂

    • Ha, yes, I’ve had editors get their pen and draw a line at the point where they think my story actually starts. A sinking feeling but I always appreciate the direction.

  3. Oh good, I’m glad it wasn’t just me. I loved the illustrations in Twenty Yawns but the text left me . . . well, making it 21 yawns.
    As for the dad coming up with Thunder Boy Jr.’s new name, I hadn’t seen it as the adult coming to the rescue until your review. When I thought about why, I wondered if perhaps I’d subconsciously seen it based on my limited knowledge of Native American culture. That I’d seen a boy expressing his personality, and his father following what I believe is culturally correct for many Native American tribes when it comes to naming traditions–he bestowed on his son a name that he felt uniquely expressed that personality. That it still connected father and son was a bonus. I may be way off on Sherman’s intent, but it worked for me.

  4. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia

    Thanks for your reviews, Bonny – you didn’t tiptoe around the flaws in these books, and why should you? Books need to stand up to scrutiny, and if they fall short, as these two clearly have, then you are entitled to alert us discerning readers! The trouble is, most parents who buy books for their kids aren’t at all discerning – most of them are easily seduced by a famous author’s name in big letters and a cute drawing on the cover. I was a bookseller for 20 years, and am all too familiar with parents who are always in a rush, quickly grabbing the latest, prominently displayed picture book. The actual merit of the story inside the charming cover, is usually the last thing on their minds.This is a depressing fact, so to cheer myself up, I have the wise words of Maxim Gorky pinned above my desk:
    “You must write for children the same way that you write for
    adults – only better.”

  5. The big names sure can suck up the spotlight (and the money) when they first come out. But unless the book is good, it doesn’t last long. Remember Madonna’s picture books? At least, that’s what I try to comfort myself with.

  6. Rita D. Russell

    Thanks for this your, thoughtful review of these new “celebrity author” books. I’ve read and reread Thunder Boy Jr. several times, and while I found it engaging and imaginative, I couldn’t help wishing that the ending had come as a result of empowerment by Thunder Boy Jr. himself, rather than his dad swooping in with the magical, obvious solution.

    • Alexie said that what he found hard about writing picture books was that he felt it had to be 70% for the kids and 30% for the parents. I don’t agree with him. A good picture book will entertain both kids and adults and there are certainly nods to adults in a lot of kids books, but not 30%. I wondered if his feeling that he needed to do that made him overly cautious about protecting the father character’s feelings.

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