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The Importance of Author’s Notes in (Some) Picture Books

The Importance of Author's Notes in Picture Books

I recently reviewed the book Thunder Boy Jr. on my Instagram page and it sparked an interesting discussion.  I’ve heard and read mixed reviews from people over this book.  Some people love it and others don’t enjoy it as much.  Before I get into the discussion, let me first include a copy of the review I posted.

Thunder Boy Jr. written by Sherman Alexie

Review (from my Instagram page)
Follow little Thunder Boy Jr. as he goes on a search to find the perfect nickname for himself. He’s named after his father, Thunder Boy Sr. His dad’s nickname is Big Thunder and his nickname is Little Thunder. He doesn’t like his nickname though because it makes him sound small like a “burp or a fart”. So, he decides he wants a new nickname – one that sounds like him and celebrates something cool that he’s done. Thunder Boy likes to do things like powwow dance in his Native-American grass skirt and ride his bike, so maybe his new nickname could be related to one of those things? In the end, it’s his dad who gives him a new nickname.

Having a “not so normal” first name myself, I could definitely identify with this book. People always mispronounce my first name! This book reminds me of the books My Name is Yoon and The Name Jar. In both of those books the girls wanted to change their first names after moving to the US because their names weren’t “normal”. The only difference is Thunder Boy Jr. doesn’t actually want to change his first name, just his nickname.

I think it’s interesting that the author signed the deal for this book 10 years ago. He went through 30 to 40 different ideas before he decided on the overall concept. He was a junior himself, named after his dad. While at his father’s funeral in 2003, as the coffin was being lowered into the ground, he noticed that the tombstone had his name on it. While his father was a great and loving man, he was a lifelong alcoholic who would leave him and his family for days or weeks to drink. For that reason, he decided to pen this children’s book about a child in search of his own identity. The only difference is he wanted it to be in the context of a loving family, which is the exact opposite of how he grew up.

Overall, I think this is a cute story with beautiful and bright illustrations to match. It’s very rare that we see positive Native-American children’s picture books. My only one gripe about this book is the statement “I hate my name”. I think “hate” is such a strong word, especially for younger kids. That aside, this book was a delight to read and admire the artwork.  I think this book is great for discussing themes like: struggling with identity, individuality, cultural diversity and father-son relationships.  A great read for Father’s Day!

Great review!  What’s all the commotion about?
First, let me say I still enjoy this book, but now I too have one lingering question in my mind that I’d like clarified: Did Thunder Boy Jr. change his first name to Lightning or is Lightning just his new nickname?

Ok, here’s the gist of what sparked the discussion…

Another one of my Instagram book-loving buddies (Hey, lady!) posted a review about the book on her feed the same day as I did.  In her review she said the book left her feeling confused.  She struggled to understand why Thunder Boy was allowed to change his name and wondered what would stop him from wanting to change it again in the future.  She also went on to say Thunder Boy should be happy to be named after his father.  Her opinion was the book sends a message to kids that if you don’t like your name you can just change it whenever you want.

Shortly after that post went live, another person chimed in and said they agreed with her.  After flipping through the book at the book store they were turned off and confused for the same reasons.

Later that afternoon my post went live and I gave a totally different perspective of the book.  What I took away from it was a much different message.  A message of a little boy who wanted to have his own self identity.  I also provided some of the background information I previously read about the book and the author.

I remember reading years ago about the complexity of the Native-American naming tradition and how names are chosen for people.  It is normal for Native-Americans to change their names several times throughout their lives as they age, grow older or do things that are deemed significant.  Their names can change many times depending on the different tribes they belong to.  So perhaps this is what the author was trying to get across, but I’m not sure.  In any event, I was already familiar with this tradition, but my friend was not.  Hence, the confusion on her part.

All of this got me thinking about the importance of including author’s notes in picture books. I typically see author’s notes included in non-fiction children’s books, but rarely in picture books.  I like reading the background about the authors, illustrators or how the overall concept of the book came to be.  The story behind the story, if you will.  Maybe you can relate.

Now, I’m not saying author’s notes should be included in all picture books, but it might come in handy for some books.  I’m just using Thunder Boy Jr. as an example to illustrate the fact that not including an author’s note may be off-putting or downright confusing to some people.  They just won’t get the message or they’ll be left with unanswered questions.  I think that’s especially true when the story is about a particular culture and some of their traditions, clothing or food may not be familiar to many people.  In this case, the Native-American naming tradition and how it’s acceptable to change their names.  In addition, I think author’s notes can add more meaning providing a fuller picture of the overall story.  Just my two cents.

So, if you’re an author or aspiring author of picture books I hope this is helpful to you.  It may help to clear up any questions people may have after reading your book.

P.S. If anyone knows Sherman Alexie personally can you please ask him the lingering question I mentioned above?  It’s going to cause me to have sleepless nights until I know the answer…haha!

Your turn: How important do you think author’s notes are in picture books?  Do you even bother to read them?  Feel free to share in the comments.


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20 thoughts on “The Importance of Author’s Notes in (Some) Picture Books

  1. If I’m being super candid, I’m not the biggest fan of author’s notes. Oftentimes, I think they pull me too far out of the story (even at the end), and most times I don’t really need that additional perspective. I’ve always been very focused on letting the book speak for itself. But in the cast of THUNDER BOY JR. I whole-heartedly agree that it could have used an author’s note. I think this book introduces so many fascinating conversations about Native American culture, but, as someone who knows very little about the culture to begin with, an author’s note would have shed light on a lot of the nuances I think are easily missed. I was very confused by the parents’ willingness to let him change his name without any real discussion, and I was almost hurt on behalf of the dad that this kid didn’t want to bear his name but after a ton of research (and lots of conversations), I now know that this is a common practice in many Native American tribes. Had Alexie included an author’s note, this pain point would have been severely lessened for me.

    All that said, I am very excited to go back to the book to reread in this new context!

    1. Hi Mel! I agree about letting books speak for themselves, especially when it comes to picture books. I find author’s notes to be helpful in non-fiction children’s books though. As I mentioned, I don’t think all picture books need to have author’s notes included, just ones that contain information that not may be as widely known. Glad you’re going to reread the book in this new context…enjoy!

      1. Good morning,

        Stopping by to invite your readers to read my posts about the book. There are, thus far, three.

        I’m Pueblo Indian, tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo. What I see in the book, in reviews, and in comments about it is the use of “the Native American” or “Native American culture.”

        The book’s lack of specificity means everyone goes right to the generic monolithic phrase. I’m a former professor in American Indian Studies, and have been involved in mascot work in addition to the 25 years or so that I’ve been publishing book chapters and articles used in children’s literature courses in Education, English, and Library Science in the US and Canada.

        Most people do not realize the tremendous diversity that exists within that generic “Native American” phrase. There is no such thing as “Native American culture.” It is plural, and, the other vitally important fact is that we are not a racial group. We are a political one, composed of peoples of various racial groups, intersecting with our identities as peoples who were, and are, Indigenous to this land.

        My posts are here:

        1. Thank you so much, Debbie! This book sparked such an interesting conversation over on Instagram. I’ll definitely take a look at your posts – thanks for sharing!

          1. I appreciate the nuances of this discussion. As is so common, I find each adds dimension to my understanding of a book and the “story” behind it. I happen to enjoy reading author’s notes in both non-fiction as well as fiction even in picture books.

  2. I was (still am!) planning to do a review of this book next month, so your post is really interesting for me, especially your research on Native American name giving traditions. Thank you so much! #diversekidlit

  3. I confess I had read Debbie’s posts and several others before reading yours, Charnaie. We need these discussions and posts and thoughts. Thank you for adding yours. I AM a fan of author notes and feel this book most certainly needed more as most adult and child readers do not have sufficient background d knowledge of this specific Native American culture.

  4. I haven’t read this particular book, but in general I really value endnotes in picture books. They can be valuable for several reasons: 1) In a fiction book, they can provide additional cultural information that would be too didactic if you tried to cram it all in to the story itself; 2) they show me that the author has done research and/or is part of the culture the author is writing about; 3) picture books often spark questions from my 4 year old, some of which I can answer with the help of endnotes. 4) endnotes extend the life of the book for a child. You might not read the endnotes to a 3 year old, but at age 5 they can add another dimension to the story.

  5. What a great review! I really appreciate author’s notes as well — particularly when they flesh out aspects of the cultural context of the story that aren’t necessary in the story itself, but could be helpful as readers interact with the story.

    Interesting note — most of my friends growing up had much more unusual names than I did, and I kind of wanted to change my name to something more original for a while. But then I came to terms with my more traditional name. I still love unusual names though!

    Thanks for sharing with #diversekidlit!

  6. I like end notes too, for all the reasons already given. I don’t necessarily share them with young children at the first reading but they provide context that means I am better placed to answer questions that inevitably arise from inquisitive youngsters – or, as has already been said, allow for greater depth at later readings… because the kind of book for which notes are useful is the one that merits repeated readings.

    And I wonder, as well, how much comes down to the publisher whether a book has end notes or not…

  7. This is a great summary and contribution to the discussions happening around this book! Thanks for putting this together and sharing it with #diversekidlit. You were our most-clicked post from the last linkup! We look forward to your continued contributions!

  8. I am just finishing up a piece for Nerdy Book Club about books with author’s notes and how they can keep slightly older kids interested in picture books (both fiction and nonfiction) for a little bit longer. I came across this discussion when I was looking to see what had been written already about author’s notes—I think I didn’t find your blog/IG until sometime after you wrote this, so I missed it. I love author’s notes so much, and so do my girls—we always feel like we hit the jackpot when we get to the end of a story and find one : )