Twenty years ago, Junot Díaz told his goddaughters he’d write a book where they, Dominican girls from the Bronx, could see themselves represented. This week, he made good on his promise, publishing “Islandborn.” But the children’s book, a first for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, is as much a gift for his godchildren, now in their 20s, as it is for immigrant girls across the country.
“Islandborn” is about a New York-living Afro-Latina girl named Lola who is struggling to remember the country of her birth, the Dominican Republic.
“She is an immigrant who came over so young, she has no memories of the land that she left behind,” Díaz told NPR. “And of course she is surrounded by a community that talks endlessly about the island.”
Lola is about 6 years old, the same age “The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao” author was when he and his family fled to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic, and attends “the school of faraway places,” where all of her classmates are immigrants. For a class assignment, her teacher, Ms. Obi, instructs the little ones to draw a picture of their first home. Unable to remember what now seems like a faraway land, she turns to her family, asking them questions about the island they left but still talk so much about.
“You have some folks trying to discourage her, other folks trying to shut the door, but her persistence wins the day. And eventually someone sits down with her — Mr. Mir — and explains to her in highly metaphorical language, but I think [in] more honest and some ways more impactful than if he’d given her just a clinical description of it,” Díaz, a professor at MIT and a recipient of the MacArthur “genius grant,” said.
Through the school project, she becomes closer with her family and gains a deeper connection to the island she left as a baby.
Díaz hopes “Islandborn,” brought to life by the vibrant illustrations of Colombian-born artist Leo Espinosa, will help broaden the collection of books offered to young people, so that it is more reflective of the appearances and experiences of immigrant kids and children of color.
“If kids of color can read about white characters in children’s books all day, the only thing preventing the reverse is a malign set of racial policies,” he told the Washington Post. “The white default is, in some ways, the cornerstone of white supremacy. It’s not some innocent issue.”
Purchase a copy of “Islandborn,” available in English and Spanish, for the kiddie in your life on Amazon.