Upon our very first reading of just-released children’s book Islandborn, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz, lots of things resonated with my children. Several weeks ago I was scrolling through Instagram when an illustration of a gorgeous little girl with a chocolate complexion and a sky-high afropuff popped up. Of course, I had to find out what exactly I was looking at—my kids are five and two and a multi-cultural mix of Puerto Rican, Irish, German and African American and I’m always on the hunt for toys and books they can relate to. It’s not easy.
When I found out that it was the cover art for a children’s book by Junot Diaz—his first release since 2012’s This Is How You Lose Her—I was admittedly surprised. Diaz is one of the most renowned and widely known Latinx authors of our time and can be credited with bringing the Afro-Caribbean immigrant experience to the mainstream masses. Fans have devotedly followed his career since The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao earned him a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008.
People are going to take notice of anything he publishes, and Islandborn (which was also released in Spanish under the title Lola) has the potential to make a huge mark on the children’s genre. Though many were expecting some sort of sci-fi/fantasy novel from Diaz, in a recent interview with HipLatina he said, “believe me this book is more overdue than the novel,” admitting that though genre was a stretch for him, he’s always been interested in the lives of young people.
Though not a father himself, Diaz has six godchildren and he’s been promising the oldest—whom are now adults—a children’s book for many years. Enter Lola…
Islandborn is about a little girl named Lola who was born on “the island,” but has no memories of her time there. “Every kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else,” and fittingly, a school project sends her on a mission to draw a picture of her birthplace. Everyone seems to remember something about where they’re from except for Lola, and she becomes sad and frustrated. Eventually she decides that she’ll ask the people in her neighborhood—which Diaz says he imagines as Washington Heights in New York City and compares to the Afro-Caribbean neighborhood he himself grew up in—to share their memories with her. As she makes her way home from school with her prima, she stops and talks to various people who describe to her their favorite things about “the island” and she sketches a colorful, vibrant, imaginative depiction of their memories.
Cute, right? Except the story isn’t just about a sweet brown child completing a homework assignment. It wouldn’t be true to Diaz if that’s all it was. Though he intentionally leaves a lot open to interpretation and discussion: What island is Lola from? Why did everyone leave the island? Where are the White people? Diaz makes an obvious political statement in the second half of the story, when he introduces “the monster.”
On the suggestion of her abuela Lola visits a grumpy, elderly neighbor who tells her about a monster who terrorized the island for thirty years until “heroes rose up”–“strong smart young women” and a “few strong young men too,”–and fought back, finding the monster’s weakness and banishing him forever. If you know anything about the history of the Dominican Republic, you probably get the reference to Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship, but most people don’t.
Diaz doesn’t mention the name of the island, he doesn’t mention Trujillo, he is not explicit about any one place or any one person. It’s “a tale of the Dominican Republic and a tale about another place altogether, he says.” “I prefer that confusion.” Obvious parallels can be drawn between the monster and heroes in the book, and the political and cultural climate for immigrants and people of color in the United States today, but Diaz says the timing was coincidental.
“I only wish I could claim prescience or clever timing. It was just luck that we have a violently anti-immigrant president who spits xenophobic racism all day long. But the truth of the matter is that there has always been a current of anti-immigrant racism in this country,” he says.
When asked if he hoped the underlying theme would spark discussion about the monster metaphor as children get older and continue to re-read Islandborn, his response was an emphatic “of course!” He says, “any book about cultural trauma has to be revisited if it’s ever going to make any sense.”
My own takeaway and one I hope will be a part of the discussion with my children as they grow up: it’s up to us. It’s up to us to remember. It’s up to us to hold the places we come from in our hearts. It’s up to us stand up for what is right. It’s up to us to teach other. It’s up to us to learn from the past. It’s up to us to fight back.
Just like Diaz’s Yunior and Oscar made the Dominican experience relatable for many, many people who had probably never thought about what it was like to come up in an urban brown community, Lola has the potential to help us show our children from an early age how to rise up and insight change in their own communities.
So while illustrator Leo Espinosa’s bold drawings of empanadas and mangos, happy Caribbean beaches and beautiful people in all shades of brown dancing and playing music resonate with my tiny children now, I know I won’t miss the opportunity to teach them the something more that Islandborn presents.
Oh, and Diaz revealed that he’s already written another book about Lola in which she actually has “magic powers.” So BAM! We can only begin to imagine how she’ll use them.