Islandborn by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa: Growing up, I was always fascinated by the stories my parents and grandparents shared about Cuba (my dad) and the Dominican Republic (my mom). From climbing (and falling from) mango trees to reach the ripest fruit to gnawing sugar cane for a midday snack, my parents’ experience of childhood was fundamentally different from my own. Neither side of the family ever sugarcoated why they came to the US; I knew they had to leave but I never really understood what that meant, or why.
As a first-generation Latina, raising a biracial daughter in the US, I am always looking for ways to incorporate my family’s culture, language, food, and traditions into our daily family life. With a new abundance of #ownvoices children’s books by Latinx authors, story time has become my favorite way to teach my daughter about our culture. It’s particularly important to me to read literature (both adult and children’s) that feature ownvoices, stories that reflect an authentic representation of a person’s or culture’s unique experience of the world.
This book felt deeply personal to me. It told the stories of both of my parents, from two different islands.
One of my favorite books in our collection is Islandborn by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa. Following a young girl living in a big city (presumably New York), Islandborn is a very real and honest representation of growing up between cultures. The book intentionally leaves out where the main character is from, but through images, you can infer that it’s Díaz’s native Dominican Republic.
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“Every kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else. Hers was the school of faraway places…Lola was from the Island.”
When Lola is given an assignment at school to draw a picture of where she is originally from, she realizes that she doesn’t remember anything about the island she left when she was a baby. Lola starts asking her family and neighbors to tell them what they remember, and they all have such fond memories that Lola starts asking why anyone would leave.
That’s when she learns about the monster.
Portrayed as a giant bat hovering over the island, I find this characterization to be both symbolically appropriate as well as age appropriate.
“It was the most dreadful monster anyone had ever seen…For thirty years, the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.”
A Pura Belpré Honor Book (a prestigious award given to children’s book that best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience) published in 2018, Islandborn, can be the story of any immigrant family escaping political oppression. This book felt deeply personal to me. It told the stories of both of my parents, from two different islands. It told of the flavors, sounds, and sights of the Caribbean, but also of the fear that drove them away and the grief that lingers even decades later. It is brilliant and a wonderful addition to my daughter’s library, and one that I think any first generation American, particularly Latinos, will deeply appreciate.