By his own admission, the novelist Junot Díaz is an agonizingly slow writer and a chronic procrastinator. Over the past two-plus decades, he has published just three books: two short-story collections and his 2007 novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won the Pulitzer Prize. He once spent about five years working on a 15-page story.
But even by Mr. Díaz’s glacial standards, his latest book, “Islandborn,” is long overdue — about 20 years past deadline. And it’s a mere 48 pages long.
“Islandborn” is a picture book — Mr. Díaz’s first work of fiction for young readers. It grew out of a promise that he made to his goddaughters two decades ago, when they asked him to write a book that featured characters like them, Dominican girls living in the Bronx.
“I’ve always had this over my head,” he said in a recent interview. “They asked me if I could write them something, and foolishly, I said yes.”
Mr. Díaz’s goddaughters are now in their late 20s, but he has finally delivered on his promise. Next spring, “Islandborn” will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers, with illustrations by Leo Espinosa.
“Behind their request was this longing for books and stories that resonated for them and included them, and opened a space where they could be protagonists in the world,” he said.
The story, aimed at 4- to 8-year-olds, engages with many of the same themes that Mr. Díaz has wrestled with in his fiction: immigration and identity, the weight of collective memory, and feelings of displacement and belonging.
“Islandborn” features a young girl named Lola who lives in Washington Heights and was born in the Dominican Republic. When she is given a school assignment to draw a picture of the place her parents came from, she can’t conjure an image of the island, which she left as a baby. So she asks family members about their memories of home. Some relatives share joyful stories, while others recall heartbreaking and frightening moments from the country’s dark past. Lola draws pictures and begins to assemble her own version of the island from the conflicting fragments of her family’s stories.
“It ties to my own Dominican immigrant identity,” said Mr. Díaz, 48, who was born in Santo Domingo and grew up in New Jersey. As a voracious young reader, he rarely saw characters who looked like him. “It was an absence I felt acutely,” he said.
With its timely themes of immigration and multiculturalism, “Islandborn” could help Mr. Díaz break into a lucrative new market. (Dial plans to print 150,000 copies.)
Picture books have become one of the publishing industry’s most vibrant and profitable categories, and a growing number of prominent novelists are dabbling in the genre, including Jane Smiley, Dave Eggers, Edwidge Danticat and Sherman Alexie. While sales of adult fiction grew less than 1 percent in the first half of this year, children’s fiction sales rose by 5 percent, and within that category, board book sales were up 10 percent, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks 85 percent of the print market. Books for very young audiences also tend to have a longer shelf life, with new readers aging in every year.
“A picture book is like a primer on how to be a human,” said Namrata Tripathi, the editorial director of Dial Books for Young Readers. “For a novelist, it’s perfect, because isn’t that what a lot of novelists are exploring in their work, anyway?”
Some external pressure helped. A year and a half ago, Mr. Díaz was driving in Miami with a friend and her young daughter, when the little girl became restless and demanded a story. Mr. Díaz obliged and began telling her a tale he made up on the spot.
As the story grew more elaborate and detailed, Mr. Díaz’s partner, the author Marjorie Liu, who was also in the car, recorded a video on her cellphone. She later wrote out a transcript of the story and urged him to publish it, but Mr. Díaz didn’t think it was good enough. “I was my typical curmudgeonly self,” he said.
It might have ended there. But Ms. Liu sent the video to his agent, Nicole Aragi, who encouraged him to revise it and develop it into a children’s book.
Mr. Díaz started a new story from scratch, and discovered that writing a picture book wasn’t much easier than writing for adults. “It’s a lot harder than it looks to write a story for kids,” he said.
While the finished version of “Islandborn” bears little resemblance to the improvised tale that Mr. Díaz spun in the car, it never would have been written without that little girl’s plea, he said.
“She wanted a story, man,” he said. “I had to come up with the goods.”
Junot Diaz (author) with Leo Espinoza (illustrations)
Dial Books for Young Readers, forthcoming (March 13, 2018)