Islandborn: Why Junot Díaz wrote a children’s book about an immigrant family

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For his most recent project, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) turned to the world of children’s books — and he had a very specific reason for doing so.

“I’d been promising this book to my goddaughters for decades,” Díaz tells EW. And, he says, “I had no children’s books growing up, not really. My mother didn’t read to me as a kid, not in the [Dominican Republic] or the U.S. — her generation didn’t grow up with that tradition, she didn’t know better. By the time I learned English, I had missed the whole picture-book moment.”

That promise, and those experiences, led to Islandborn. The picture book, illustrated by the award-winning Leo Espinosa, celebrates cultural diversity in the U.S. and poses questions about identity and belonging, through the touching story of a young girl’s imaginary journey back to her birthplace, called “The Island.” The book centers on an Afro-Caribbean immigrant family and paints a picture of a vibrant immigrant community — one that wasn’t intended to be political but that, in the current political climate, naturally appears so.

In an interview with EW, Díaz talked more about his inspiration for the book, why he believes it will resonate today, and what he hopes readers take away. Read on below, and purchase Islandborn here.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to write a children’s book? And how did you approach it?
JUNOT DÍAZ: It was long overdue. I’d been promising this book to my goddaughters for decades. But then there were the parents who used to approach me during readings and ask me when I was going to write a book for their children — and usually their children would be standing right there, looking at me dubiously. When I finally got to work, after delaying as long as I could, I began by reading every kid’s book I could lay my hands on. Jacqueline Woodson’s work was an immense help. Edwidge Danticat too. And then I began to write and throw away and write and throw away until something stuck.

This is a personal story you’re telling. Were there any children’s books growing up that spoke to you in a particularly meaningful way? 
I had no children’s books growing up, not really. My mother didn’t read to me as a kid, not in the D.R. or the U.S. — her generation didn’t grow up with that tradition, she didn’t know better. By the time I learned English, I had missed the whole picture-book moment. I do remember my first years in the U.S., looking at Richard Scarry books and not understanding a word of them. Perhaps it was that longing to understand that I drew upon, the stories I used to make around the pictures. Those were my only picture books — the ones that I made up to make up for the fact that I couldn’t read English.

Immigrant stories are of particular political significance right now. What in your mind is the value of bringing them out into the world at this moment?
Trump ran and won the election on a platform of anti-immigrant racism. Conservatives have spent decades demonizing and criminalizing what is best about this country: our immigrant and refugee communities. It’s only in a climate like ours, so threatened by bias, that a simple story about the courage of a single Afro-Caribbean immigrant family could become a profound act of resistance.

How do you think this book speaks to current conversations around DACA and immigration reform?
Our politicians have abandoned our immigrant communities to racist demagogues — if it wasn’t for all the ethical people in this country, we’d be completely alone. If this book could provide encouragement and inspiration for anyone involved in fighting for immigrant and refugee rights, I would be elated. It’s not the reason I wrote the book, but I would happy for this side effect nevertheless.

Where did the inspiration for Lola come from? How would you describe her?
Lola’s a composite of my goddaughters. Back when I used to think I would have kids, I always thought I’d have a daughter like Lola. She’s smart without having to show off and creative as all get-out and more curious than I’ll ever be. She also had something that I didn’t really have growing up in the United States — a loving community. (I definitely had a community, but I wouldn’t say it was all that loving.) Above all else, this is what I wanted to give to any kid I had — a loving community. In the end I never had kids, so I gave it to Lola.

The communities in Islandborn feel authentic and vibrant. How did you go about developing them? What personal experiences did you draw from?
I lived in Washington Heights in N.Y.C., which as anyone who lives up there will tell you is the heart of the Dominican diaspora, and had all sorts of great neighbors and great friends — I made in the Heights the community that I longed for during my childhood, and that was the community that shows up for Lola. I’ve lived a bunch of places, and nothing has ever come close to what I found up in the Heights.

What messages do you hope young readers take away from this book?
No messages, just the experience of Lola and her world and maybe the reminder that many of us who hail from “faraway places” also come from traditions of fighting political monsters. We are brave like that.

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