Author Junot Díaz has won prestigious prizes and accolades for his works, including “Drown,” “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and “This Is How You Lose Her.” But it may have surprised some when the literary lion, who attended Rutgers University and went on to earn a Masters degree from Cornell University, decided to write a children’s book. Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic, immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 6, and he spent the bulk of his childhood growing up in New Jersey. Traces of his childhood parallel that of the protagonist in his debut picture book.
Díaz’s “Islandborn” (Dial Books) explores the topics of culture, identity, and belonging through the eyes of the main character, Lola. His colorful picture book relates Lola’s experience as she discovers her heritage and celebrates imagination. The artistry is the work of illustrator Leo Espinosa.
“First time and I got so lucky to work with Leo. He’s so brilliant, and he brought a magnificent Caribbean sensibility to the project — vibrant, playful, and soulful. I’m hoping we work together again very soon,” Díaz told our publication. The text and illustrations of this well-crafted children’s book will resonate with young readers around the country and will lead to wonderful conversation in the classroom and at home. Díaz believes exercising imagination is especially important for immigrants, because they often need to make homes for themselves where previously there were none.
In this book, Lola’s teacher asks her diverse class to draw a picture of the places where their families emigrated from. Lola struggled to remember her island. Just a baby when she immigrated with her clan, she seeks the help of her family and friends to uncover her extraordinary journey. Her imagination takes her on a trip back to her island.
Díaz hopes that his work will encourage more multicultural representation in children’s books. (He is also the co-founder of the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, which provides emerging writers of color with workshops and mentoring.)
“Every little bit helps. Diverse books for a diverse world. Nothing else will do. Otherwise, we cheat ourselves of what is so sublime about humanity — our splendid, endless variety,” Díaz noted.
When asked how he became inspired to write a children’s book, Díaz said, “I kept having to explain to the young people in my life why, if I’m a writer, had I not written any books for them? And I didn’t have any good answers for them. So I ended up writing the book as part of my answer.” Like his fiction for adults, “Islandborn” has earned rave reviews, including from the School Library Journal as well as Publisher’s Weekly.
The process of writing content for a children’s book is quite different than writing for adults, which was a distinction not lost on Díaz.
“I’ve never thrown out so much work in my life,” he said. “The demands of the form are cruel. You don’t have a lot of space for anything.”
Despite the limited space, Díaz included a lot of content within the pages of “Islandborn,” touching on themes of immigration, culture, and identity.
“It is in childhood where we create paradigms about ourselves and others which will guide us for many years to come. If you are not exposed to these fundamental questions early — how can you live healthily in a world that is a world in which immigration, culture, and identity play a central, if not determinative, role?” He added, “Books like this are first and foremost an opportunity for adults and children to connect over stories, which is always a beautiful thing. This is a story about how it often takes a whole community to face a monster and how each generation has to face that monster anew, if only so that they can keep alive the story of all that courage it took to do so.”
In his own act of courageousness, Díaz most recently made waves with the publishing of a very personal essay in The New Yorker, revealing that he had experienced sexual abuse as a child. In it, he explained the toll that this trauma had on his behaviors during his adolescence, young adulthood, and in adult relationships. From depression to uncontrollable rage, Díaz faced many challenges as a male victim of sexual assault. He maintained his silence until, as an adult, he finally sought help.
Many are anticipating what will come next for the influential author, who has been named a New York Times-bestselling author, MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellow, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and is currently professor of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It seems, though, that Díaz has embraced the title of “children’s book author.”
“[I] already handed in my second picture book. We’ll see what comes next,” said Díaz.
Shnieka L. Johnson is an education consultant and freelance writer. She is based in Manhattan, where she resides with her husband and son. Contact her via her website: www.shnie