Parents need to know that "Islandborn" is by Junot Diaz, who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," a novel for adults. This is his first book for kids. Diaz was born in the Dominican Republic, illustrator Leo Espinosa was born in Colombia, and this story's about Lola, who comes from "the Island," though she left when she was a baby, so has no memories of her country of birth. She asks family members and neighbors to tell her what they remember, and one neighbor tells her about a period when "a monster fell upon our poor island," a reference to dictator Rafael Trujillo, though he's never named. The school kids and families pictured are widely diverse, and the book is being published simultaneously in Spanish, under the title "Lola."
WHAT'S THE STORY?
In "Islandborn," Lola goes to a school where every kid is "from somewhere else." Her teacher, Ms. Obi, instructs the kids to "draw a picture of the country you are originally from," but Lola doesn't remember her country of birth since she left when she was a baby. She decides to ask others in her neighborhood who do remember, and they enthusiastically tell her about the music, dancing, mangoes, beaches, heat, hurricanes, and colors. But they also hint at darker memories, and Lola finds out from her super (the superintendent of her building) about a "monster" who terrorized the island until "heroes rose up," and fought and banished him. By the end, Lola has collected so many images that she's able to make a whole book about the island instead of just one picture.
IS IT ANY GOOD?
It's not everyday that a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist writes a picture book, and this one vibrantly celebrates diversity by mining the author's own Dominican American experience. In "Islandborn," the many shaded brown-skinned kids in Lola's school hail from a whole host of countries, and her New York City neighborhood is full of friends who can tell her about the island home of her birth. Author Junot Diaz makes the decision not to name the Dominican Republic, referring to it simply as "the Island." He also references the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo who ruled for 30 years, but refers to him obliquely as "the Monster," and the art pictures him as an actual monster, not a man. This might confuse some kids, who might take the word "monster" literally, so parents and teachers can fill in the actual history.
The art by Leo Espinosa is wildly colorful, as befits a book about an island that has "Colorful cars, colorful houses, flowers everywhere. Even the people are like a rainbow – every shade ever made." And it's even more fun that Espinosa's art is incorporated into the pictures Lola herself is painting for her school project. The book celebrates the vibrancy of the Dominican American immigrant community, hinting at the darker forces that prompted people to leave their beloved island home.
RATING AND CONTENT
Recommended for ages 8 and older
Quality: 4 out of 5
Educational value: 3 out of 5
Positive messages: 5 out of 5
Positive role models: 5 out of 5
Violence and scariness: 2 out of 5
Language: 0 out of 5
Author: Junot Diaz
Illustrator: Leo Espinosa
Genre: Picture book
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers
Publication date: March 13, 2018
Number of pages: 48
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.