Mangoes and monsters
There’s a monster in Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Díaz’s first children’s book. It seems that no one wants to talk about it, especially not with Lola, the little girl at the heart of Islandborn. After all, how do you talk to children about the most horrifying part of your country’s history?
With his story collections (Drown, This Is How You Lose Her) and award-winning novel (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Díaz captured the biting, funny and city-wise voices of young Dominicans and Dominican-Americans, often returning to the same characters again and again. But 20 years ago, Díaz’s goddaughters demanded a story that represented someone like themselves—Dominican girls living in New York. It was an intimidating request, but Díaz fulfills that promise with Islandborn, which is about a tenacious little girl who learns about her heritage through the collective memory of friends and family.
“Children’s books present [a difficult task to] writers,” Díaz says, “which is to remember how fiercely you loved the books that you loved when you were young. To produce something that could create the possibility of that fierce attachment was a tremendous challenge.”
(Illustration © 2018 Leo Espinosa. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Penguin Young Readers.)
Díaz is speaking from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shortly after a major snowstorm had dragged the East Coast. In the middle of winter, reading Islandborn is like stepping into the sun after weeks of 4:30 p.m. sunsets—it is warming and wakening in a whole new way.
Lola lives in Washington Heights, New York, but she comes from the Dominican Republic, or “the Island.” When her teacher asks her diverse class to draw a picture of “your first country,” Lola is at a loss. She remembers nothing of her birthplace—but the people in her neighborhood do. Her cousin Leticia talks about bats “as big as blankets,” while others gush about the music, the mangoes, the rainbow-colored people.
Island imagery soon saturates Lola’s city world. Leo Espinosa’s digital mixed-media illustrations, in 1950s and ’60s retro style, are rendered in the brightest possible hues, palm fronds teeming from nearly everywhere. “I knew I wanted someone who had a Caribbean background,” Díaz says of Espinosa, who is from Bogotá, Colombia, “who would be able to understand the kind of joyful frenzy out of which I come.”
After hearing so many magical things about the Island, only one man, old Mr. Mir, tells Lola something different: “[E]ven the most beautiful places can attract a monster,” he says. A double-page spread reveals a huge, batlike beast rising from the ocean, bending palm trees beneath its wrath and scattering islanders in fear. The Monster is a terrifying embodiment of Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator who orchestrated the 1937 Haitian massacre. The Monster reigned for 30 years, Mr. Mir says, until “Heroes rose up” to defeat it.
Understandably, the Monster was subject to intense scrutiny during the book’s production. But ultimately, “No matter what parents do . . . being a child is frankly a terrifying proposition,” Díaz says, echoing Maurice Sendak. “There’s nothing about monstrosities—and certainly Trujillo, he is a monstrosity—that is alien to a child.”
By the story’s end, Lola has learned about the Island’s good and bad, darkness and joy, and she is able to complete her assignment, which turns out to be the book we’re reading. In the same way that Lola is entrusted with the realities of her history, Islandborn trusts its young readership with the complicated emotions that come with reflection and memory. This trust—along with the text’s longer length—makes Islandborn perfect for reading aloud. What better way to experience a book about collective memory than by making it a collective reading experience?
“Reading, when we’re adults, is a solitary enterprise,” Díaz says. “This is not true of how we evolve as readers. We begin [by] reading collectively . . . with a parent or with a teacher. In my mind I couldn’t resist the fact that Lola’s journey not only models what it takes to face any large problem . . . but also what it takes to face the tremendous challenge that is reading, which is a collective [process]. So the fact that the book both models and invites the practice of collectivity was certainly no accident.”
Although her family and neighbors help, Lola finds a place within her community all by herself. She tells her class, “Even if I’d never set foot on the Island it doesn’t matter: The Island is me.” (Fortunately, Lola will go to the Island in the sequel.)
“It was one of the great liberations of my life when I discovered that it’s not other people who grant you [permission] to belong to a community. This is something that you grant yourself,” Díaz says. “Lola’s clearly immersed in her community in ways that are vital and generative, and yet, she never felt a full part of it. And I think the realization that there’s no metric that you have to achieve, there’s no set of criteria that you have to meet, but that in you, there’s a recognition of your place in the community—that, more or less, is what matters.”
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
Author photo by Nina Subin.