Islandborn

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Islandborn Book Poster Image
Vibrant memories of Caribbean island celebrate heritage.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Some Spanish words: "abuela," "prima," " hija," "bendición." Some details of what life is like in the Dominican Republic (called "the Island," never named). Period of history when the Island was terrorized by a "monster" (dictator Trujillo, also not named).

Positive Messages

Immigrant communities can be tight, supportive, loving. Teachers can assign projects that incorporate and celebrate kids' backgrounds. Communities can help teach kids about their national backgrounds and heritage. When kids need help or information, they can seek it out. The many shades of skin color are like a rainbow. Brave heroes can banish the tyranny of monsters.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though Lola can't remember the island where she was born, she works to collect memories from others in her community. Her neighbors miss the island home they left, and talk about it lovingly, freely sharing information. The community of immigrants is strong and tight. References made to brave people who fought against tyranny in the Dominican Republic. School is diverse, and teacher devises projects that incorporate kids' countries of origin.

Violence & Scariness

"A monster fell upon our poor island." The monster's pictured as an actual monster, looming over the island while frightened people flee. The monster "could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it." Brave people do rise up, however, and banish the monster.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Islandborn is by Junot Díaz 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. Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and 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.

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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 every day 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 Díaz 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.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the memories in Islandborn. How do the people in Lola's family and community help her form a picture of the country she was born in? Do your relatives and family friends ever give you information that helps you understand your background and heritage?

  • Who do you think the monster is that Mr. Mir talks about? Do you think it was a person? Why might he refer to a person as a monster? What do you think the monster did? Can you find clues in what Mr. Mir says?

  • Islandborn says "every kid in Lola's school was from somewhere else." Where does your family come from? What about the other kids in your school? Do you ever have school projects where you look into and talk about that?

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