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Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Díaz is releasing his first children’s book, Islandborn. The book is inspired by his own experiences as a young immigrant coming from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. His acclaimed 2008 novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, drew from similar influences. But his children’s book has been in the works for even longer. His goddaughters asked for a book from him about 20 years ago.
During an appearance on CBS This Morning, Díaz explained why he took so long to fulfill his two goddaughters' request. "I got really, really slow," he said. "I felt terrible about it. I have a picture of them when they asked me and a picture of them when they got the book, and it's embarrassing!”
In any case, Islandborn sounds wonderful. The book is set in a school and centers around a little girl named Lola who, now that she lives in the U.S., struggles to remember the island of her birth that she left when she was a baby. However, with the help of her family and friends, she rediscovers home. Lola uses her wondrous imagination, and along the way reconnects with her heritage. “Just because you don't remember a place doesn't mean it's not in you,” Lola eventually realizes, per the book’s description. Díaz explained that the phenomenon will be familiar to most immigrants, particularly ones who moved when they were young.
"A lot of us can't remember our origins; that's one of the things that happens," Díaz said. "We hear our parents talking all the time about places they grew up around, or events that happened before we could remember. We grew up with grandparents who often bring an entirely different world. We're shaped by places and people that we've never, ever met. And that's something important to recognize."
"I think we tell each other stories," Díaz remarks. "I think all of us, when we think about our grandparents, if we have the fortune to grow up around our grandparents, if you were lucky enough you remember how gentle they are, how caring they are, but you also remember their stories that seem to come from another planet. And stories bind us across time and across space."
Díaz’s idea for a children’s book stems from his own lack of such books during his own childhood. As he explained during the CBS interview, the only book he grew up around was the Bible, and even then, it was “adult-centric.” Through his experiences at school in the U.S., he discovered a love for reading and writing, and saw in that a “model” for the kind of person he could become.
"In some ways we need models to understand what we could possibly become," he said. "Until [the moment a librarian took him to a library]... I had no idea that it was possible to somehow live a life with books. I assumed I could be a ballplayer; maybe if I was super-brilliant I could be the doctor you saw every now and then. But the idea that you could live a life with books—this librarian gave that to me as a gift. She showed me a door that I could possibly walk through, and because of her I walked through it."
Islandborn, written by Junot Díaz and illustrated by Leo Espinosa, is now available via Amazon.