Review of Islandborn

by Junot Díaz; illus. by Leo Espinosa
Primary Dial 48 pp.
3/18 978-0-7352-2986-0 $17.99
Spanish ed. 978-0-525-55281-9 $17.99

Lola’s school, in an unnamed U.S. city, is full of immigrants like her. For homework one day, Ms. Obi tasks her young students with drawing “a picture of the country you are originally from.” Lola has a problem: because she left “the Island” when she was a baby, she doesn’t remember it. Fortunately, she can tap the memories of her family members and neighbors, all eager to help...except for elderly building superintendent Mr. Mir (“Nobody cares about that old stuff...Just be glad that you live here”). When Mr. Mir finally agrees to speak with Lola, he relates something no one else has: that “a monster fell upon our poor Island,” terrorizing it for thirty years; the creature was defeated only when “heroes rose up.” That monster is the piece missing from Lola’s until-now glossy portrait, and her drawing, which concludes the book, shows her homeland in its complexity: revelers, animals, and greenery share the two-page spread with activists smiting a fanged enemy. Although the island is likely a nod to the Dominican Republic, whence hails Pulitzer Prize–winner Díaz (The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), the monster can stand in for any country’s political destabilization. Islandborn (concurrently published in Spanish as Lola), whose pages hustle and bustle with Espinosa’s vibrant illustrations of city and island life, is a welcome community and immigration story in which a young character’s existential concerns stem not from being different but from losing what makes her so by diminished connection to the past.

From the May/June 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference.
Nell Beram
Nell Beram is coauthor of the young adult biography Yoko Ono: Collector of Skies (Amulet/Abrams), which made the 2014 Amelia Bloomer Project list and YALSA’s 2014 Outstanding Books for the College Bound list.

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