Islandborn, Brilliantly Made

Book Reviewed:  Islandborn – Junot Díaz and Leo Espinosa, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2018

April is National Poetry Month, with lots of opportunities for engagement with young readers.   Therefore, I’m going to to take a different approach to a new book that is getting a lot of publicity, but not in this vein.

island cover

For,  Islandborn is not a poetry book…but it is a book filled with poetry.  Junot Díaz and Leo Espinosa have created an exquisite tribute to the power of the past, even when that past is narrated to a child too young to remember. Lola, a little girl of Dominican heritage living in a close-knit community in Washington Heights, New York City, is assigned a project by her teacher, Ms. Obi.  When the kids in her ethnically diverse class area asked to draw a picture of the country from which they emigrated, Lola is anxious.  “Miss,” she asks, anticipating a problem, “what if you don’t remember where you are from?  What if you left before you could start remembering?”  Ms. Obi inquires if Lola knows people who do remember.  Lola’s response, “Like my whole neighborhood!” produces a child’s journey through her heritage, and makes her into an artist and a poet.

Here are some of the “poems,” framed in history, geography, and sense impressions, which Lola records:

“Matteo had lived in a desert so hot even the cactus fainted.

The whole country is like the inside of a güira. Like the inside of a drum.

Agua, mango heads, rainbow people.

The whole island shook from their struggle – the Monster tried all of its evil tricks but in the end the heroes found the Monster’s weakness and banished it forever.

Bat blankets, more music than air, fruit that makes you cry, beach poems,
and a hurricane like a wolf.

Just because you don’t remember a place doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”


Leo Espinosa’s bright colors and cubist-influenced figures combine realistic details with a young child’s perception of adults, who here are comforting and reliable figures who share their past with Lola, making it hers, too.  The apartment of her abuela, who sits at the kitchen table doing puzzles, is decorated with plants and flowers, easily transforming in the next scene into a Dominican beach where she describes to Lola how “Fish jump from the waves into your lap…”

islandborn beach

The final two-page spread is Lola’s completed picture of “her” island, a collage of harsh and beautiful nature, as well as human bravery and love. Espinosa’s terrifying depiction of the dictator Rafael Trujillo as a monster is ultimately subdued by the strength of the Dominican people joining together and holding hands as they banish him.

island hold hands

Read this book yourself or with a child. You may also be inspired to talk with her or him about using art to keep the past alive.


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