Last week I took my 6 year old son (past his bedtime, on a school night…) to see Junot Díaz talk about his new children’s book Islandborn. Leading up to the talk, I was a little concerned about keeping my son up late. Exhaustion brings out the worst in him. The minute Junot Díaz stepped on stage, my fear was alleviated. My son was captivated. I was captivated.
Díaz kicked off the event by polling his audience members. How many people were immigrants? Who spoke a language other than English? In that moment, I felt such pride in my country. After all, as Díaz pointed out, “immigrant” is a good word. This is something to be celebrated. Someone should remind the President.
After a brief introduction and a few self-deprecating jokes about being an author, he read a selection from his book. After which, he told all the grown-ups to “go to sleep” while he let the kids ask questions. The majority of his talk was directed towards the kids in the audience. Adorable.
Islandborn is the story of a little girl, Lola, who immigrates to the United States when she is one year old. At school, in a classroom full of immigrant children, her teacher gives an assignment to draw a picture of the place where each of them were born. Lola cannot remember the island on which she was born. She must ask her relatives, and members of her community, what it was like. They tell her about the bats, about the music, the fruit, a hurricane, and a monster that terrorized the island for many years. Lola hears beautiful and scary memories from the island. She comes to understand that though she cannot remember the island, it will always be a part of her.
After the reading, one astute kid asked Díaz how the monster was defeated. Díaz answered that in his experience all monsters have weaknesses. To defeat a monster you must make lots of friends – you must have solidarity – and you must find the monster’s weakness. What a great way to talk about the world and its monsters.
Islandborn is one of those books you’ll want to read over and over again with your child. The book is a celebration of identity. When Lola finally reveals what she drew of the island, colorful pictures sweep across the page. That page makes me happy with every reading.
At the end of the author event, Díaz requested that all the young children jump to the front of the signing line. I was so grateful for his thoughtfulness, for by that point, it was an hour past my son’s bedtime. We stood in line, met the author, and got two signed copies (one for home, one for our Kindergarten teacher). Every day since the event, my son asks to read the book.
In addition to Islandborn, Junot Díaz has written several works of fiction for grown-ups. In 2008, he won the Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. If you get a chance to hear him speak, I highly recommend going! In the meantime, you can tide yourself over with one of his books.