The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, among other acclaimed books for adults, is finally ending what he calls “the epoch of disappointment” by publishing his first children’s book, Islandborn (Dial, Mar. 13).
“If you’re a writer and you have young people in your life,” Junot Díaz told PW, “they naturally demand that you write them books.” For years, Díaz had nothing to share with his goddaughters, nieces, and nephews. “I always had the sense that they thought I was something of a fraud,” he said.
Now all of that is about to change with his latest effort: a picture book, illustrated by Leo Espinosa, which tells the story of Lola, an immigrant from the Island, who is growing up in New York City. When her teacher asks the class to draw a picture of where they’re from, Lola can’t remember the Island. So she interviews the people in her neighborhood to find out about it.
For Díaz, the story reflects the Dominican expat community in the U.S. that surrounds him. “I have a lot of young people in my life whose parents are immigrants, and they may have come over when they were really young. They don’t have the memories of their place, yet they live surrounded by it,” he said.
Díaz also drew on his own experiences emigrating to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic as a child. Even though he was a voracious reader, he said that he still felt “stigmatized as being behind and remedial.” That only made him read more.
Díaz was aided by his school librarian, who he sought out relentlessly for recommendations, starting with picture books. “I burned a hole through a lot of Richard Scarry books, because you don’t need English to read them,” Díaz said. Within a few years, he was reading chapter books and soon fell in love with Richard Adams’s Watership Down, which he still reads once a year.
Within the plot of the fable-like story, he said, he sees a very real political tale. “These rabbits seek a new life across the countryside after their home is destroyed by developers.” Yet Díaz says the book’s capacity to draw his imagination is what brings him back to it year after year. “It’s hopeful and it’s a consolation to imagine small defenseless animals running the universe.”
In many ways, his views on Watership Down speak to Díaz’s upbringing as a whole, and its effect on his writing today. “When you grow up poor or ‘other’ in this society, it feels deeply dystopic,” he noted. “Your greatest weapon is imagination.”
Despite his affinity for the artistic style of the 1970s picture books that he discovered when he immigrated to New York, Díaz said he was always disappointed that people of color were not reflected in them. In writing Islandborn, he said, “I wanted a book about Dominicans and Caribbeans in that style.”
Working with Espinosa gave him the opportunity to achieve that—and to boost his confidence about writing for young readers. “It’s intimidating to write a picture book. The level of quality is so damn high,” said Díaz. “There is nothing better in the world than [to work with] somebody who is so talented they can make your ass look good.”
Just to be safe, Díaz tested drafts of the book out with friends and their children before submitting them to his editor at Dial, Namrata Tripathi. At times, he says, the children’s honesty could be brutal. “If you think wannabe writers have no filter on Twitter, try young readers when they’re staring you in the face.” But the truth was what he needed to create a book he felt could satisfy a larger reading audience. In the end, he said that sharing drafts of the book with six-year olds “was the only thing I could do.”
Despite his initial intimidation, Díaz has signed on to write another children’s book for Dial. A notoriously painstaking writer, he joked that he should have it ready for publication “in under 18 years.”
Islandborn by Junot Díaz, illus. by Leo Espinosa. Dial, $17.99 Mar. 13 ISBN 978-0-7352-2986-0