Book Review: Islandborn by Junot Díaz and illustrated by Leo Espinosa

Review by Cindy Liliana Gonzalez

What if I asked you to draw a picture of your first country? What would you draw? That is what Lola, the protagonist in Islandborn, and her entire class are asked to do as a homework assignment by their teacher Ms. Obi. Lola makes part of a culturally diverse classroom in which everyone is from somewhere else. The issue Lola faces is not remembering her home country, the Island. Thus, it is through listening to communal stories that Lola seeks to piece together, via the creative process, her identity. 

     Islandborn advocates for unpacking one’s cultural difference within a classroom of cultural difference. Ms. Obi’s assignment is not given to a classroom made up of majority-white students but rather a multicultural classroom. On the first page of Islandborn, we read that Lola’s classmates are from various nations across the globe yet are together in a school of faraway places. This book serves as a window for schools whose diversity needs unpacking in terms of students being able to self-identify and also engage with communal memories of home countries. 

One highlight of this book is how it subverts the narrative template in which the protagonist is called to teach the reader about a foreign culture superficially. In this story, Lola does not teach the reader about who she is. Instead, she is on a journey of discovery, drawing her Island, a place where she was born but which she no longer remembers. Throughout the book, the illustrations capture the communal memories she hears; such pictures are a window for children who, like Lola, may have been born in the Dominican Republic but are not entirely sure what that means.

Díaz, J., & Espinosa, L. (2018). Islandborn. New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers.

Bio: Cindy Liliana Gonzalez is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota pursuing an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education. Cindy identifies as Chicana, born in California, and, her ancestral home being Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico.  

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