SALT LAKE CITY — In the children’s book "Islandborn" (illustrated by Leo Espinosa, Dial Books, 28 pages) and its sister Spanish version "Lola," New York Times best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz tells the story of a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic who must rely on her family and community to recall her roots. Along the way, the protagonist named Lola absorbs stories about air heavy with music, mangoes that make grown men weep at the memory, and a monster so fierce that it drove her family and neighbors away in spite of it all.
For Diaz, the book represents his debut in the genre as well as the fulfillment of a promise he made more than 20 years ago.
“I began this journey because my goddaughters asked me to write them a book when they were very young,” he told Deseret News. The girls looked around at what was available at the time and found few stories and characters in which they saw themselves. Frustrated by this lack of representation, they turned to the one adult they believed had the power to change that. “They said ‘You’re a writer. Write us a story,’” he remembered.
Twenty-one years later, Diaz has done just that.
The outcome, said illustrator, Utah resident and Colombia native Leo Espinosa, has been overwhelming.
“It’s amazing when you see the reaction of the children because they see themselves reflected in the book,” he said.
The process of dressing "Islandborn" was an especially challenging one for Espinosa, whose portfolio includes three previous children’s books, as well as illustrations for publications such as the New Yorker and The New York Times. In "Islandborn," the monster had to be scary, but not too scary.
“You don’t want to give children nightmares,” he said.
But the main issue in "Islandborn" was color.
“Lola today in her relationship with people in her neighborhood and the classroom have to be colorful because it’s part of who she is right now," Espinosa said. "But her memories need to be a little bit brighter than that.”
To do that without oversaturating the book was a puzzle the artist confronted each day he stepped into his studio. “I’m really pleased with the way we solved it,” he said.
Diaz agreed. “The art was revelatory,” he said, his voice taking on a new degree of earnestness as the conversation turned to the period of production when Espinosa began submitting his illustrations. “Suddenly the book began to acquire more pages and the structure — the materiality of the book — altered to meet what was happening in the art, which was something really extraordinary.”
The end result is a book that is sure to earn readers well beyond the audience of Diaz’s goddaughters. Part of this is while the story hinges on immigration and the sense of being caught between two worlds, the themes of relying on one’s community, remembering and honoring the past and standing strong in the face of adversity are as universal as they come. That the monster in the book represents a government with little regard for the rule of law only makes it more relevant.
“The book is something of a tutorial for dealing with political monsters — that one needs solidarity, that one needs courage, that one needs to be able to face up to the things they don’t want to face up to,” Diaz explained.
Citing the political turmoil that characterized his youth in Colombia, Espinosa expressed his own hope that the book — published in English and Spanish — should serve as a source of strength and encouragement to its young readers.Comment on this story
“Children have a lot of power, and the more we facilitate that, the more we encourage them to keep on and find ways to make their voice heard, the better,” he said.
If you go …
What: Junot Diaz and Leo Espinosa book signing
When: Friday, March 23, 7 p.m.
Where: Larimer Auditorium, Rowland Hall Upper School, 843 S. Lincoln St.
How much: The purchase of a $20 family Ttcket from The King’s English Bookshop includes a copy of "Islandborn" and general admission seating for up to four people.