Beach read: Junot Diaz launches his kids’ book ‘Islandborn’

Beach read: Junot Diaz launches his kids’ book ‘Islandborn’
Triumphant return: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz will return to the borough he once called home to kick off his national book tour for his first children’s book, “Islandborn,” at the Brooklyn Public Library on March 13.
Nina Subin

The book is a sail down memory lane.

A Pulitzer-winning author and former Brooklynite will launch his first children’s book at the Brooklyn Public Library in Prospect Heights on March 13. Junot Diaz said that his picture book “Islandborn,” about a young girl who must rely on her family’s memories of the island where she was born, was inspired by his own family’s journey from the Dominican Republic to the United States.

“I had very strong and indelible memories of [the Dominican], but I have family members who came over so young that they have no recollection, and I always felt that was kind of a curious place to be, to have been born in a place but not to recall it, and then to live surrounded by everyone else’s memories,” said Diaz, who emigrated to New Jersey when he was six years old. He lived in Boerum Hill in the early 1990s, before moving to Manhattan, and now teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In “Islandborn,” illustrated by Leo Espinosa, Lola goes to school in the Dominican-heavy Washington Heights neighborhood on the distant isle of Manhattan, where her family and neighbors tell her about the festive music, sweet mangoes, sandy beaches, and colorful houses that fill their home island. Others describe a powerful, metaphorical monster, and the hurricane that drove many of them to flee. Diaz included those darker memories to make the text more realistic, and to inspire young readers to stand up to political oppression, wherever they come from.

“The idea that there’s only going to be nostalgic, warm memories — that people only have this positive connection to a place — struck me as deeply unrealistic,” he said. “I think it’s important to recall that many of us come from communities that are defined by our confrontations with political monsters, and I would hope the book functions on a deep level as a tutorial for fighting them.”

Diaz similarly drew on elements of his own life to write “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which won the Pulitzer in 2008, and in his short story collections “Drown” and “This Is How You Lose Her,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2012.

His debut book for youngsters is an homage to New York City, he said, but he is glad to return to the better borough to kick off his month-long tour.

“When I think about this book, I think about the fact that I miss New York City,” he said. “I lived in Brooklyn a long time, and I have sentimental feelings for it.”

Junot Diaz at the Brooklyn Public Library Central Branch (10 Grand Army Plaza at Eastern Parkway in Prospect Heights, www.bklynlibrary.org). March 13 at 6 pm. $20–$25 (includes a copy of the book).

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Memory lane: Diaz’s first childrens’ book, “Islandborn,” follows a young girl in New York City as she asks about the island where she was born.
Penguin Random House

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