Written by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa
Published by Dial Books
ISBN: 978-0735229860 (English)/ ISBN: 978-0525552819 (Spanish)
“Every kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else. Hers was the school of faraway places.” But when her teacher asks her class to draw a picture of their first country, Lola is stuck. She left “the Island” when she was a baby, and doesn’t have any memories of her own. With the guidance of her older cousin, Lola sets off on an afternoon quest to gather the memories of the adults in her neighborhood who do remember their first home in the Dominican Republic: bats as big as blankets; music, everywhere; mangoes so sweet they make you cry; rainbow people in “every shade ever made;” and beaches as beautiful as poetry. Not all island memories are happy ones; hurricanes arrive, and monsters lurk, specifically during the violent mid-20th century dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. In his debut picture book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz, himself a part of the Dominican Diaspora, tells the story of Lola’s quest with his trademark humor (“Abuela called downstairs and shouted at Mrs. Mir, who then shouted at Mr. Mir. The old people were always shouting at each other; that’s how they talked.”) and a deep respect for young people’s intuitive ways of understanding complexity. Espinosa’s mixed media illustrations merge memory and imagination in joyful portraits. At the turning point, they also represent unspeakable horror, and honor human fortitude and resilience. Islandborn, bursting with bright colors, is a love song to immigrant communities everywhere, a saccharine-free celebration of diversity, a mirror for children in schools brimming with recent arrivals, and a tatalyzing peak at such cultural richness and possibility for those whose schools are less diverse. Ideal for classrooms, libraries, afterschool programs, camps, and bedtime read alouds around the country and around the world, this book seems to offer limitless possibilities to explore family, community, immigration, identity, and intergenerational connections.
Teaching Ideas & Invitations
Class Book on Your Community. In Islandborn, Lola learns about “the Island” through her family and neighbors. What is your community like? Draw upon the five senses to help students brainstorm what they know and love about your corner of the world. What colors fill your neighborhood, village, town, city, or county? What smells permeate the air and why? What animals surprise you? What kinds of music can you hear, from both the natural and human worlds? Have students create a lovesong to your community, in the form of a class book, to describe what is special to your students.
Art as Expression: The Power of Drawing. In Islandborn, Lola reveals how much she has learned about “the Island” and its monster by drawing. There are important developmental benefits to drawing and creating art. Educators and art therapists understand that children can draw what they know and feel even when, or especially when, they don’t have words to do so. We know that students draw before they learn to write, and often learn to encode before they decode. Foster a spirit of creative communication and visual literacy by establishing a regular time for drawing in your classroom each day. Conference with a few students each day to learn more about their drawings, taking pictures with your phone or tablet to document their work over the course of the year, and the connections that you make to their overall literacy development. Such work is beneficial to students who are native speakers of English and Emerging Biligual/Trilingual students.
Learning about Lola’s Community. After reading Islandborn, what do your students now want to know about “the Island?” Some of you may be in classrooms with many students of Dominican descent, and some of you may be in classrooms with none. Explore the Dominican Republic by learning more together, drawing on the resources below and the people in your community who are part of the Dominican Diaspora. Explore pictures and video clips that you can find online. Have a community member come in to tell his or her memories about life in the Dominican Republic. What can you learn about the fruits and vegetables that grow there? What are some traditional Dominican recipes? What about Dominican music and the meringue? Cook and taste some traditional recipes, listen to Dominican music, and have your class dance the meringue.
Grades 2 and Up
Stories of Elders. In Islandborn, Lola asks kids, adults, and senior citizens in her neighborhood what they remember from the Island. It is only the seniors, her abuela and Mr. Mir, the superintendent of her apartment building, who share the scary memories. What memories, happy and sad, might the elders in your community have to share? What are your students curious about? Brainstorm a list of questions that your students might ask the seniors, to generate prompts. Or, if you are working with older students, select prompts from Rememory cards from Storymatic Studios to generate prompts. Invite a group of senior citizens to visit your class. Some may live in the local neighborhood around your school, some may visit from a nearby senior citizen’s community center or home, and some may be the friends and family of your students. Match each student or pairs of students with a senior. Use tablets, laptops, or phones to document the stories the elders tell. Have students write and illustrate those stories, documenting the time and place in which they took place, and publish a class book. Once finished, ask your students connections or themes they see across the different stories and settings?
Where is Your Class From? After reading Islandborn, have students share where they and their families come from, going back several generations. Create a questionnaire to support students and their families in identifying the different places in which they have lived. In the spirit of inclusion, have a range of anchor charts posted around the room, and have students document where they were born and where they have lived, where their parents grew-up, where their grandparents grew-up, and where their ancestors came from or may have come from. Support students in creating a map of the world in which they document all the places that their families have touched.
Migration Solar System. Read across a range of texts that focus on the process of leaving a place you love to arrive somewhere new. You can explore the historical The Place You Know First by Patricia Maclachlan, as well as recent immigration stories such as Here I Am by Patti Kim, I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien, or picture books that represent the refugee experience. Have students compare and contrast the different experiences that people have when they move from one town to another, one state to another, or one country to another, and the different reasons why those moves may happen.
Grades 5 and Up
Local History: Native Americans and Immigration Waves. Islandborn is based on a school in Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, so named because there was a Fort Washington there during the American Revolution. Originally, the Lenape lived in Manhatta. After European contact, waves of Dutch and British colonizers began to arrive in Manhattan, followed by successive waves of other immigrants from around the world. Who has lived where you and your students live? Who were the Native Americans who originally populated your region? Reach out to local Native leaders, and have them speak to your class in person or via Skype. As an educator, explore information about The National Congress of Native Americans, stay abreast of current news via the Indian Country Media Network of the National Congress, and find high-quality and accurate books to share with your class as vetted by the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog and the American Indian Youth Literature Award. Next, work with your local public library and local historical society to identify the waves of immigrants to your region after the European contact. Over the course of the school year, have students write a local history of the people who have lived in your community and the ways in which those different populations have interacted with one another.
Naming and Symbols. Why is the Dominican Republic never named in Islandborn? Why is the monster never revealed as dictator Rafael Trujillo? What are Diaz and Espinosa doing with their words and pictures? How does the symbolic serve the narrative better than the literal? Have your students discuss these ideas and then brainstorm the take-aways for their own fiction writing.
The Trujillo Regime. Use Islandborn as a scaffolded introduction to Dominican history for middle grade students. Next, have students read Julia Alvarez’s historical novel Before We Were Free, about life during the Trujillo dictatorship. After reading the novel, have students learn more through other sources. Next, have them interview community members who fled the Dominican Republic during that time.
Creating “The School of Faraway Places.” Perhaps you and your students, like Lola, are lucky enough to spend your time in the “School of Faraway Places,” with children from around the world. In a recent NPR interview, author Junot Díaz shared that the school in Islandborn is based on a school he worked with for many years in Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, part of the Dominican Diaspora. Are all New York City public schools as diverse as Lola’s? How diverse are schools in the largest school district in the country, with over one million young people? How does New York City define diversity? Read about the city’s latest efforts to combat segregation. Will the plan work? What do other organizations have to say, such as the Citizens Committee for Children and the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School? Have students conduct research, with the help of your school and local librarians, on the ways in which schools have been successful at fostering diversity. What lessons do your students take from this conversation that they can apply to your local district?
“Radical Hope is Our Best Weapon.” Islandborn is a celebration of identity. While the audience for the book may not be middle school students, use it as a catalyst for some deep thinking about identity in this time of crisis and change within the United States and around the world. In a recent interview with NPR, Junot Díaz said that we frequently use a “deficit model” about immigration, focusing on what immigrants’ home countries don’t have. He reminds us that “[t]here’s also the fact a lot of people come because political realities have uprooted them, have driven them from their homes.” This fall, Díaz’s appearance on the “On Being” radio show was entitled “Radical Hope is Our Best Weapon.” The podcast is too mature for most middle grade audiences and too political for most public schools. Within the conversation, he says that “Our multiplicity is our damn strength…..I think from the bottom will the genius come that makes our ability to live with each other possible. I believe that with all my heart.” As your students to consider and identify their personal multiplicities. Who are they? As defined by whom? Why? What are our multiplicities as a nation? As defined by whom? What does it mean that we are living through a global refugee crisis and the United States so reluctant to let refugees in? What is prompting so many people to leave their home countries? What do we stand to lose by taking this stance? How will we make “living with one another possible?” What “radical hope” do your students have as they look at the world right now? Have students sift through these big ideas to arrive at the personal narratives that they choose to write.
Alvarez, J. (2002). Before we were free. New York: Dell-Laurel-Leaf.
—–(2002). How Tia Lola came to visit stay. New York: Yearling.
—–(2010). How How Tia Lola learned to teach. New York: Yearling.
Cantor, R. (2016). Dominican Republic. [Countries We Come From series]. New York: Bearport Publishing.
Maclachlan, P. (1998). What you know first. Ill. by B. Moser. New York: Harper Collins.
O’Brien, A. S. (2015). I’m new here. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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