MTYT: Islandborn

By Michele Ebersole, University of Hawaii, Hilo, HI, and Yoo Kyung Sung, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM

Michele Ebersole and Yoo Kyung Sung take on the theme of “sense of belonging” in books for young people, to capture different dynamics in stories of communities and also reflect young people’s lives within a community as space. Sense of belonging is a process of making sense of who you are and where you are. This theme unfolds in Islandborn by Junot Díaz with illustrations by Leo Espinoza.

MTYT Islandborn Header with Bibliographic Information

MICHELE: Islandborn fits beautifully with our theme of “sense of belonging.” It raises an honest challenge from a child’s perspective and provides important messages about larger issues in a meaningful and accessible way. This text brings to light a dilemma that children sometimes have when they are faced with sharing who they are or where they are from in school. The main character, Lola, struggles when her teacher asks students to draw a picture of where their family emigrated from. All the other children are excited, but she can’t remember the Island she is from because she was too little when she left. As teachers, we sometimes assume that this type of assignment helps establish pride and connection; however, as shown in the story, children like Lola may feel left out when they don’t know or don’t feel they have the necessary information to complete the assignment. This book reveals new possibilities for creating a sense of belonging through storying with others, as Lola does. She turns to other family members and people in the community for information about her Island. Through conversations she envisions “blanket bats,” “sleep dancing,” “mangoes so sweet they make you want to cry,” “people like a rainbow–every shade ever made,” “heat on you like five bullies” and even the “monster” that terrifies everyone on the Island. In this way, the story depicts not only the pleasant, but also the real and unpleasant history, which can also contribute to creating a stronger sense of belonging. The author describes the terror felt by the people on the Island through the image of a “monster” and further explains how one might be heroic and make the choice to stand up to “monsters” or why one might have to leave one’s homeland even if one has a powerful sense of belonging there. It is masterful how the author provides new ways for us to consider what it means to belong.

Overall, I find this picture book very inviting. Upon first glance, the colorful illustrations immediately drew me into the story. The characters faces are full of emotion and show energy and movement. It is also refreshing to see a diversity in the characters as demonstrated through various contemporary hair styles, clothing, body size, age, ethnic and cultural representation.

YOO KYUNG: Islandborn shows two types of communities. The Lola belongs to her home community and her school community. As you said, Michele, her school assignments help her reconnect to the community members whose memories of the previous communities they are from are colorful and even wilder than Lola imagined. I appreciate how the story illustrates the obstacle Lola faces when a senior community member refuses to help her assignment as the assignment brought back trauma from his home country. Connecting to community members is not always easy and delightful. Even though this book appears to be a colorful happy story, I appreciate the realistic tension that Lola encounters. Making connections to a person also means learning someone’s discomforts, which explains how a member of a community landed here and continues his community life. In the school community, the teacher doesn’t give a direct worksheet assignment. The teacher let her students do meaningful assignments that helps them discover who they are and where they are from. When school serves a community that supports a students’ learning of their community, sense of belonging grows firm and nearly serves someone’s backbone. Because of that, this book is so important to have on our classroom bookshelves for discussion of the sense of community and sense of belonging.

Title: Islandborn
Author: Junot Díaz
Illustrator: Leo Espinoza
ISBN: 9780735229860
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Children
Date Published: March 13, 2018

[Admin Note: Islandborn was reviewed in Volume 11, Issue 1 of WOW Review and the focus of an April 2019 My Take/Your Take post.]

Throughout August 2019, Michele and Yoo Kyung give their takes on books on the theme of a sense of belonging. Check back each Wednesday to follow the conversation!

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