Ears on the Odyssey

Review: Islandborn

Guest blogger Emily Calkins unpacks the nuances of this author voiced picturebook. 


In this lovely story about home, history, and community, a young girl who can’t remember the island home she left as a baby speaks to her family and neighbors to better understand her “first country.” Díaz, the audiobook’s author and narrator, is best known for his prize-winning adult fiction and for #MeToo allegations against him that came out earlier this year. Islandborn is his first book for children.

Although the writing shines with detail, sensitivity, and expressive language, Díaz’s performance is mixed. He uses a semi-voiced approach that is only partially successful, however. For Mr. Mir, Lola’s grumpy building superintendent who delivers a vital story of Dominican history, Díaz tries for a growly, gravelly voice, but the tone feels cartoonish and misses the mark. He moves fluidly between English and Spanish words such as abuela and água de coco, however, convincingly evoking Lola’s multilingual family and neighborhood. His pacing is also excellent; brief pauses match text breaks on the page and allow readers following along in print time to turn the page. Music and other background sound effects help convey the spirit of the island as Lola’s neighbors share their memories with her.

As a picture book, Islandborn is a warm, nuanced, and age-appropriate introduction to immigration, a topic that can be fraught and complicated to discuss. As an audiobook, it’s engaging but not outstanding, marked by thoughtful musical touches and a solid but flawed performance from the author/narrator.

Islandborn, by Junot Díaz, illustrated by Leo Espinoza, and read by Junot Díaz, 20 minutes, Listening Library, 2018.

Emily Calkins is the Readers’ Services Program Coordinator at the King County Library System. Emily reviews for Audiofile and currently a member of RUSA. She served two years on YALSA’s Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults. She co-hosts KCLS’ podcast, The Desk Set, and whenever people ask how she reads so much, she tells them that she listens to most of her books. Catch her on Twitter @emily_calkins

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