Isla to Island by Alexis Castellanos

Isla to Island by Alexis Castellanos. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2022. 9781534469242

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5

Format: Hardcover graphic novel

Genre:  Historical fiction

What did you like about the book? Inspired by the story of her mother’s experience as a child, this graphic novel is an engrossing read. Marisol’s happy middle class life changes after the revolution, when there are food shortages and violence. Her parents decide to send her on a “Freedom Flight” to New York alone, through Operation Peter Pan. She is sent to a foster family, and although they are kind, it is traumatic to be in a strange country alone, living with strangers, and sent to school where she doesn’t speak the language. Marisol is bullied and ridiculed by other students. English seems like an impossible language. And she misses her parents deeply. Finally, her outlook changes when she finds the school library. There she finds books about trees and native plants of New York, reminding her of the wonderful visits she and her family would make to the Botanical Garden in Havana. English starts to make sense. This story is almost entirely wordless, but the first sentence Marisol speaks is on the last page, when she is finally able to feel confident enough to speak to her classmates: “Hi, I’m Marisol.”

Beginning in black and white with her parents as newlyweds, and switching to color when she is little, this story is so well told, despite there being no dialogue or descriptive language. When Marisol arrives in New York, all panels are in black and white again. As she begins to feel like English and America are within her grasp, patches of color return to the panels. At the end of her first year, color completely returns to her life, and the story. This is an emotional story, and Castellanos imbues Marisol with very clear thoughts and feelings through her art. Kids will feel as if they have read a traditional novel and have experienced a revolution through the eyes of a child, her separation at age nine from family, and eventually, a feeling of comfort with her new life. Some of the art is photographs, letters and maps, adding to the richness of the background. I appreciate that Castellanos describes life before and after Castro as a child would see it, without politics. At the end there is a recipe for Arroz con Pollo a la Chorrera, “from Marisol’s Kitchen.” A section on Operation Peter Pan, an author’s note and a list for further reading complete the reader’s complete immersion into the life of Marisol.

This book has been nominated for the 2022-2023 Massachusetts Children’s Book Award, so Massachusetts librarians, take note!

Anything you didn’t like about it? No

To whom would you recommend this book?  For ages 8-13, especially readers who enjoy graphic fiction or historical fiction. This might also work for struggling readers, as the story is beautifully told without words.

Who should buy this book? Elementary and middle schools and public libraries

Where would you shelve it ? Graphic fiction

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes

Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City and State: Stephanie Tournas, Robbins Library, Arlington, MA

Date of review: May 25, 2022

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