By Ashley Wells Ajinkya
Today we’re pleased to welcome Alexis Castellanos to the WNDB blog to discuss Isla to Island, out March 15, 2022.
This stunning wordless graphic novel follows a young girl in the 1960s who immigrates from Cuba to the United States and must redefine what home means to her.
Marisol loves her colorful island home. Cuba is vibrant with flowers and food and people…but things are changing. The home Marisol loves is no longer safe—and then it’s no longer her home at all. Her parents are sending her to the United States. Alone.
Nothing about Marisol’s new life in cold, gray Brooklyn feels like home—not the language, school, or even her foster parents. But Marisol starts to realize that home isn’t always a place. And finding her way can be as simple as staying true to herself.
Isla to Island is a wordless graphic novel. What inspired you to tell Marisol’s story through illustrations alone?
I don’t remember ever making a specific decision about it. I got the idea for the book in a whirlwind. I knew I wanted it to be about something close to me, but I also wanted to explore a part of history that many people might not know. I think I also knew I wanted to play with the format and do something different to get the story across. All those things came together to form a graphic novel with no dialogue.
Color is an important element of storytelling, especially for a graphic novel. Can you tell us about the shift in color in Isla to Island and what it represents?
This was also something that came very early in the concept for the book. If I wasn’t going to have dialogue in the book, I wouldn’t have another strong form of communication for the reader. Using color to fill that communication gap became the obvious choice. Color alone carries so much symbolism and history, it serves as the perfect vehicle to guide the reader through the story.
Marisol loves flowers, Cuban foods, books, and learning. When she arrives in the United States, it’s finding and experiencing these things that makes New York feel more like home. What are some of the things you carry with yourself that can make anywhere feel like home?
I’ve moved a lot in the last few years to cities where I didn’t know anyone, so I’m quite prepared to answer this question. Like Marisol, I carry my books with me even though they are the worst thing to move. I also have a collection of journals I have kept since high school. And also like Marisol, it’s food. I have so many kitchen tools because I love to cook. I like having my kitchen with my things. I can travel the world or revisit memories in my kitchen and that always makes it feel like home.
Marisol’s story is based on your family’s experiences, particularly those of your mother. What advice or words of encouragement do you think she’d share with Marisol as she adapts to new surroundings?
I actually asked my mom this question so I could give the most genuine response. She said she would tell Marisol: It gets better. There will always be miserable, unhappy people around you. Turn around to find the people in your life that are joyful and welcoming.
While Marisol’s story is one that ends in happiness, your author’s note acknowledges this was not always the case for Cuban immigrants, nor those immigrating to the United States today. What children’s or young adult books could you see Isla to Island in conversation with on immigration and the experience of immigrants?
The first one that comes to mind is Cuba in My Pocket, since it is another book about a Peter Pan kid. Adrianna’s dad was actually a Peter Pan kid and I would love to chat with her about how our personal experiences and our family’s experiences affected how we approached these stories and how we wrote our books.
Immigration is a topic not often highlighted in children’s books. How would you like to see the landscape change for immigrant stories? What advice would you give immigrants or children of immigrants who may want to tell their own stories one day?
Honestly, I would love to see more books about Latin American experiences that don’t deal with immigration at all. I want stories about our joys and heartbreaks, our daily struggles and stumbles, of the worlds of magic and mystery that live inside of us.
What made you want to tell Marisol’s story in graphic novel form, instead of a fictional novel?
I have no idea. From the beginning Marisol’s story came to me in visual form, without words. Maybe that’s the way I think as an artist, pictures before words. In some cases, those pictures eventually become words, but for Marisol’s story the words never came.
Isla to Island is your first graphic novel, which you’ve both written and illustrated. You’re also the owner and designer at Spellcaster Designs, specializing in services for authors. Have you always wanted to publish a book, and did your experience in the book world help prepare you for doing so?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a kid. I remember I had a shared PC in the ’90s and I wanted to write stories, but I didn’t want my family to see them. So, I would open a Word Doc and I would write, but before I would save I would change the font to Windings so no one could read it. I wrote for years, stories after stories, on computers and in the margins of my notes from class, but I don’t think I ever thought about being published. Being first generation with immigrant parents there is this expectation and pressure to go to school and get a good job. Being an author did not fall in that category, so I never really thought hard about pursuing it. In my mid-twenties I ended up changing careers from theater (how I convinced my parents that theater was a viable career is a whole other story) to publishing. Once I was on the inside and saw how the sausage was made, I think the concept of being a published author became a real thing. That was the point at which I knew I could do it and I should try.
What’s next for you? Can we expect another graphic novel or book in the future?
I don’t know what’s next! I have some ideas, but as mentioned, I juggle a lot of things. It’s hard running a business, having a full-time job, and being a published author. But I have some things in the works. As for another graphic novel… I ended up with some kind of injury to my arm working on this book. I have some ideas I want to play with for future graphic novels, but first I need to take care of my body.
Alexis Castellanos was born and raised in Florida where she enjoyed sunny days, dramatic thunderstorms, and delicious Cuban food. After graduating from college, she moved to New York City and worked as a scenic artist, bringing theatrical sets to life with a little bit of paint and a whole lot of ingenuity. She currently works as a graphic designer by day and spends her nights dreaming up stories. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and her extremely photogenic cat, Belle. Isla to Island is her first graphic novel.
Ashley Wells Ajinkya is a relationship manager in the publishing industry, a We Need Diverse Books blog contributor, and an Ambassador for The Pad Project. She’s also a mental health advocate and public speaker, sharing relatable personal experiences to break down damaging stigmas surrounding disability and mental illness. Ashley loves to travel and enjoys planning trips just as much as hopping on a plane. She can almost always be found with an iced coffee in one hand and a book in the other. You can find her online at entirelyashley.com.