In Isla to Island by Alexis Castellanos, available today from Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, readers will learn the story of Marisol, a young girl who immigrates from Cuba to the United States in the 1960s as part of the Pedro Pan program.
The Beat got the opportunity to catch up with Castellanos over email to ask about using 3D tools while making Isla to Island, to learn what resources were invaluable for research, and to find out how her family history influenced the graphic novel.
AVERY KAPLAN: What was the genesis of Isla to Island?
ALEXIS CASTELLANOS: I was in a bookstore in Manhattan in July 2016 looking around the children’s book section. I remember looking over a display that featured bestsellers, and as you can imagine there was a lack of diversity in the display.
There was only one Latin American book on there, and it was Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. It’s a great book, but it was published in 2000. All the other books on the display were published more recently than that. I thought to myself, were there no other books by Latin American authors that could go on this display? Just one book older than most of the kids shopping in that section? At that moment, the seed that would grow into Isla to Island was planted in my mind.
KAPLAN: In the Author’s Note for Isla to Island, you discuss how your family history inspired Marisol’s fictional story. Can you tell us about how your family’s story compares with Marisol’s?
CASTELLANOS: My family arrived in the United States in late 1967 through the Freedom Flights. They were processed through the Freedom Tower in Miami (which is pictured in Isla to Island in the spread with the plane flying over the United States. The Freedom Tower is the building that marks Miami on that map).
After that, they went to New York City, where they had some friends and family who were already settled in the city. It was bitterly cold, they didn’t have winter clothes, and their apartment didn’t have heat. I think the image of my family arriving in New York City, amid the gray of winter with no greenery around them, was the image that sparked the idea of Isla to Island.
But I think the piece of family history that really inspired me was the story of how my mom learned English. In school she did well in math, but English was a challenge because, well, she couldn’t speak it. ESOL programs didn’t exist at the time, and it was very much sink or swim for anyone who couldn’t speak English.
But my mother is determined, willful, and brilliant. One of her parents bought her a Disney book with a bunch of stories in it. When she first opened it, she couldn’t understand the words at all, it was way too advanced for her extremely limited English. But she was determined to speak better and she read it over and over and over again until she began to outperform all the other native speakers in her classes. To this day she is one of the most eloquent people I know, and she does it in two languages.
KAPLAN: I understand you used 3D tools while working on Isla to Island. Can you tell us a little bit about what that entailed?
CASTELLANOS: I have a background in theater design and technology, and a lot of my approach for Isla to Island stemmed from that background. Before I started drawing, I did all the research that I would do if I were a costume and set designer for a play. I had done some 3D drafting in college, so I dusted off those skills and made sets and props for the book. I went through and figured out what places Marisol would frequent, what objects she would interact with the most, and what would require a model. I ended up making three models, one of the interior of her home in Havana, one of the entire brownstone in Brooklyn, and one of her school hallways and classroom.
I worked in SketchUp to build my models and used their view app to screencap whatever view I needed for a panel. Since working on this book, I have adopted 3D tools in almost all of my work. I really enjoy the problem solving that comes with building 3D models and I’ve gone so far as to build a model of my apartment and furniture to see how many ways I can move the furniture sound without having to lift anything.
KAPLAN: Color is an integral part of Isla to Island. Can you tell us when this element of the graphic novel became inextricable from the narrative? Was it there from the start?
CASTELLANOS: It was there from the start. I knew from the very beginning that the book would have no dialogue, and in order to help the reader navigate that kind of story, I would need to use color or the lack thereof to drive the story forward.
KAPLAN: What went into researching this era in Cuban history? Was there any particular resource that was especially helpful?
CASTELLANOS: A lot of it was talking to my mom. I learned so much more about her through these conversations. Sometimes they were really hard to hear. It was definitely a challenge getting through those conversations sometimes.
There was a great documentary on Netflix back when I was first writing the script called The Cuba Libre Story. Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire is a memoir and first person account about living through Operation Peter Pan. JSTOR was an amazing resource as well, that’s where I found information on the only Cuban cookbook that would have existed at the time in the United States. There are also a few resources online where Pedro Pans have written about their experiences.
KAPLAN: What went into researching New York City in the early 1960s? How did you get the cars so perfect?
CASTELLANOS: Thank you, but the answer about the cars is: 3D tools! I have a full time job and I run a small business, so using 3D tools helped me save myself a little bit. As for what went into researching NYC, the first one is, talking to my mom! I also lived in NYC when I was writing the script and was able to visit the places I wanted Marisol to go to, like the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.
Beyond that, it was scouring the internet for photos of New York City at the time. For example, Marisol flew Pan American to New York City, which flew into JFK, but at the time it was called Idlewild Airport. Back then there were these stunning mid-century terminals, I really recommend looking them up! But those terminals are gone now and I had to rely on old photos for reference.
KAPLAN: Were there any comics (or stories in any medium) that were influential for Isla to Island?
CASTELLANOS: So many! This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui, The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen, Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm and Savanna Ganucheau, and so many more!! And the first comics that made me draw one of my own one day were Yuu Watase’s manga.
Isla to Island is available beginning today at a bookstore or public library near you.