Author Junot Díaz, an immigrant who grew up in New Jersey, won the Pulitzer Prize In 2008 for his best-selling book, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao." It topped a BBC Culture poll of the best novels of the 21st century.
Now Díaz is releasing his first children's book, called "Islandborn." The book draws on his experiences as a young immigrant to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic.
Appearing on "CBS This Morning" Monday, he explained the inspiration for the book came from a request by his goddaughters about 20 years ago.
Why the delay? "I got really, really slow," he said. "I felt terrible about it. I have a picture of them when they asked me and a picture of them when they got the book, and it's embarrassing!
"Islandborn" features a little girl named Lola who cannot remember the island of her birth.
"A lot of us can't remember our origins; that's one of the things that happens," Díaz said. "We hear our parents talking all the time about places they grew up around, or events that happened before we could remember. We grew up with grandparents who often bring an entirely different world. We're shaped by places and people that we've never, ever met. And that's something important to recognize."
How do these connections help forge our identities?
"I think we tell each other stories," Díaz said. "I think all of us, when we think about our grandparents, if we have the fortune to grow up around our grandparents, if you were lucky enough you remember how gentle they are, how caring they are, but you also remember their stories that seem to come from another planet. And stories bind us across time and across space."
"In your own life, you didn't read children's books growing up," said co-host Gayle King.
"I came from a community where the only book that I grew up around, in the Dominican Republic, was the Bible," Díaz said. "And it was real adult-centric – you would look at the pages and say, 'There's nothing there for me.'"
Discussing the work involved in writing, Díaz said, "I think what ends up happening is: a book, you want people to fall in love with it, and love is super-rare. It's really rare. For some of you perhaps not rare, but to fall in love with a book, it requires a lot of work. And if I want someone to fall in love with my book, I've got to fall in love with it."
Díaz also talked about the life-changing moment when a teacher took him to the library.
"In some ways we need models to understand what we could possibly become," he said. "Until that moment I had no idea that it was possible to somehow live a life with books. I assumed I could be a ballplayer; maybe if I was super-brilliant I could be the doctor you saw every now and then. But the idea that you could live a life with books -- this librarian gave that to me as a gift. She showed me a door that I could possibly walk through, and because of her I walked through it."
"Now you are the teacher; you're teaching writing at MIT," said King. "What's your first lesson when they walk in the door?"
"Probably first, if you don't [have] any room for this class don't take it, 'cause you'll be overwhelmed. And second, the absolute importance of stories."
"And it sometimes takes 20 years, maybe?" said co-host John Dickerson.
"I don't want to tell them that at the beginning about anything!" Díaz laughed. "Because they want to be billionaires before the semester is over. I don't want to discourage [them] how much time it often takes."
Beyond the work of writing, there is also the love of it. "You're driven by the fact that you love this form," Díaz said. "I love reading, deeply love reading. Every time I lose hope or I lose track, I just read a couple of books to rekindle the fact that this is what I do to give people the opportunity to fall in love. Fall in love with a book, fall in love with a story, fall in love with a character. That's not a small thing. I've experienced it. I know what it can do to you.