Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Bringing Justice to Young Readers

Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor talks with Chapter 16 about her two new books for children

Inspiring young readers with two new children’s books—Turning Pages: My Life Story and The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor—the Honorable Justice herself tells her life story from the Bronx to the hallowed halls of the highest court in the land.

Photo: Elena Seibert

In the picture book Turning Pages, Sotomayor, whose family came from Puerto Rico and spoke Spanish in the home, looks at her life through the lens of literature written in both English and Spanish. “What was so special about books?” she writes. “Do written words have a unique magic?”

Taking readers from her childhood to her appointment as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, she examines her life as a reader, paying tribute to the ways in which books helped her find courage and escape sadness, taught her new ideas, inspired her imagination, helped her sort right from wrong, and served as “lenses, bringing into focus truths about the world around me.” In mixed-media illustrations, artist Lulu Delacre depicts Sotomayor’s journey from childhood to adulthood, and the book’s opening and closing endpapers feature nearly twenty-five photographs from the justice’s life.

The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor, an adaptation for middle-grade readers of the bestselling book My Beloved World, is a poignant, intimate memoir. Writing about growing up in an immigrant family in a South Bronx housing project, struggling with juvenile diabetes and the loss of family members, and making her way to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor stresses the importance of determination and hard work. “I want kids to understand,” she writes in the book’s introduction, “that dreams, even ones you cannot first imagine, can come true.” Closing the book with a memory of taking the historic oath for the Supreme Court, she writes, “In this life I am truly blessed.”

In anticipation of her visit to the Southern Festival of Books, Sotomayor answered questions via email from Chapter 16.

Chapter 16: What inspired you to tell your story to children?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor: As I mention in my middle-grade book, The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor, “People who live in difficult circumstances need to know that happy endings are possible.” All children who live with or without life burdens need to believe that dreams can come true.

Chapter 16: What was it like telling your story in the picture book format? What surprised you, if anything, about the writing process?

Sotomayor: As a law professor, I have often taught students about the importance of developing a succinct message to convey their arguments. It pleasantly surprised me in writing my picture book that I had to put my own lesson into action and figure out how to present the important moments of my life succinctly.

Chapter 16: What does it mean to you that the illustrator for Turning Pages is from Puerto Rico, as your family is?

Sotomayor: My publisher, Penguin Young Readers, presented me with a number of potential illustrators. I chose Lulu Delacre because the examples I had seen of her illustrations moved me. I then learned that her parents were Argentinean, but she was raised in Puerto Rico. I knew Lulu would understand my life story and the importance of Puerto Rico in my life.

Chapter 16: Turning Pages is all about the ways in which books and words have shaped your life. Which books would you recommend to children and/or teens who are interested in learning more about the American system of government, our Constitution, and following your path into law?
Sotomayor: Everyone over the age of ten should read the Constitution from cover to cover. It sets forth what our Founding Fathers envisioned for America, and it is the foundation for understanding our system of government and our rights and responsibilities.

Chapter 16: I like how you write in The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor about self-doubt and occasionally feeling like an impostor. I think it must be comforting to children to know those insecurities are normal, even for someone as accomplished as you are. What advice would you give to children wanting to overcome such feelings?

Sotomayor: The advice I give every child is that our greatest obstacle to success is our own fear of failure. Fear often stops us from doing new things. Taking risks helps us to grow. Realizing that failure helps us to learn what we need to improve is a positive thing, not negative. Getting up and trying again shows how much strength and courage you have.

Chapter 16: You visited Nashville in April to lecture at Vanderbilt. What are you most looking forward to about the Southern Festival of Books?

Sotomayor: I had a wonderful visit to Vanderbilt in the spring. Nashville is a lovely city with a rich culture, and I really enjoyed hearing musicians play live music all over the city. I also, of course, really enjoyed the barbecue. I still need to try the hot chicken.

I am thrilled to participate in the Southern Festival of Books. The Festival’s mission to bring the community together in celebration of reading and lifelong learning is an important and personal one to me. As I discuss in my children’s book, books have played a pivotal role in my life. I am looking forward to meeting others, and especially the children, who also have experienced the transformative power of the written word.

[This interview originally appeared on October 1, 2018.]

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