The 12 characters in U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s latest book, “Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You,” are the embodiment of using your abilities to their fullest extent, she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday.
Sotomayor, who also discussed the children’s book Sunday afternoon during a sold-out event at Agnes Scott College during the AJC Decatur Book Festival, said it was a lesson she did not understand herself until she became a Supreme Court justice.
"As a child, I hid my diabetes. I was embarrassed by it," she said in a sitting room behind Presser Hall's Gaines Chapel, where her speaking event took place. "I wanted to be a voice for them, to give them the reality I see, which is that we're not flawed. We're just enriched in a different way."
In the book, a group of children with different “life conditions,” as Sotomayor calls them, work to build a community garden. As they work, they ask questions that prompt stories from others about their respective differences.
Sotomayor said she consulted others with better knowledge of some of the differences and pulled from her own experiences.
“I had a bunch of friends and family who assisted because they had expertise,” she said. “My brother is a pediatric allergist. My first draft of the book had me saying I’m allergic to nuts, I can’t eat them or touch them. My brother wrote back and said, ‘Sonia, that’s a common fallacy. It’s not the touching the nut that is the problem.’ So I had to change that.”
» PHOTOS: AJC Decatur Book Festival 2019
She added a second character with autism after an expert told her autism comes in different iterations. In the end, Jordan and Tiana both have autism, but Tiana is nonverbal, while Jordan can go on and on about dinosaurs.
The group of children in the book is led by — obviously — Sonia, who is diabetic.
One child is blind. Another is deaf and uses a guide dog. There is a child in a wheelchair, another with Down syndrome and one who stutters.
“I even went to my own doctor and his nurse practitioner, and they suggested certain things that I incorporated,” she said. “I think we make erroneous assumptions even when we experience things that we know all about them, and I didn’t want to be accused of that.”
Another child in the book is Rafael, who has asthma. The book’s illustrator, Rafael Lopez, has an autistic son.
“I’m grateful for the life lessons he teaches me daily and in awe of his amazing superpowers, guts and persistence,” he said. “I am energized to give visual voice to Justice Sotomayor’s compelling story about seeing the world through a unique perspective and being you. After all, history has shown us that a different mindset can make all the difference in the world.”
Sotomayor is no stranger to defying adversity. A Bronx, New York, native, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a law degree from Yale Law School. She served as a litigator and as an assistant district attorney in New York before being nominated by then-President George H. W. Bush to the U.S. District Court’s Southern District of New York in 1991. In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which includes Connecticut, New York and Vermont. She became a U.S. Supreme Court justice in August 2009, having been nominated by then-President Barack Obama, becoming the court’s first Latina justice.
“Just Ask!” is her fourth book, and second children’s book, following 2018’s “Turning Pages: My Life Story.”
“I talk to kids of all ages all the time,” she said. “My life as a child was not easy. I had a lot of hard, sad things happen to me. My dad died, I had diabetes, we were poor. And yet, despite of all that, I’ve become a pretty big success.
“I hope that children with difficult circumstances of all kinds understand that even with those circumstances, they can still do a lot to better the world.”