Summer recess continues for another few weeks for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and yet, beginning this week, it’s all about kids and books. The Justice releases two new books for young readers this week: One, The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor, is a middle grade adaptation of her bestselling adult memoir, My Beloved World (2013); the other, Turning Pages, is a picture book version of Sotomayor’s life, illustrated by Lulu Delacre. PW caught up with Justice Sotomayor while she was traveling down the East Coast on her book tour.
You’ve spent most of your life writing for grown-ups. Why did you decide that you wanted to share your story with younger readers?
My Beloved World was stimulated by a lot of questions kids were already asking me: “What was it like to lose a parent when you were young?” “What was it like having a condition like diabetes?” “Was it scary?” Once [children] see you in a position of power, a lot of them who are facing their own challenges ask: “Have you ever been afraid?” “Can you ever succeed if you fail?” They’re natural questions, you know?
My cousin Miriam is a middle-school bilingual education teacher in Stamford, Connecticut; she used my adult book in her class but she told me that many pieces in it—a lot of the law things—were a little bit over the students’ heads. The middle grade book was a natural follow-up; we tried to retain those aspects of my life that were responses to the kids’ questions.
Since we knew it would be impossible for the youngest readers to understand the adult book, no matter how much I simplified, I wondered if there was a way for me to introduce myself and my life story to them in a way that they might appreciate. An illustrated book seemed perfect for that purpose.
What did you learn in the process of creating Turning Pages? What was it like for you to collaborate with Lulu Delacre and to see your memories come to life through her illustrations?
In our search for an illustrator, my publisher and I went through a long process of elimination. To her credit, she asked me what I didn’t like: styles that were too abstract, too dark in coloring. I said, “It has to be bright, it has to reflect [my family’s home in] the island of Puerto Rico, and it has to be lifelike—I want readers to see me as a person and not a cartoon. As soon as I saw Lulu’s work, I said, “This is it.”
The amount of research she did was so impressive, and it really was a collaborative effort. I had a suitcase full of pictures that I had been collecting, from my family and my mother. She went through every single one—and all of the drawings of my room and living room and some of what I’m wearing came from those photos.
One of the funniest moments of the process was when she showed me an illustration of me wearing a pair of flowered pants. I told her that I would have never worn those. “Sonia?” she said, sending me a picture of myself wearing the pants. “Well,” I said, “my taste has evolved since then!” Lulu was always so responsive. Working with her was one of the biggest treats of the book.
You talk a lot about the books that have influenced you personally. If you could make one recommendation to kids today, based on your experience, what would it be?
When kids ask me that, I say there are so many books I love; mentioning one seems unfair. I might tell everybody to read the Bible. My reasons aren’t necessarily religious: so much of art is reflected in the Bible... if you want to be a student of art, of reading.... For me, when I travel to Europe, some of the churches have the earliest art forms. One of my favorite fantasy books for kids is Watership Down. But should everyone read it?
You have photos of your goddaughter Alexia and your niece Kiley in the book. What inspires you about reading with the kids in your life?
I tend to send books to my niece randomly. One day, not long after I sent her The Giving Tree, I picked up the phone and heard my sister’s voice: “Sonia, I think you better listen to your niece.”
“Kiley, what’s up, sweetheart?” I asked. She said, “You sent me the saddest book, Titi. It’s the first time you’ve ever sent me something like this—it was so sad!”
I told her, “I know, sweetie, but it’s trying to teach you a lesson, both about life and about giving—that sometimes it doesn’t come back to you, but you give because you love.” And we had a very deep conversation about giving, and about how sometimes it’s not reciprocated. This wasn’t about me trying to tell them a story about what happened to me. She could see in a character she was reading about a real-life experience.
I wanted to create that experience—even if maybe not consciously—as I wrote. I wanted readers to see me as a real person. I wanted to do that in a way that was engaging, but these experiences weren’t magical. They’re real life.
The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor by Sonia Sotomayor. Delacorte, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-5247-7114-0
Turning Pages: My Life Story by Sonia Sotomayor, illus. by Lulu Delacre. Philomel, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-525-51408-4