Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, has published three books in the past five years—the memoir My Beloved World and its adaptation for children, The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor, as well as a picture book, Turning Pages. This fall she will publish a fourth, Just Ask: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You (Philomel, Sept.), another picture book.
More than any of her other works, Sotomayor regards it as “my book, because it’s the one whose ideas and expression and content were born of something that has been in my mind [since] before my memoir.”
Just Ask follows a group of differently abled children as they plant a garden, and encourages readers to ask with genuine curiosity about one another’s different ways of seeing the world. It is deeply personal for Sotomayor, who has had diabetes since childhood and has written extensively about how having a disability has shaped her views. “In many ways, I still think of myself as having a disability,” says Sotomayor, “because I’m still living with a chronic life condition. I still have sugar lows occasionally. I still have a daily routine of having to check where my sugars are and responding to them when I need to, and responding to myself generally.”
After seeing how her personal story helped inspire a former law clerk’s daughter who has a disability, Sotomayor began searching for picture books on the topic. She found some, but says, “I haven’t found many books that talk about or integrate us into the larger community.” This book is an attempt to change that. It is also one of the few books that features people of color with disabilities.
Illustrator Rafael López, who has dyslexia and whose son has autism, says Just Ask captured his creative attention because it shows how disabilities can lead to positive differences. Since his dyslexia made reading and writing challenging, López says he naturally turned to illustration. “I can’t fix dyslexia,” says López, “but as an adult I’ve learned to work around my challenges and embrace my differences.”
Ultimately, Sotomayor says, the book pushes back against an “American perception of perfection,” which has had a damaging effect on people’s sense of self. “We build a world assuming perfection,” she says. But “we don’t maintain it or operate [as if] we’re not identical, that we’re different.”
“My own feeling is that we define perfection in our own self-image,” she continues. “There are many ways we think of disabilities as imperfections. I don’t.” Instead, Sotomayor says, she hopes Just Ask will help children see a better reality, where “each of these children [in the book] is defining themselves.”