With attendees rapt, and images of pages from her forthcoming illustrated children’s title Just Ask: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You (Philomel, Sept.) on large screens, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor came down from the stage and walked among the tables at her BookExpo appearance Thursday evening. Fielding questions from the book’s illustrator Rafael López, the Justice spoke candidly about disability—the subject of the book—and offered a hopeful vision of America today.
“She is the most remarkable person to put you at ease right away,” said López, who met Sotomayor for the first time just minutes before going on stage. “Imagine the terror I felt at meeting her,” he said, seated across from her, “and [yet] I feel like we’ve known each other for a long time.”
The two were on stage for less than 10 minutes when Sotomayor suggested that they move to the floor, where she shared stories about her lifetime as a person with diabetes and López shared his own dyslexia and his son’s autism.
Sotomayor described the hardships that her disability can pose, including being mistaken for a drug addict by a woman in a restaurant, after being seen injecting her insulin. But when asked by López what the biggest misconception about being disabled was, she said, “That we’re always unhappy. I think that’s the most common misperception that people have; that the condition takes over our lives. We are not who we are in spite of it. We are not who we are because of it. We are, just because that’s who we are.”
Like in the book, the Justice said that life with a disability does not wholly define her, but it is always present in the back of her mind. The book, which follows a group of children with different disabilities as they plant a garden, is centered around questions that the characters—and readers—can ask about someone’s differences as a source of curiosity and wonder, rather than a source of stigma.
Sotomayor told audience members that for young readers who do not have disabilities, the message is clear. “I want them to remember to just ask when they don’t understand.”
As she walked, the aisles, Sotomayor also shared her idea for her next book, which will be a middle-grade title about civics. She recently joined the board of iCivics, a civics-focused organization founded by retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and said that she wants to share an expansive view of civic action with younger readers.
“However you want, you have to learn how to look beyond yourself, and look to see what role you’re going to play in improving your community,” she said. “Because we are, whether we want to be or not, social creatures, and to live in the world you can’t be a bystander. You have to get up and participate. You can’t let the buses roll over you.”
While she did not entertain questions relating to matters before the court, she spoke about the current social and political landscape in America in response to an audience question about what gives her hope.
“The vehemence of the current dialogue fills me with hope,” Sotomayor said, “because I think that engagement is so terrifically important. To those of us, and I think most of us, we let the world just go on its own path. We’re now being challenged to make decisions about the past and about the choices that we have to make both at the ballot box and in our own lives; how we’re going to choose to treat other people, what views are we going to hold and form about the big issues. We’re willing to fight for them. People are organizing around these issues and those thing give me hope.”
“If we don’t care, then we have no hope,” she added. “It’s only when we do care that we have the possibility of something better, and so I haven’t given up. I believe there’s so much we can do and so much a better world we can make so long as we get involved.”