Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor understood the true meaning of courage when she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 7. Now, the proud Puertoriqueña wants to empower kids to take strength from their own challenges. We sat down with Sotomayor to learn how her new children’s book, JustAsk!, shows them how.
Parents Latina: The book is subtitled “be different, be brave, be you,” and it’s a lesson you had to learn early on.
Sotomayor: When I was growing up, the fact that I was taking an injection daily and having to go to the doctor monthly, and occasionally not feeling well when I was playing with my friends, made me feel that difference—that somehow I was inadequate. You have to be brave to understand that differences can at times be difficult, but they don’t mean that we’re of lesser value. I want kids to take away from this book the realization that those differences come in many shapes and forms, and as challenging as they are, they also give us strength.
Parents Latina: The characters in the book are from a variety of cultures, but this kind of diversity is fairly new in most of children’s literature.
Sotomayor: Growing up, I didn’t see myself in anything. In the books I read as a child, I never saw a Latino child. I wanted to portray as many different-looking children with as many different names and conditions as I thought were common in our population. Diversity is important as an inspiration for people. You don’t need every one of our judges to be Latino, okay? But we need diversity on our bench so that when people interact with the judicial system, they understand that people like them are included in the decision-making process.
Parents Latina: How would you encourage parents to stay hopeful when they have so many worries about their children?
Sotomayor: I start my memoir, My Beloved World, with my diagnosis, and I describe how afraid my parents were and how their fear got communicated to me. I wish they had been more open with me, in the sense of telling me, “This is hard, but you can manage it.” Just hearing “you can manage it” is different from a recognition that something can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to destroy you. A lot of parents with children who have a special condition don’t understand that you have to recognize them. You have to be able to understand the difficulties and the bravery involved in dealing with it.
Parents Latina: Kids are distracted by screens these days. Do you have suggestions for engaging young readers?
Sotomayor: I spend a lot of time ensuring that everything I publish is translated into Spanish. I certainly have a suggestion for Latino parents: Learn with your children. Buy these books, or borrow them from the library in English and Spanish, and read them side by side. As you’re teaching your child English, let him see the words in Spanish, and if you speak only Spanish, and you’re reading in Spanish, then try to figure out with your child what the English words are. When a child sees a parent willing to learn, he will stay willing to learn.
Parents Latina: As a Latina, how are you able to stay true to your culture while confidently and comfortably navigating other environments?
Sotomayor: It’s important for your family to know the world that you’re traveling in. Every one of my family, including my family from Puerto Rico, was at my induction at the Supreme Court, and even at the White House. You can stay tied to your community if you stay tied to your family and you engage them as much as you can in the world that you’re in. They may not fully comprehend what’s happening, but the fact that you stay engaged with them will make you stay connected with your culture.
This article originally appeared in Parents Latina Magazine as 'Sonia Sotomayor on Celebrating our Differences.'