National News

Sotomayor’s Book Tour Is a Hit With Hispanic Kids: ‘I Like How She Stood Up for Herself’

Posted September 17, 2018 3:32 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — As Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke at the Brooklyn Public Library about her life and the story behind her two new children’s books, she told the audience of about 500 people about an instance when a man had questioned her choice of footwear.

“'Supreme Court justices don’t wear high heels,'” she recalled him saying. “And I looked at him and I said, ‘Latina Supreme Court justices'” wear heels, she said, her last few words drowned out as the crowd erupted in laughter.

The event, held Friday in the library’s Grand Lobby and moderated by actress Sonia Manzano, was part of her tour for two children’s books based on her 2013 memoir, “My Beloved World,” and was hosted by the library and a local children’s bookstore, Stories Bookshop & Storytelling Lab.

Sotomayor, 64, published one book geared toward middle-school-age children, “The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor,” as well as an illustrated version for younger children that comes in English and Spanish and is titled “Turning Pages” or “Pasando Páginas.” The high heels in question are seen on the cover of the illustrated version, which shows the justice walking up the steps of the Supreme Court.

Speaking to an enthusiastic audience filled with children and their parents, many of them Hispanic and Latino, she pointed out the details of the image, like how the steps of the building are inscribed with words from a decision she wrote. Near the bottom, a coquí, a small frog, pays homage to her Puerto Rican roots. The book was illustrated by Lulu Delacre, a Puerto Rican artist known for translating Latin culture into drawings.

Delacre used details and photographs from Sotomayor’s early life to make illustrations that were true to her story. On one page, Delacre re-created a library card that Sotomayor had as a child.

When Sotomayor was confirmed in 2009, she became the first Hispanic woman to be named to the nation’s highest court, inspiring not just young women, but also Hispanic and Latino children, who saw the path she paved leading to a realm of possibilities.

At the event, Sotomayor recalled how she was a voracious reader as a child, often falling asleep while reading under her bed covers with a flashlight. In her book, Sotomayor explains how she read everything from comic books to mystery series like Nancy Drew.

“Books are the things that teach you the things you don’t know about,” she told the audience. “They open possibilities for you. The more you know, the more you can become. Because the more you know, the bigger your dreams.”

That was a sentiment Melissa Morales, 11, knows well. As a fifth-grader, she said, she read 114 books during the school year. She sat in the front row during the event, and her mouth opened in surprise when Sotomayor admitted that she often misbehaved as a child. (Sotomayor’s family nicknamed her “ají,” or hot pepper, when she was younger.)

“She loves reading, and I am obsessed with reading,” said Melissa, whose parents are Puerto Rican and Irish. Her abuela once bought her a keychain of a coquí that makes the croaking sound from which it gets its name. She has it clipped on her school backpack.

Melissa, who wants to study at MIT and work for NASA before becoming the first female president, said that Sotomayor had opened the door for more women to join the court and other levels of government.

“I’ve never read a book that inspired me so much,” she said. She was especially amazed to learn how Sotomayor found a haven in books after her father’s death. “It was so amazing how in such dark times, she was able to have the light shine in by just going to the library.” At the event, Sotomayor answered previously submitted questions as she took pictures with children and gave them hugs. One child clung to her as she answered a question about what she does when she’s afraid. Others piled around her as she spoke about growing up in the South Bronx.

The housing projects were not the prettiest of places, she said, but they weren’t the worst. “People really loved each other,” she said.

Sotomayor’s references to her Puerto Rican background were familiar to Yolanda Miranda, 39, who attended the event with her sister, Monica, 42, and their daughters.

“It’s not every day that you come across a book or anything that touches on your culture,” said Yolanda Miranda, who, like her sister, was born in Puerto Rico. She noted that Hispanic and Latina women are often talked about only in the entertainment industry, not in professions like the legal world.

Monica Miranda said that when she asked her daughter, Fabiola Vulcano, 8, if she wanted to go, it was an immediate yes. Fabiola had read about Sotomayor in a book series on powerful women.

“She already knew everything about her,” Fabiola’s mother said. “She started telling me about her bio.”

Fabiola, who carried the version of the book geared for middle-school-age children, said she thought Sotomayor was funny. “I like how she stood up for herself a lot,” she said.

Yolanda Miranda said that Sotomayor’s words on the role of exposure in helping children dream big were important for Hispanic children like her daughter. “If you don’t see a Latina on the Supreme Court, how could you ever imagine if that’s even possible?” she said. Isla Grant Reyes, a 7-year-old third-grader, was able to meet Sotomayor briefly and ask her a question while getting her book signed.

“My question was, ‘What would you say to all the kids out there that had a big dream?'” Isla said. “She told me to work hard, and they can make it come true.”

Isla flipped through her book to find her favorite part, which was when Sotomayor was able to turn something scary (receiving insulin shots to regulate her diabetes) into something fun (imagining herself to be as brave and powerful as the superheroes she read about).

Isla attended the event with her grandmother Sara Ramirez, who is from Puerto Rico.

Ramirez said she appreciated how accessible Sotomayor was, especially for the children. “She doesn’t act like she’s above us,” she said.

“We are so proud of her,” Ramirez added. “It’s very emotional for me, being Puerto Rican and seeing her.”