Sonia Sotomayor isn’t offended when people say she argues like a man. Women “are taught to be inclusive and self-deprecating,” she says, so they can have “a tentativeness” when expressing their views. The Supreme Court justice takes a different approach: “I just jump right in.”
It’s one of the many qualities she hopes will inspire readers of her new books “The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor” and “Turning Pages.” Both are adapted from her 2013 memoir, the best-selling “My Beloved World,” and though they are aimed at young readers — “Turning Pages” is a picture book — neither shies away from the hard truths of Sotomayor’s childhood. In them she writes frankly about poverty, the death of her father when she was 8, her diabetes — in other words, the things that made being assertive a necessity.
Sotomayor, 64, who does not have children, describes her attitude toward kids in much the same language she uses to characterize her style of arguing. “I can match any kid’s stubbornness,” she writes in “The Beloved World.” “I don’t baby anyone; when we play games, I play to win. I treat kids as real people.”
So do her books. “The Beloved World,” aimed at readers 10 and older, discusses real-world issues such as racism, privilege and affirmative action. In lighter moments, Sotomayor writes frankly about her lifelong struggle with fashion (“My own mother told me that I had terrible taste in clothes.”) and some of the unusual jobs she had before joining the high court in 2009 — as a teen working for $1 an hour at a clothing store in the Bronx and later as a bouncer at a graduate school hangout in New Haven.
Sotomayor talked recently by phone about her new books and why, unlike Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her next one is not about exercise.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: Is "The Beloved World" the kind of book a 12-year-old Sonia Sotomayor would have read?
A: I don’t remember there being biographies when I was 12. I don’t think I read biographies until I was in college.
Q: You were for the most part raised by a single mother and grew up with extended family in a less-than-affluent community. Were there some benefits to this experience, and if so, what were they?
A: Absolutely. People think of hardships as things we have to overcome. I don’t think of them in that way. Hardships are things you take with you to help you grow. A friend always tells me, if you’re happy you’re going to stand still. If you’re unhappy it stimulates you to seek something better. And I think all of the life experiences I had helped me achieve more. They helped me grow in a positive direction, and to use the magic word, to teach me resilience.
Q: You cite Nancy Drew and Perry Mason as two of your childhood heroes. What made you decide to be a lawyer and judge instead of a detective?
A: My diabetes. You couldn’t go into law enforcement [with that illness]. Now I believe in some police forces you can do that. It wasn’t possible back then. But for a then-8-year-old to have my ambition — my dream — destroyed, broke my heart.
Q: You found something else.
A: I did.
Q: Were there Latina heroines — outside of your family — that you also looked up to?
A: None. There weren’t any. The first Latino lawyer I met was José Cabranes [at Yale Law School].
Q: Do you think you might have been inspired by you?
A: I hope so!
Q: In both books you mention some lessons you gleaned from the Bible and your studies in Catholic school. What was their value in your life?
A: I’ve often been asked that question. I’m a very spiritual person — not necessarily religious — in the sense of believing there is a difference between right and wrong and that we have to live our lives in a moral way.
Q: When do you think kids should start learning about the law?
A: The minute you have a second child. [Laughs]. The minute you start laying down rules for behavior in your home. The minute you start saying yes or no. These are home laws. I do think that when you explain those rules to children in many ways you are already beginning to explain the meaning of law in greater society. You can’t play with your sibling’s toys without their permission. Thou shalt not steal. We need to have some family rules that will let us live together in peace and fairness — and all of those things are in the law — how we interact and what is acceptable behavior. It could be taught in simple words at an early age.
Q: Now that you've written three versions of your memoir, what's next? An exercise book like RBG?
A: Not an exercise book! It’s another illustrated book for children. It’s from the heart. It showcases how those who are challenged present an opportunity for positive contributions. It begins with myself and how different I felt, why that was something positive in my life. The book has children with visible and invisible conditions — children who are blind, in a wheelchair, have attention-deficit disorder, Down syndrome. These children are building a garden together. It shows that we may all be different, but despite this we can create something together, we can make a more beautiful world.
Don’t laugh at people who are doing something different, try to understand why. “Just Ask” is the working title; it’s scheduled for next September.
Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World. On Saturday, Sept. 1, Justice Sonia Sotomayor will be speaking at the National Book Festival at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, main stage, 11:25 a.m.-12:25 p.m.
By Sonia Sotomayor
Delacorte. 343 pp. $17.99
By Sonia Sotomayor. Illustrated by Lulu Delacre
Philomel. 40 pp. $17.99