U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor says a passion for words and reading paved her way to the highest court in the country. She delivered that message recently at a Reading is Fundamental event here promoting literacy—and honoring her contributions to it, with her new children’s book, Turning Pages: My Life Story.
The book, aimed at 4- to 8-year-olds, describes how words riveted her, even before she could read. Sotomayor answered questions posed by Lulu Delacre, who illustrated the book, before about 100 attendees at the National Reading Coalition 2018 last week.
Lively family gatherings at Sotomayor’s grandmother’s New York City home quieted when Abuelita, her grandmother, shared poems about the island of Puerto Rico, “the tropical land our family had left behind.”
Sotomayor said she was transfixed by her grandmother’s ability to “mesmerize the crowd, just with words,” and her father’s “poetry duels” with family members that demonstrated the power of the spoken word.
To illustrate the book, Delacre integrated meaningful words and images—like Sotomayor’s library card—into her work.
Sotomayor marveled that the cover of the book depicts her walking up the steps to the Supreme Court, with excerpts from a majority opinion she wrote. “It was about the rights of children who are questioned in school by police,” she said, citing words from the J.D.B v. North Carolina opinion embedded in each riser. In that 2011 ruling, by a 5-4 majority, the court found that a child’s age can be a relevant factor when determining whether a juvenile suspect merits a Miranda warning about the right against self-incrimination.
Now, Sotomayor said she incorporates her message about the power of words when she teaches law students, emphasizing “the pictures words paint—and how important it is for lawyers to understand their choice of words and the potentially different impacts words can have on people because of their different memories.”
“Words are often called swords,” she said, “and they’re very powerful swords.”
Sotomayor’s family spoke Spanish, so she was an English-learner outside of her home. “Comics were important for my initial reading experience,” she said. Diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at the age of seven, she used comic book heroes to imagine herself with the superpowers she would need to get over her fear of needles.
“I do remember having an argument with a schoolteacher many, many years ago about how much I enjoyed comics as a kid,” she said. “Their texts were limited in the number of words, and they were common words. I was just learning English.” Full chapter books were too difficult.
She said that she believes whatever route an educator takes to interest a child in reading—whether comic books or graphic novels—it’s an avenue to making them passionate about reading.
The justice also reiterated her commitment to education as a gateway to equity. “I have often said that equality in America won’t come until we have equality of educational opportunity,” she said in her closing remarks. Promoting literacy is important, but something more fundamental is, too: “An enjoyment of reading. That’s the greatest gift.”
Sotomayor, Delacre, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., received RIF’s 2018 Champions of Children’s Literacy award as part of the event, which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., although the senator was unable to attend.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.