Life story fuels Justice Sotomayor’s passion for education


Mark Walsh (Education Week) reports on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s interest in inspiring young people, promoting education, and her work with iCivics:

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is embracing a higher profile this fall in her off-the-bench role promoting education, as author of two new books for young people and in assuming the mantle of a national leader in efforts to improve civics education and engagement among youth. With retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s recent announcement that she will step away from public life, including her longtime efforts to improve civics education, Sotomayor is stepping up her role with iCivics, the organization that O’Connor founded after she retired from the court. “We are really taking Justice O’Connor’s vision now a step further,” Sotomayor said in an interview with Education Week in her sun-drenched chambers at the high court. “We’re actively involved in trying to achieve her dream.”

Meanwhile, the justice’s new books promote the value of reading and working hard in school while recounting, in condensed form, the inspiring personal story she told in her 2013 memoir, My Beloved World. The books are The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor, a young adult version of the memoir; and Turning Pages: My Life Story, a picture book aimed at readers age 4 to 8. They were published Sept. 4, and since then Sotomayor has been on a busy schedule of public appearances to promote them, from the National Book Festival in Washington; to public libraries in Chicago, Newark, N.J., and the New York City borough of Brooklyn; to other engagements from Long Island to Los Angeles. [. . .]

Sotomayor is particularly proud of the children’s book, Turning Pages, which stresses reading and was illustrated by Lulu Delacre. The justice is already at work on a new illustrated book about people with life challenges such as disabilities or allergies, tentatively titled Just Ask. “The idea was born from an incident that happened when I was an adult,” she said. “I was in a restaurant and I gave myself [an insulin] shot at my table. And as I was leaving I overheard a woman leaning over to her companion and saying, ‘She’s a drug addict,’ in kind of a stage whisper. I whipped around and said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m a diabetic. Why do you assume the worst in people? I need those shots to stay alive.’ And I stormed out.”

A Cousin’s Advice

Sotomayor, 64, just began her 10th term on the Supreme Court after being nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed Justice David H. Souter in 2009. Soon after she joined the high court, she began work on My Beloved World, which tells of her journey from a hardscrabble upbringing in a poor, Spanish-speaking household in the Bronx, to strict but Spartan Roman Catholic elementary and high schools, then to leafy Princeton University and Yale Law School, and eventually the federal bench.

Sotomayor said in the interview that she had strived to write the original book at a level that even a 5th grader could comprehend. “Fifth graders vary in their capacities, … but I tried to simplify the book as much as I could,” Sotomayor said. “So I really wondered if I needed to do a middle school book, assuming that most children, with the assistance of a teacher or parent, could get through the [parent] book.”

But her beloved first cousin Miriam Gonzerelli, a lifelong bilingual educator, had concluded otherwise. She had used passages of the book with her students, but believed that a condensed, young adult version would be better suited to them. “I teach English-language learners, and it was difficult for them to read the whole book,” Gonzerelli said in a separate interview from Stamford, Conn., where she has taught for years after getting her start in the New York City public schools.

Sotomayor said she listened to her cousin.

“Miriam pointed out to me from experience that for middle school children, particularly in bilingual education programs like hers, many of the adult thoughts [in the full-fledged book] were too complicated,” Sotomayor said. “Especially because [the children] were so far away from life accomplishments like law school, lawyering, things of that nature. She thought it would be more helpful to have a middle school version that was more storytelling than contemplative.”

The middle school version condenses the original book but keeps Sotomayor’s frank telling of her story, including her father’s alcoholism and early death when she was 9; her sometimes frosty relationship with her mother, Celina, who is now 91 and lives in Florida; the death of her cousin Nelson Ramirez, Miriam’s brother, who long battled a drug addiction and who contracted AIDS through needle use; and her own battle with type 1 diabetes.

Gonzerelli successfully urged Sotomayor and her publisher to keep a scene from the original book in which the pair and their other young cousins eavesdropped on a seance the adults in the family held one night. “The kids love that scene,” Gonzerelli. “I just wanted Sonia to keep true to all the parts of her youth.”

Sotomayor said it was important that the middle school book be frank. “I don’t think most parents realize how in tune with the world children are, and how curious they are,” she said in the interview. “That’s why I wrote my book as honestly as I could. I tried to remember my own feelings as a child and to imagine what readers would want to know about what I felt.” [. . .]

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]

For full article, see

Also see our previous post, and

One thought on “Life story fuels Justice Sotomayor’s passion for education

  1. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    #PuertoRicanPride … #Boricua …
    ‘U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is embracing a higher profile this fall in her off-the-bench role promoting education, as author of two new books for young people and in assuming the mantle of a national leader in efforts to improve civics education and engagement among youth.’

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