Justice Sonia Sotomayor Speaks to the Power of Librarians | ALA Annual 2019

Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, opened the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference’s auditorium speaker series on Saturday, June 22, in Washington, DC. Sotomayor, who grew up in the Bronx, NY, credited her local branch—the tiny Parkchester Library—as a refuge from the sadness of her household after her father died when she was nine.

Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, opened the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference’s auditorium speaker series on Saturday, June 22, in Washington, DC. Sotomayor, who grew up in the Bronx, NY, credited her local branch—the tiny Parkchester Library—as a refuge from the sadness of her household after her father died when she was nine. “It became my refuge, became my way of escaping what was at home for a few hours,” she recalled. “That is the little boat, the place that saved me, and that boat took me around the universe.”

Moderated by Sotomayor’s editor Jill Santopolo, associate publisher of Penguin Random House imprint Philomel Books, the conversation was lively and—given the packed 2,000-seat ballroom in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center—surprisingly intimate. (Those who couldn’t get a seat in the auditorium filled an overflow room and watched the talk on screen.) Sotomayor was responsible for that warmth, getting up from the stage and cruising the aisles as she spoke, shaking hands and giving hugs, and taking selfies with anyone who submitted a question during the Q&A period—as well offering heartfelt thanks to librarians for their work.

Beginning with Nancy Drew books, Sotomayor began reading omnivorously, browsing the card catalog to discover new subjects. She was a self-described “hit or miss reader,” but that didn’t stop her. “I really believed I would read every book in that library,” she said.

A summer reading novel, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies—along with TV’s Perry Mason, the Constitution, and the Bible, “which teaches a different kind of law, but an important one”—sparked her passion for justice. Sotomayor never looked back once she had decided on a career in law, she said. “I like talking, I’m analytical, I like thinking things through, and I love helping people one-on-one. And I haven’t deviated from my path.”

While there were challenges along the way, Sotomayor noted, she had the support of family and friends, and any fears made her accomplishments all the sweeter. “There is no greater joy than in finally doing something you’ve been trying to do…and finally succeeding,” she said. “You have to try. Even if you fail, there’s an important lesson in failing.”

She turned to writing, she said, when she was first appointed to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama in 2009, going from relative anonymity to life in a new city, with a new job, and under intense public scrutiny as the first Hispanic and Latina justice (not to mention the occasional dinner with Jennifer Lopez and throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium). “The whirlwind around me was consuming me,” Sotomayor told Santopolo. To ground herself, she began thinking deeply about her life and how she had gotten to this point, “reminding myself that there is nothing we do in life alone.”

Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World (Vintage), was published in 2013. After her cousin, a bilingual educator, pressed her to publish a middle grade book—noting that the original had a valuable message but wasn’t entirely relatable for middle schoolers—she wrote a young people’s version, The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor, published in both Spanish (El mundo adorado de Sonia Sotomayor) and English editions. That was followed by Turning Pages: My Life Story (Pasando Páginas: La Historia de Mi Vida) for early readers.

The inspiration for her newest book, Just Ask! (¡Solo Pregunta!), came when Sotomayor, who has been a diabetic since she was a child, was accused of being a drug addict after giving herself an insulin injection in a restaurant bathroom. The incident made her feel ashamed at first, then angry—“a more healthy emotion.” She decided to write a book about children growing up with different abilities, “who live every day with challenges that make us different, but make us strong too.” While writing, Sotomayor consulted a roster of experts to make sure she moved beyond her own assumptions, and brought on award-winning illustrator Rafael López; the book will be out September 3.

Through her work both on the page and on the bench, Sotomayor has never lost sight of the value of personal empowerment. Indeed, she said, “My job as a justice is to empower you to believe that you can change the laws you don’t like, that we can—and should—participate actively in building our community.”

As she walked through the admiring crowd, she offered a welcome, heartfelt thought: “Laws are made by people. They don’t come out of the sky. We build a better union, we build a better United States, a better world, when we become civically involved. Understand the importance of law, but understand your power to shape it.”

Sotomayor mentioned, in passing, that her birthday was on Tuesday, June 25, and Santopolo decided to conclude the event with a “Happy Birthday” serenade. But after an audience member piped up, “That’s my birthday, too!” Sotomayor insisted that anyone who shared the date come on stage and join in the moment, with hugs and selfies included.

Up and down the aisles of the auditorium, trailed by a very tolerant security detail, Sotomayor told the assembled crowd: “I am living proof of how you [librarians] can affect people for the better.”

 

 Photos © 2019 Stephen Gosling Photography

 

Author Image
Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


RELATED 

TOP STORIES

LIBRARY EDUCATION

Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones

COMMUNITY FORM

Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones

COLLECTION DEVELOPMENT

Kids are using VR to explore worlds and create new ones

Get connected. Join our global community of more than 200,000 librarians and educators.