Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes early in life, and ever since has given herself insulin shots before she eats, to help manage her blood sugar levels. No big deal. But some years ago, she had an upsetting experience at a restaurant.
She was in the restaurant bathroom, just finishing up her injection when another woman walked in. They both returned to their dinners, but as Sotomayor left the restaurant, she heard the woman from the restroom say: "She's a drug addict."
Sotomayor stopped, turned around, and said: "Madam, I am not a drug addict. I am diabetic, and that injection you saw me give to myself is insulin. It's the medicine that keeps me alive. If you don't know why someone's doing something, just ask them. Don't assume the worst in people."
And walked away.
The justice has replayed that scene in her mind many times over the years, and it ultimately led her to write the children's book Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You.
"I wanted to talk about children like me," Sotomayor says.
Just Ask! is about 12 young people working together to plant a garden. "Each of us is doing what we do best ..." Sotomayor explains. "Each child is doing something to contribute to the garden, despite how they're differently able."
The book is illustrated by Rafael López. Sotomayor says she was drawn to his work because of his use of bold, vivid colors. "Coming from Mexico, I grew up surrounded by color," López says. "Whether you're in the market, or you were in the fields, or you were just walking around ... You can see the buildings of Mexico that are painted so brightly."
To him, bright colors represent emotion and diversity. "The whole idea is that you're bringing this explosion of color ... this explosion of diversity that we ideally would like to have in a community," López explains.
Sotomayor says that the concept of the garden was important to her as she wrote the book. "Just the way gardens have different plants, and different trees, and different kinds of flowers, and different birds and animals that populate the garden, we in our society have different kinds of people, too, doing different kinds of things," she says.
One of Sotomayor's favorite scenes in the book shows a young girl named Julia winking at an owl. Julia has Tourette syndrome. "Sometimes I wiggle or make sounds that I can't control," Julia says in the book. López says this illustration was one of the most challenging for him to draw, but "there was this sweetness about this animal, this owl, connecting emotionally to Julia."
López says one of the reasons that he connected to Sotomayor's children's story is because his son, Santiago, has autism. "He has taught me so much," López says. "He's made me a more patient person ... he has made me a better listener, a more understanding person."
There are two children with autism in the book — and Sotomayor says it's important that they are depicted in very different ways: Jordon loves to talk about dinosaurs. But Tiana prefers not to talk. "Conditions vary," Sotomayor says. "Their presentations are never identical."
López says he hopes his son Santiago and other children will recognize themselves in these characters. Though they'll all come away with different lessons, if these young readers feel empowered, "I think we did our job," López says.
Sotomayor says the takeaway of the book is that differences are not bad. "I want every child to understand that whatever condition they bear in life, they are special in a good way," she says.
"You can learn so much by getting to know someone that perhaps does things a little bit different than you," López adds. "Be patient and be curious ... and don't be afraid to ask."
Samantha Balaban and Evie Stone produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has written a new children's book inspired by an experience she had years ago in a restaurant bathroom. A woman walked in while Justice Sotomayor was giving herself an insulin injection.
SONIA SOTOMAYOR: And as I was leaving the restaurant, I walked past her and heard her say to her friend, she's a drug addict. I stopped in my place, and I turned around and said, Madam, I am not a drug addict. I am a diabetic. And that injection you saw me give to myself is insulin. It's the medicine that keeps me alive. If you don't know why someone's doing something, just ask them.
FADEL: "Just Ask!" is written by Justice Sotomayor and illustrated by Rafael Lopez.
RAFAEL LOPEZ: I've been known for my color. Coming from Mexico, I grew up surrounded by color, whether you were in the market or you were in the fields or you were just walking around and you can see the buildings of Mexico that are painted so brightly.
FADEL: This summer, we've been asking authors and illustrators how they worked together or separately to bring stories to life. In this book, 12 differently abled children - including Anthony, who uses a wheelchair, Vijay, who is deaf, and Bianca, who is dyslexic - are working in a garden. And as they each contribute something to the garden, it grows brighter and brighter.
LOPEZ: It begins very stark and very dry. You can see the land very dry and very yellow. And slowly, we start to introduce, as you turn the pages, more and more color, which means that you're also introducing the differences of all of these people and their challenges and yet how they overcome them and how they can work together and how they can contribute to this garden and the same way that they contribute to society. So at the end, the whole idea is that you're bringing this explosion of color. And in a way, you're representing this explosion of diversity that we ideally would like to have in a community.
SOTOMAYOR: I think, Rafael, that one of my favorite scenes is about Julia, who has Tourette's syndrome. And for people who don't know what Tourette's syndrome is, it is a condition where a child's body may be making sounds or moving in uncontrolled ways. And in this scene that Rafael painted, Julia is winking, which is somewhat common into Tourette's but not the only symptom. And there's an owl in a nearby tree, and the owl and Julia are winking at each other.
LOPEZ: It's one of my favorites, too, and it was one of the most challenging ones because how do you represent some of these things? Like, how do you represent stuttering? How do you represent Tourette's? What do you represent? How do you make it or portray it in a book without looking offensive or - so there was this sweetness about this animal, this owl, you know, connecting emotionally to Julia and saying, hey, it's totally fine. I love you the way you are, and you're just as beautiful as everyone else.
SOTOMAYOR: Clearly, Rafael, my personal experience with diabetes was the inspiration, generally, for this book, but it's also - the experts did help me understand more clearly how varied the presentations can be of common conditions. So just as the book shows Jordon and Tiana expressing their autism in different ways, Jordon counts dinosaurs, and he counts them over and over and over again, and he knows everything there is about dinosaurs. Tiana's autism expresses itself in silence. She really doesn't talk to people. And I thought in writing the book that it was important to show kids the variations in conditions so that when they see a child doing only one of the things the book talks about that they don't think that that means that child is not experiencing something differently.
LOPEZ: One of the reasons I connected to the story is because my son, Santiago, has high-functioning autism. He has - his life experience and his challenges and everything that - he has taught me so much. And he's made me a more patient person. I've been the most impatient person my whole life. And I realize some amazing abilities that he has, like this great memory. He has this amazing ability to remember things. He's an incredible writer. He can write five years ahead of his age. So I have learned so much from my son and I consider what he does superpowers. I look at him and he just - he leaves me speechless.
SOTOMAYOR: The most important takeaway of this book for me is that differences are not bad things, that we are and can have, as Rafael has described it, superpowers, that they can give us the ability to perceive and interact in a world in a positive way. Lots of people think that differences caused by conditions means that you do things in somehow a less meaningful way. I don't want kids to ever think that. I want every child to understand that whatever condition they bear in life, they are special in a good way, never in a bad way.
FADEL: That was Supreme Court Justice and author Sonia Sotomayor and illustrator Rafael Lopez talking about their book, "Just Ask!" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.