Author: Jonah Winter
Illustrator: Edel Rodriguez
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Audience: Ages 4-10
Summary: Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge grows in the Bronx is the life story of Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor’s rise from her very humble beginnings, living in the projects in the South Bronx, New York City, to her confirmation as the first Latina woman on the Supreme Court. However, this is not Sonia’s story alone. This is also the story of a mother’s love. Author Jonah Winter, along with Sonia Sotomayor herself make clear that it is Sonia’s mother’s dedication, hard work, nurture, love and warmth that provide the ground for her daughter’s outstanding development.
Literary Elements at Work: There is an interesting interplay of prose and poetry throughout this biographical narrative. Writer Jonah Winter, also a poet and a painter, frames the story of Sonia Sotomayor’s life within the context of a budding moonflower, and in so doing prepares the reader/listener for a story of extraordinary beauty and growth in surprising soil. The book opens with the line “Sometimes the most beautiful moonflower blossoms in an unexpected place—on a chain link fence, near broken glass, next to an abandoned building, watered by someone whose name you might not even know.” It closes with the charge: “You never know what can happen—especially when you water a flower.” Yet amidst this poetic picture, mother as gardener and daughter as flower, Jonah chronicles with stark realism the harsh realities of lives lived in poverty, with loss, with disease, at times socially outcast, and always culturally different. Another important literary element is that the book is written in English and Spanish. Each paragraph is first presented in English and followed by its Spanish counterpart, making this an ideal book in welcoming our Hispanic brothers and sisters into our mostly English speaking churches. How good and comforting it must be to see and hear one’s native tongue! Illustrator Edel Rodriguez keeps pace with Mr. Winter’s poetic and stark rendering by presenting simple and contrasting art, juxtaposing delicate images of flowers, green grass, and beautiful brown children with over-turned trash cans, old abandoned tires, hard, tall, concrete-block homes, and barbed-wire fences. There is beauty and realism on each page. Isn’t that just like life?
Scripture: Hebrews 11 – 12:3 : “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen… Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Selected verses, RSV).
Theology: I think it is appropriate here as a Presbyterian to rely on the words of John Calvin. Calvin defines faith as “[a] firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” 3.2.7.
God has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ to break the bonds of sin and death so that we may live into the fullness for which we have been and are created. Resting securely in this knowledge, we fling ourselves along with the Israelites into the dry seabed on our pilgrimage to the Promised Land, even when we can’t see it, even when we can’t hear it, even when we can’t feel it, even when we can’t smell it, and even when we can’t taste it!
Faith Talk Questions:
Sit down beside your child, let her hold the book and turn the pages. Ask her to point to the characters and places as you read. Repeat this process on each page, considering the following: In the story, Sonia blossoms like a moonflower. Ask your child, “What does that mean? How can a girl bud and open like a flower?” Ask your child, “What is your favorite flower?” Tell your child, “You are blossoming like a verbena (or whatever her favorite flower happens to be)!” If you are able, read some of the paragraphs in English and Spanish. Many young children today know some Spanish thanks to Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer. Ask your child to consider what it would be like living in a place where most people speak Spanish. Ask her, “What if you needed to go to the bathroom and you didn’t know how to ask where it was?” “What if you needed help and you couldn’t say help in Spanish?” “What if you went to Puerto Rico and they didn’t have chicken nuggets and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?” “Have you ever eaten asopao de gandules, (pigeon peas) or bacalaitos, crunchy cod fritters or surullitos, sweet plump cornmeal fingers or empanadillas, crescent-shaped turnovers filled with lobster, crab, conch, or beef?” Go out and try some. The story takes place in New York City. Find it on a map. Google it. Consider how places are alike and different. Say, “In the story, Sonia’s mother reads and works and cooks so hard.” Ask your child “Why?” Consider and list all the things children need to blossom, letting your child say what it is that she thinks she needs to grow and blossom. Tell her what you think she needs—hugs and kisses, prayers and stories, songs and worship, school and friends, pets and walks, flowers and vegetables, teachers and doctors. In the story, Sonia and her family play music and games. Ask your child what kind of music and games they play. Consider what kinds of music and games your family plays. How are they alike? How are they different? In the story, Sonia wants to be one thing when she grows up and then has to change direction. Why? Sonia’s mother works hard day and night even though she does not know what her daughter will grow up to be. In the story Sonia works hard day and night even though she does not know that she will one day become a Supreme Court Justice. Is that like faith? If so, why? If not, why? In the book of Hebrews, the writer lists a long account of the faithful acts of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Joseph, Moses and others, read their stories. How are they like and/or unlike Sonia’s mother? Sonia? You? Consider as a parent where you are in each story. Listen to your child tell where she is in each story. Children do often step out in faith. For example, shots hurt but children trust that parents and their doctors know what is best to prevent disease or cure an infection. Broccoli and peas taste yucky but children trust that you know best what will make their bodies strong and healthy. Eight o’clock bedtimes come awfully early but children trust that you know how much sleep a growing child needs. Faith is a response to the gift of God in Jesus Christ. Start a dialogue defining faith.
Review prepared by Union Presbyterian Seminary student Kim Lee