By Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Rafael Lopez, Philomel Books, Penguin Random House, 2019
Some of the books I want to read with my kids are books with messages I want to teach them, lessons I feel they need to learn. But it’s not always the case that the kids want to hear those lessons, or listen to those books. I know Victoria has had the same experience with her girls.
I was therefore resigned when my offers to read Just Ask were rejected by my 4 year old. I’d heard about it – US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s book about differently-abled children, inspired by her own diagnosis of diabetes as a child. The book is gorgeously illustrated by Rafael Lopez whose work we always adore. It introduces children to some of the ways in which humans’ bodies and minds can work in different ways by showing a group of children who all talk about their various conditions and diagnoses and their strengths.
(This book was another in the library haul that my husband and the children brought home, alongside the wonderful Moth that he reviewed here – yay for libraries and librarians!)
Children are curious, and many of us grown-ups aren’t always very good at explaining disability, the visible and the less visible. This book takes away the embarrassment and uncertainty to embrace the strengths and humanity of each person. Some of the conditions are ones that friends and family have, and we talk about them, connecting what we know of our friends with what we’re learning. I rather wish the book had a guide for adults, to help us continue the conversations – and also to give us more information. When asked how or why that happens, my scientific and medical knowledge reaches its limits all too quickly and so often I fall back on vague answers, ‘That’s how they grow, darling. Everyone is different.’ And I hope for a sequel, Just Ask Some More, or the suchlike, with more characters featured, illustrating other conditions. (Though Sonia Sotomayor does have another book, Just Help! due out in January 2022.) My daughter is busy learning all the names. I asked if she’d like to play with them. ‘Yes,’ she said. She’d like to play, but Madison wouldn’t be able to see her. No, but she could hear her and they could sing together – soon my daughter had included Grace into her make-believe singing group.
I asked the 4 year old what does she like about the book: ‘It’s got lots of good people,’ she said, ‘lots of people who encourage and tell people what they feel like.’
‘You have a tool you use for your body too,’ I said. ‘What?’ Her glasses. ‘I forgot.’ She and her brother both wear glasses, and her brother had to wear an eye patch when he was younger. Each child character in the book asks the reader a question, a chance to reflect and relate. And a chance to understand, to be a little slower to judge, more open to the reasons why people do what they do.
My 7 year old has been absorbed too. Like many kids his age, he knows the rules and wants to make sure everyone follows them (especially his sister). ‘Before the book you might say why is someone in 2nd grade when they can’t read, but now, it might be dyslexia. Or someone doesn’t sit still when they’re supposed to. It might be ADHD.’
We’d like to think we are moving towards a world in which we, and our children, know to treat everyone with respect, to honour the humanity of each one of us. Sadly, there’s a long way to go still – as the stories friends tell me of their own experiences of life with a disability illustrate only too starkly. This book explains and celebrates difference like the diversity of plants in a garden. Our children want to learn and know more – and the world needs them to do so.