I Am Sonia Sotomayor, by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
How do you make one of the more problematic justices of the Supreme Court into the subject of a gushing hagiography for children? The author shows the way to manage this through a book that ignores the justice’s decisions or her deeply flawed judicial worldview and instead tries to make her into an object of pity, someone who overcomes self-doubt and leverages her background in urban poverty as the diabetic child of Puerto Ricans in New York into a position of more prestigious positions within the legal establishment of the United States. The author tries to shoehorn all kinds of subaltern groups and their identity politics into a book that celebrates a country where someone’s background is the fastest ticket to being seen as a hero. It is not someone’s position that makes them a hero, or else one would write a book like this about the heroism of President Harding and how he rose from a small town merchant to increasing positions within the politics of Ohio and then a presidency in which he oversaw the return from Wilson’s war paranoia into normalacy. Never mind, come to think of it, that would be a lot better a book than this one or most of the books in this series, even if few would consider Harding a heroic figure.
Nevertheless, despite its flawed approach, this book does follow the series’ pattern of talking a lot about its subject’s childhood and background as a way of setting the context for her adult behavior. Here we have childhood dreams of being a detective, a lot of energy that has a hard time being directed properly, a diagnosis of diabetes that causes her to redirect her ambition to the law, whining about the poor quality of schools in urban New York City, and the idealism encouraged by her college experience. We see her as homesick and encouraged by others to maximize her potential and we see very little that makes her heroic. Is one simply a hero for serving as a standard bearer for various subaltern groups? If so, there is going to be a lot more intolerable material in this series to deal with, and I’m pretty sure I want no part of reading that dreck. Fortunately, the author doesn’t even try to make her positions on things like abortion heroic, as that would be completely unacceptable. Mercifully, the author does not attempt that impossible task.
So what we are left with is a book that greatly waters down what is considered heroic. One used to have to do brave deeds in order to be considered heroic. There is even a film that tries to portray fellow Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg as a heroine for her stance regarding gender equality, while giving her among the most unpleasant accents possible and similarly avoiding the positions that make her one of America’s villains rather than heroes, and the same is the case here. Being a token member of a subaltern group that succeeds because of politics and whose viewpoints are detrimental to the well-being of the United States and who sits on our high court and has the chance to vote with that unacceptable legal and moral perspective does not make one a hero, it makes our country troubled, and this book and its author have little idea about how to understand this. If all you want is for children of all backgrounds to be able to dream that they could be any sort of position, that is one thing, but encouraging them to do good deeds and believe the right things would be a far better approach than to appeal to identity politics as this book does.