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Kids Picture Book Review – Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor

JUST ASK!

BE DIFFERENT, BE BRAVE, BE YOU

Written by Sonia Sotomayor

Illustrated by Rafael López

(Philomel Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Just Ask Book Cover

 

STARRED REVIEW – Booklist

Feeling different, especially as a kid, can be tough. United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was diagnosed with diabetes as a child, knows just how that feels. In Just Ask!, written by Sotomayor, along with art by award winning illustrator Rafael López, a group of children work together to build a community garden, asking questions of each other along the way.

The book opens with a letter from Sotomayor, the first Latina and third woman appointed to the Supreme Court. In it she explains to the reader how she felt different when kids watched as she injected insulin into her arm. But, she says, they never asked why! “If you ever wonder why someone is doing something different from other kids, Just Ask.

 

Just Ask int 4P10

Interior spread from Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You written by Sonia Sotomayor and illustrated by Rafael López, Philomel Books ©2019.

 

A beautiful assortment of colors adorn the pages as children of various ethnicities, shapes and sizes are seen holding flower pots, pulling wagons and walking through nature. The first character we are introduced to is based on the author, Sonia. She compares the differences in a garden to the differences of people. “Thousands of plants bloom together, but every flower, every berry, and every leaf is different. Each has a different smell, different color, different shape, and different purpose.” She explains to the reader that, like plants, kids are different too. “Each of us grows in our own way, so if you are curious about other kids, Just Ask!”

In one illustration Sonia is sitting inside a large red rose petal injecting the insulin into her arm. The question that is asked is “Do you ever need to take medicine to be healthy?” As the reader turns the page, Rafael, just like the book illustrator’s name says, “I have asthma, which means I sometimes have trouble breathing and use an inhaler to make breathing easier.”

 

Just Ask int 4P12

Interior spread from Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You written by Sonia Sotomayor and illustrated by Rafael López, Philomel Books ©2019.

 

While working together with smiles on their faces surrounded by rabbits, butterflies and birds each character poses a question to the readers. These in turn are answered by another child who may be feeling “different.” Sotomayor introduces us to characters with dyslexia, ADHD and autism. Anthony is seated in a wheelchair; Madison and Arturo are both blind and use canes; and a boy named Vijay demonstrates sign language because he is unable to hear.

Lopez’s art of rainbows and smiling trees welcomes the child who may also be feeling different into this imaginary place. Just Ask is a great for parents to read to a child who may be going through his or her own personal struggle. Questions such as “Do you ever feel frustrated?” give the child a chance to express emotions.

The story ends with Sonia gathered around all her new friends amidst the beautiful garden they have all created. She tells them, “when something seems different or new I just ask my parents or my teachers and they help me to understand.”

Sotomayor shares a heartwarming story, also available in Spanish, that asks the questions some children may not know how to ask. This is a great and most needed read for the child who may be dealing with something challenging, and the child who has a friend who seems different but they just aren’t quite sure how to ask. López, whose own son has high functioning autism, says “I am energized to give visual voice to Justice Sotomayor’s compelling story about seeing the world through a unique perspective and being you.” This book shows kids that differences can make us stronger and how maybe kids can use that strength and uniqueness to someday be a part of the highest United States court. I hope this book finds its way to library story times and into classrooms because it positively models respectful interaction between kids of all abilities.

 

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

Read another book illustrated by Rafael López here.

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Roll With It by Jamie Sumner

ROLL WITH IT

Written by Jamie Sumner

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

Roll With It book cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

Roll With It was an easy choice for my to-read list because it deals with disability. As a disabled author myself, I feel disability representation in books for children is so important and I’m thrilled to see the number of books featuring this element of diversity growing. Author Jamie Sumner has a son with cerebral palsy—the same disability as her main character, Ellie—so I was confident that aspect of the book would be handled with authority and authenticity. What I wasn’t necessarily expecting is a story that packed such an emotional punch on so many different levels.

Ellie and her mom move in with Ellie’s grandparents to help out since her grandfather’s memory issues are getting worse. Life in her grandparents’ trailer park is not exactly ideal for Ellie physically and she dreads starting at a new school as not only “the new kid” but “the new kid in a wheelchair.” Before long though, she connects with two other classmates from the trailer park, the hilarious Coralee and ultra blunt Bert, and Ellie begins to love her new home. She must then convince her mom that they should stay put.

Ellie is relatable and plucky, with a touch of snarky sarcasm, all of which endeared her to me immediately. Her growth as a character had much less to do with the traditional “overcoming her limitations due to her disability” trope and much more to do with making friends, asserting herself, navigating the complex relationship between a tween kid and her mother, and handling her emotions related to her grandfather’s illness. She’s a regular kid with dreams of being a celebrity chef, who experiences the same feelings and challenges as lots of kids her age. The fact that she has CP and is a wheelchair user is neither the main focus of the story nor downplayed. Sumner strikes a perfect balance of making that aspect of Ellie’s life an integral part of the story without it be her only story. Similarly, Ellie’s Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s is treated deftly and not sugarcoated.

Roll With It is not only a fun and interesting read—it’s a great representation for middle grade readers who are wheelchair users themselves and for any reader interested in a moving story which provides insight into a POV not often seen in children’s books.

  • Guest Review by Karol Ruth Silverstein

Karol Ruth Silverstein writes all genres of children’s books and screenplays. Her debut novel Cursed (Charlesbridge Teen, 2019) is loosely drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with a painful chronic illness at 13. Originally from Philadelphia, she now lives with her two exceptionally fluffy cats, Ninja and Boo. You can read a review of her novel here.

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Middle Grade Book Review – The Echo Park Castaways

THE ECHO PARK CASTAWAYS
by M.G. Hennessey
(HarperCollins Children’s Books; $16.99, Ages8-12)

 

The Echo Park Castaways Cover

 

Angelenos will home in on The Echo Park Castaways for its title—Echo Park—because we know that place! This neighborhood is where the story’s characters converge in their latest foster-care home. Quentin, a boy on the autistic spectrum, is the newest addition to Mrs. K’s house. Though almost nonverbal, he clearly communicates his desire to go home to his mom. Nevaeh, Vic, and little Mara may be veterans of the system but they understand Quentin’s need.

The reader is shown how each character struggles to get by since the story is told in three viewpoints. “Loud Boy” Vic lives in a fantasy world where he’s a superspy spinning tales about his father’s absence—anything is better than accepting the fact he was deported to El Salvador. “Quiet Girl” Mara barely speaks English but can get through to Quentin. As Vic plots how to reunite Quentin with his mom, “Tall Girl” Neveah has to put aside her already too-full workload of chores and college prep to keep the younger kids out of trouble; she’s their caretaker, like it or not.

Circumstances beyond their control bring these kids from different walks of life together. Though obstacles face them in everyday life, they forge connections and make a family for themselves. This fast-moving story illuminates how children with limited options adapt to a flawed system.

The Echo Park Castaways is a deeply personal book for the author, M.G. Hennessey, who volunteers as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) in the L.A. foster care system. In that position and as a youth mentor for the Lifeworks program, Hennessey has witnessed the system responsible for society’s most vulnerable children. The book presents characters based on case stories that illustrate the very real challenges foster children face every day. There are 30,000 kids in L.A.’s child welfare system—the largest in the nation.

Follow M.G. Hennessey:

Twitter: @mg_hennessey
Instagram: @m.g.hennessey
Facebook: @mghennesseyautho
www.mghennessey.com

 

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