This is Sonia Sotomayor’s 8th week on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction Best Seller list, up to #4 from #5 last week. (Sandra Day O’Connor’s book, Out of Order, debuts at #11.) I am particularly excited to write about My Beloved World this week because I recently had a chance to booktalk it to a class of 9th grade students and see for myself how well it goes over with that age.
Why does this autobiography succeed with teens? First, because the author spends nearly half of the book on the period from her impoverished childhood in the Bronx to attending Princeton and Yale Law. And once she leaves Yale it’s for a stint in the New York D.A.’s office, thrown into trial law without training, left to make it work by the seat of her pants. After a couple years there the really interesting cases start coming her way, as does the path to a judgeship. There’s the inside view of a world that many teens will work years to experience– that of a successful lawyer. There’s also Sotomayor’s voice. She finds just the right warmth of tone, and shares just enough personal history. She’s also very likeable. She genuinely cares about people, not only her family and friends and colleagues, her mentors and classmates and rivals, but also the less fortunate, those whose lives could be improved through the law. And that’s why she dreamed of being a judge from an early age — because she could already discern, watching TV shows on Saturdays with her younger brother, what a difference a judge could make in people’s lives.
Next up, we have The Day My Brain Exploded. Much like last year’s Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan, here is a young person, just 25, whose life was turned inside out with no warning. After suffering a brain bleed, Ashok Rajamani was forced to relearn the most basic of everyday skills. Now, a decade later, he is able to write this book and tell his amazing story, with humor and surprising frankness.
And finally, we return to the law with The Law of Superheroes. If ever there was a nonfiction book crying out for a young adult version, well… this would be one of them. This book was inspired by the authors’ blog, Law and the Multiverse. These guys (both lawyers, of course) are obsessed — and you can get a good idea of their concerns from the blog. Cory Doctorow is a huge fan. He writes, “I’ve read lots of popular law books, and spent a lot of time hanging around lawyers, and these kinds of hypotheticals are the best way I know of to turn a dry, detail-oriented subject into something fun and engrossing.” While I’m not sure many teens would read the book from cover to cover, I can definitely picture them enjoying time spent leafing through, finding their favorite comics characters and situations.
Adult/High School–In this fresh and exciting autobiography, Sotomayor relates her rise from humble beginnings in the South Bronx to become the first Hispanic Justice of the Supreme Court. Diagnosed with diabetes at age seven, she learned to give herself insulin injections because her father was shaky from drinking and her mother was always at work. After their father died, Sotomayor and her brother often depended on neighbors and their beloved grandmother. Sotomayor was proud of her Puerto Rican heritage and cognizant of the importance of family. Education was a priority–her mother was poor, but she paid for Catholic school. Sotomayor competed on high school debate and forensics teams where she learned to form an argument. She countered the culture shock of Princeton by joining Acción Puertorriqueña, a Latino student group that fulfilled her desire to help people. She wanted to be a lawyer from a young age because she believes in “law as a force for good, for protecting the community.” It was years before she could voice her true goal–to be a judge. In clear-eyed, heartfelt prose, Sotomayor writes again and again about the importance of learning from everyone she encounters– friends, colleagues, and mentors. She reveals her struggle between career and motherhood, her divorce, and the effects of affirmative action. For young adults with aspirations in the field of the law, a better role model and guide is hard to imagine.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City
Adult/High School–Rajamani was masturbating a few hours before his older brother’s wedding ceremony when, literally, his brain exploded. He was blind, he could not move, and he knew he was dying, but somehow he managed to call the desk clerk and say “ambulance” as well as put on his shorts. Thus begins this hilarious, irreverent, fascinating Holden Caulfield-esque story of a 25-year-old “brain-damaged, Indian American redneck.” Growing up in the Bible Belt, he writes that he “never felt attractive, or even human for that matter,” as his family had the only brown faces he ever saw. Rajamani characterizes himself–his fears, his foibles, his world, and the people in it–with perfect sarcastic humor. For example, after he relearns how to walk, he describes himself as “a blind supermodel walking down an oil-slicked catwalk.” A leading eye surgeon is described as Mr. Magoo, a “short white man with glasses whose lenses seemed thicker than his legs.” Less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the population in the entire world are born with the congenital birth defect that caused his brain to explode and, amazingly, Rajamani runs into several of them randomly. The author’s account is brilliant, engaging, informative, and full of teen appeal as Rajamani navigates his recovery from one of the biggest side effects of all traumatic brain injury– “total isolation and disappearance of socialization”–into a world of independence.–Amy Cheney, Alameda County Library, Juvenile Hall, CA
Adult/High School–Fans of television’s The Big Bang Theory often see the characters arguing about superheroes–for example, which Robin should take over from Batman, or which mode of transportation is coolest. The Law of Superheroes takes these arguments to the next level, as two lawyers (and comic-book fans) look at the hard questions. Questions like, do superheroes have to file flight plans? (answer: Batman yes, Superman no); or, is Martian Manhunter possibly protected by the Endangered Species Act? And then there’s advice for regular folks, who may be wondering if a homeowner gets an insurance payout when say, the Hulk smashes their home. What about the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause, guaranteeing the right to face your accuser? If that accuser is a masked superhero, how can the guy in the Batman mask prove he’s really Batman and not some imposter? While the language does get technical and the footnotes are often case citations, this is a fascinating look at the possible legal consequences and responsibilities faced by those who inhabit the DC and Marvel universes/multiverses/alternate universes. Even Neil Gaiman’s Hob Gadling gets a mention (How do immortals keep their money safe over several lifetimes? Can they?). While it helps to have knowledge of the various heroes and villains, it’s not necessary. This book will appeal to comic-loving geeks as much as to those considering pre-law and trivia lovers. The one caveat is that the illustrations (reprints from various strips over the past 30 years) are all in black-and-white; teens may miss the color of the originals.–Laura Pearle, Center for Fiction