A good picture book, it is often said, appeals foremost to the adults who read it to the child. After all, if it becomes a favorite, there will come repeated requests that it be reread, and it must hold continued interest for the adult reader who will impart tone and drama. When the book is well illustrated, the visual elements tell the story to one too young to understand the words.
The Zimmerli Art Museum — with its extensive collection of 20th-century original illustrations for children’s literature — doesn’t take these qualities for granted and frequently exhibits children’s book illustrations for audiences of all ages.
“The Art of Turning Pages: Illustrations by Lulu Delacre for Sonia Sotomayor’s Life Story,” on view through March 17, emphasizes the importance of early childhood exposure to visual literacy gained through picture books.
Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor’s 2013 memoir, “My Beloved World,” led to a demand for a version of the book for middle-school readers. “The Beloved World of Sonia Sotomayor” was published for young adults in September, followed by “Turning Pages” (Philomel Books), illustrated by Lulu Delacre, for younger readers.
Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Justice Sotomayor is the first Latina and third woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Before Yale Law School, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University. President Barack Obama nominated her as an associate justice of the Supreme Court on May 26, 2009, a position she has held since August of that year.
“I try to find the good in everybody,” Sotomayor told a gathering of 3,000 alumni in Princeton’s Jadwin Gymnasium in October for a conference titled “She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton.” (It was held concurrent to the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.) “If you start from the proposition that there is something good in everybody, it is a lot easier to get along with them even when you disagree vehemently.”
‘Turning Pages” — there is a Spanish language version, “Pasando paginas: La historia de mi vida” — begins with the sights and scents of Puerto Rican culture in the Bronx. Spanish was the language spoken in the Sotomayor home, and with her abuelita (or granny), young Sonia visited a market that sold live chickens and goats for meat. In the neighborhood bodega, we see the locals reading the newspaper El Diario.
“My story is a story about books,” Sotomayor begins. Books “made learning fun. Reading was like lighting candles, each book a flame that lit up the world around me.” Young Sonia’s abuelita would gather the family to dinner and recite poems “written long ago about the tropical land our family had left behind. The words she spoke sent a charge through the room and sparked memories of her faraway island home.”
Written words, Sonia discovered, were “electrical currents that jolted feelings to life.”
When the family made trips “from the cold concrete streets of the Bronx to sunny Puerto Rico,” Sonia ate fresh mangoes from the trees and sipped juice straight from the coconut.
On the island her grandfather worked in a cigar factory where the dust made him sick, and her aunt spent long days stitching handkerchiefs. “I read about men and women (in Puerto Rico) who worked hard, but were paid very little,” she writes.
At age 9 Sonia lost her father and sought solace at the Parkchester Library.
It’s tough to illustrate a well-written tale that is so much about the magic of words, but Delacre — a three-time Pura Belpre Award honoree who has illustrated 38 titles, some of which she also wrote — finds so much more in the story to bring to life. She depicts the young Sonia sailing off in a sea among the library stacks in a boat made from a book page; her rudder is the New York Public Library card issued in her name.
“I researched not only photos of the Parkchester Library at that time, but the kind of library card the justice would have had,” says Delacre. “When she saw the illustration she couldn’t believe I’d found it. It’s a detail that places this in a specific time and place.” The text on the paper boats is from books Sotomayor might have read in the 1960s. “I went to a used bookstore to purchase children’s books with a copyright from the 1960s,” says Delacre.
Where Sotomayor writes “Books were a time machine, inspiring me to imagine what I would be when I grew up,” Delacre depicts the young girl descending a flight of stairs, alongside the shadow of Nancy Drew who holds out a magnifying glass. Young Sonia identifies with Nancy and the mysteries she solved.
“Justice Sotomayor is a role model for people all over the world who dream to make a difference,” says Nicole Simpson, the Zimmerli’s assistant curator of prints and drawings who organized the exhibition.
To select an illustrator, Sotomayor and her editor went through what she describes in Publisher’s Weekly as “a long process of elimination.” Sotomayor was looking for something bright, something lifelike and not cartoonish, and it had to reflect her Puerto Rican heritage. In Delacre she found what she was looking for.
When she received the call from Sotomayor’s publisher, Delacre asked if she could speak with the justice. “In my experience, the illustration benefits from interaction with the author, as I’ve done in the past,” Delacre says, noting that it was unusual that Sotomayor got to select the illustrator. “Usually the editor makes that decision.”
After the phone conversation with Justice Sotomayor, Delacre, who lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, made a visit to the Unted States Supreme Court. That visit lasted six hours, during which time she observed the justice working. Delacre was given a suitcase full of photo albums to review.
The two women had lunch together, during which time Delacre presented some of her initial sketches. She knew she wanted to paint the justice climbing the steps to the Supreme Court building and requested several of her opinions to collage onto the steps’ risers.
Delacre carefully researched Sotomayor’s life by interviewing the justice and viewing family photographs; sourcing such period details as clothes, cars, and buildings; and identifying influential texts. To research the clothing of the era, Delacre sourced McCall’s and Simplicity patterns, keeping albums of reference material on her iPad.
For the scenes at Princeton’s Firestone Library, Delacre sought images of the study carrels that no longer exist.
She painted her illustrations in a watery oil paint on paper, including the sap green — a color ubiquitous in Puerto Rico — as a nod to Sotomayor’s heritage. Delacre incorporated bits of paper collage into many of her illustrations, often covers of books and newspapers.
Not only does Delacre get the details of her subject’s life, she captures the essence of Sotomayor: her look, her personality, her very being. In the news we often see Sotomayor in her dark robe or business attire, but Delacre shows us the young justice wearing a Supergirl costume and flying over the city to conquer her diabetes, or frolicking in summer dresses. When reading “My Beloved World,” Delacre says she made notes of the justice’s traits. “I wanted to show the young Sonia as inquisitive and smart. I was thinking of her as wise, curious, having empathy, and these traits imbue the drawings.”
The exhibition includes reference photographs, ferns from Puerto Rico used for embossing the endpapers, preparatory drawings, and research material. Labels in English and Spanish accompany the works.
Delacre was born and raised in Puerto Rico, where her Argentinian parents were professors — her father taught philosophy and her mother French language and culture. Her earliest memories are of lying on her bedroom floor, drawing on the paper given to her by her abuelita while listening to classical music. “I don’t remember my abuelita ever throwing away one of my pictures. She kept them neatly piled in a corner of her closet.”
As a child, Delacre never saw children’s books.
“For me growing up in Puerto Rico, we didn’t have access to a public library, but my father had cases filled with books, and I loved to be surrounded by them so I’d study in his study. The justice and I share a love of books.”
She studied fine arts at the University of Puerto Rico and earned a master’s degree from L’Ecole Superieure d’Arts Graphiques, in Paris, France. It wasn’t until she saw an exhibition in Paris of Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen” that Delacre saw children’s books. And at that moment she knew what she wanted to do with her graphic arts degree.
“I dreamed of creating books inspired by my heritage, books that celebrate the rich folklore and colorful traditions I was nurtured with as a child, books in English and in Spanish.”
Delacre married her boyfriend from Puerto Rico and moved to the mainland with him; he was a doctor for the U.S. Army. In 1981, when living in Fort Devon, Massachusetts, and intent on becoming a children’s book illustrator, Delacre made 22 appointments with publishers in New York City. She took a Greyhound bus, stayed at a Y with a hall bath, and hand-delivered her portfolio. By the end of the week she had her first assignment for Sesame Street Magazine. “After having something published I started getting more work,” she says.
She created a set of character sketches, and her art directors encouraged her to write the stories for them. “My mother language is Spanish, and I would still dream and think in Spanish, but I persevered to write in English.” (Delacre also speaks French.)
She wanted to fill the niche for readers like her two daughters, born in the U.S. with Latino parents, speaking two languages at home.
Tragedy struck in 2004 when one of her daughters died in an automobile accident. Alicia was 16. To cope with the loss, and to help her daughter’s community of friends cope, Delacre wrote “Alicia: Afterimage.” She interviewed her daughter’s friends in order to know Alicia through their eyes. There is a chapter for each of the 22 friends, and the book is illustrated with Alicia’s artwork.
“Alicia was a talented artist. I always thought that if she had lived she would have been a much better artist than me. This is the first book I wrote that is illustrated by someone other than myself. I spent a long time looking through all of Alicia’s sketchbooks and art pieces to pick imagery for the interior of book and cover.”
Delacre’s last visit to Puerto Rico was before Hurricane Maria in 2017. She no longer has family there but visits with friends. She and her husband adopted an education center to build a library that will serve children who live in projects.
Recently, Delacre says, “I gave a presentation at a children’s book festival in Virginia, and I asked how many of them thought Puerto Ricans were American. Most thought they were not. It wasn’t until the hurricane that I realized so many on the mainland think Puerto Rico is another country.”
With “Turning Pages,” as with many of her other books, Delacre hopes to shine a light on the fact that since 1898, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, Puerto Rico has been an unincorporated territory of the United States, and by law, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
The Art of Turning Pages: Illustrations by Lulu Delacre for Sonia Sotomayor’s Life Story, Zimmerli Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Through March 17. Free. 848-932-7237 or zimmerli.rutgers.edu.