Ladder to the Moon
Image: Illustration by Yuyi Morales

Maya Soetoro-Ng, sister to Barack Obama, releases a children’s book that imparts genuine, sincere wisdom to kids about tolerance and how everyone in the world is connected.
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Religious strife bothers me, and I think that religion is something that ought to fortify us. Something that ought to make us more loving and strong and kind and just, and it bothers me when people use it in exclusionary or violent ways. Maya Soetoro-Ng


Cover image for Apr 6, 2011

Illustrations by Yuyi Morales from the book Ladder to the Moon by Maya Soetoro-Ng.

Ladder to the Moon / From a place of bittersweet longing, Maya Soetoro-Ng writes an introspective children’s book that inspires all ages. What we find in Ladder to the Moon are epic images and inescapable stories that connect us through inevitable loss and spiritual understanding.

Soetoro-Ng, an assistant professor and coordinator in the College of Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa as well as a part-time educational specialist at the East-West Center, has just written her first children’s book, Ladder to the Moon. The story is about a little girl named Suhaila who wishes she knew her late Grandma Annie. One night, Grandma Annie appears in her room and takes her on a trip to the moon via a very long ladder. From there, the pair discover other children in need and after returning home, Suhaila learns that she has the strength within her to help others all on her own.

Suhaila is the name of Soetoro-Ng’s daughter (now 6-years-old) and Grandma Annie is based directly on her mother, the late Ann Dunham.

“I started writing the book, in my mind, when I was pregnant with Suhaila,” says Soetoro-Ng. “My mom really, really wanted grandchildren. I started to think about what she would have imparted to them, what she would have shared, how she would have interacted with them and how much she would have enjoyed them.

“So of course I sort of lost her all over again in a way and I felt the sort of full force of my longing for her in ways that were both melancholy and bittersweet; this idea [that] I was having a girl and I knew that I would do my best to share the best that she had given to me with Suhaila.

“I actually named Suhaila thinking about my mom and the moon. ‘Suhaila’ means the glow around the moon and I remembered when my daughter was still in my belly, I was so round and I felt like the moon; and I remembered how my mom would take me up [to] the rooftops or a fire escape, or out into the gardens or the stairs, to go look at the moon. When I was in high school, she would wake me up all the time to sit on the steps of our apartment on Spreckle Street across from Punahou to go check out the moon.”

But the book encompasses more than just casual moon-gazing with a friendly ghost. With epic paintings by Mexican illustrator Yuyi Morales, the story follows Suhaila as she observes two sisters recovering from “two tall towers that trembled and swayed on quaking soil.” The sisters “wipe dust from their faces and stick out their tongues to catch some soft rain.” The reference to 9/11 can’t be missed.

In another scene, Grandma Annie and Suhaila save children in trouble from a giant wave sweeping through their village. Soetoro-Ng was referencing the Indonesian tsunami from a few years back although the image now, inescapably calls to mind the recent events in Japan.

“The idea here is to understand loss,” Soetoro-Ng explains. “To understand and care about those who are far away and have lost. The book addresses some challenging themes like loss, conflict, injustice, death. The idea is for parents to work with children, be inspired, to answer questions that children might have about the world around them, loved ones they have lost.

“The idea is to develop a certain resilience and to begin the process of encouraging peace-building, the kind of strength and resilience that instead causes us to not tackle the challenge of loving one another and working together. That was definitely an important thing to share. For me it certainly was cathartic and it opened up new possibilities for dialogue, and I hope that’s true for other parents and teachers.”

Later in the book, we see the striking image of a synagogue, a temple, a mosque and a steepled church with everyone praying together.

“Religious strife bothers me,” Soetoro-Ng says, “and I think that religion is something that ought to fortify us. Something that ought to make us more loving and strong and kind and just, and it bothers me when people use it in exclusionary or violent ways. It bothers me when you don’t pay attention to the true power and possibility of faith. Faith at its most basic level, it’s about being more human and humane. It’s about reminding us of the potential for divine love and inspiration.

“I wrote that specifically because I’d like for people to recognize that all religions at their core are fundamentally the same; the idea that they all help people grapple with their place in the world and the suffering but also joy, love and connection. Most of them involve a sense of community and kinship, have mandates to love and support and take care of one another. I just get frustrated when that part gets ignored in favor of a narrower reading.”

Even with all these heady themes, though, the target audience for the book is still kids. How did Suhaila herself like Ladder to the Moon? When posed with the question, Soetoro-Ng calls out to Suhaila, who is in the living room watching My Little Pony: The Movie with a playmate, and asks the 6-year-old for her verdict.

“I like it, it’s good,” Suhaila says, “because I’m the main character and I have a teacup.”

(In one passage, Suhaila and her grandmother drink sweet moondew from silver teacups.)

Soetoro-Ng smiles and shrugs at the short critique. “I always challenge her: ‘How come you like Ariel? [From The Little Mermaid.] She gives up her voice for a man. That’s so unfeminist.’ I think [Suhaila] responded that she just really liked the songs. It’s a Disney movie, you can’t mess with that. You don’t want to take a sledgehammer to it. Their first point of engagement will be the teacups.”

Soetoro-Ng has another daughter, 2-year-old Savita, who will get a book of her own soon. The next project on the busy author’s list is a young adult novel revolving around a teen named Savita born into a world at war on an island very similar to Hawaii. Savita has mysterious powers that allow her to heal a person simply by touch. And considering recent trends in young adult literature, Soetoro-Ng assures us there will be no vampires in sight.

When not writing, teaching or mothering, Soetoro-Ng finds the time to engage in community service. She recently held a fundraiser to benefit the Japan tsunami victims at Soul de Cuba.

Then, as if her sincerity regarding Ladder to the Moon’s message of compassion, service and interconnectivity needed repeating, a small moment in the middle of the interview seemed to illustrate it even more fully.

Suhaila’s playmate Monty came up to the kitchen table, mildly upset that she allegedly tried to make him eat Swiss cheese, a food he decidedly was not fond of. The details are a bit fuzzy from there but the cheese incident allegedly led to the turning off of the television by Suhaila. No more My Little Pony for Monty. Soetoro-Ng gently reminds Suhaila that Monty is her guest and they will be leaving the house soon so they should “enjoy your time together. Remember that it’s precious.”

Sometimes it takes a book written for children to remind us that our time together is precious.

Sister POTUS

Of course, The Weekly couldn’t not ask about the President…

Your brother. What does he do for a living again?

He’s the Pres.

How do you get that gig?

Hard work. A lot of sacrifice. Commitment. Love. Thick skin. Committed people around you. Good instincts. Capacity to compromise. Indomitable will. A little bit of a sense of humor is important. And persistance is really mandatory. It’s a hard job.

I know, right?

The idea is to feel a sense of responsibility for others but not to be crushed by the weight of the world on your shoulders. He strives for balance to recognize those things he has the power to alter. To try to represent as many people as possible, to hear as large a percentage of the constituency of his country as he can, to just basically move forward and do his best. He is doing that. He’s working really hard.

Do you need a Punahou education to be the President?

[laughs] Since Jim Scott [Punahou School president] is reading this… It can’t hurt, but since I’m an advocate of the public schools and a big believer in the success of the public school system, I’m gonna say no.

The culture being the way it is in Hawaii, do you think it’s easier being the President’s sister here?

Yes. Folks let me be who I am and I don’t have to concern myself with how I’m dressed. There’s no judgement. I feel tremendously relaxed and supported, part of an ‘ohana. People are optimistic and positive. That doesn’t mean they’re uncritical, it just means they’re more focused on the positive. And there’s a real sweetness about this place. There’s strength in that. I don’t mean to diminish Hawaii, I think there’s real power in the culture here. But the idea is that it’s sort of laid back power. It isn’t intrusive. If someone approaches me here, the most frequent thing I get is, “Eh, you da kine? Cool. I when vote for your braddah.”

I know that my brother will be here for APEC this year but generally it’s Christmas time and folks really do a terrific job of giving him the space to spend time with his family. To recharge and remember where he came from. To fall in love with his friends again. I know he’s really grateful for that. It’s not a small thing. It’s a big thing to have that.

Has he read the book?

Yeah, he has. He said it was very sweet and it captured our mother’s spirit well.

Are you gonna help him campaign again?

Of course. I’m going to do whatever his campaign wants me to do. I will absolutely endeavor to do my part.

Do you think he can kick Donald Trump’s ass? In an election.

I think that my brother should have a second term.