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President Obama’s Sister Maya Soetoro-Ng Writes Children’s Book

Maya Soetoro Ng

UPDATE 1/5/15: President Obama’s Vacation: Day 15–Visit to see Maya Soetoro-Ng

Maya’s Radio Podcast: 8/20/11

UPDATE 9/5/12:  Maya Soetoro-Ng Previews Half-Brother President Barack Obama’s DNC Address

By Anita Jones/April 26, 2011

One cool new evening Suhaila asked her mama,

“What was Grandma Annie like?”

“She was like the Moon,” her mother replied.

Maya Soetoro-Ng read these first lines from her new children’s book, Ladder to the Moon, her deep, melodious voice surrounding us as we finished our lunch at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California last week. This was one of the final stops in the west coast leg of Maya’s book tour. I had the honor of sitting at the table with Maya and YuYi Morales, the book’s illustrator.

Maya took the podium, gave a very brief preamble and professed to always feeling “like a tall woman in a short woman’s body”. Without missing a beat she then launched into a seamless mixture of reading and storytelling. I relaxed with my coffee and macaroon, knowing we were in good hands.

As she spoke Maya flipped thorough the book showing YuYi’s illustrations. Author and illustrator shared the podium and had met for the first time only an hour before. Each spoke about being deeply connected from the start through this story they both felt compelled to tell; YuYi through her beguiling acrylic paintings sparked by Maya’s ethereal, lyrical words.

Maya’s oldest daughter, Suhaila, six years old, is the namesake of the book’s heroine. Her questions about Maya’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, were the inspiration for the book. Ann was 52 when she passed away a decade before Suhaila’s birth.

In this magical tale Suhaila’s Grandma Annie descends a golden ladder outside her bedroom window and leads her up to the moon on an adventure of healing, helping and growth.

Maya, Mom, and Barack

Stanley Ann Dunham and her children

Stanley Ann Dunham earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Hawaii. In 2009 Duke University Press published her dissertation posthumously under the title, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia. Maya told of a photo—included in this book—taken in Indonesia showing Ann dressed in batik, sitting before a basket of chicks, with a duckling in her hands.

This photo bespeaks Suhaila’s profound connection to Ann, apparent in their shared love of critters, large and small, “Suhaila is the resident activist in our building, protecting slugs, beetles and worms with a tremendous reserve of affection inherited from my mom.” Maya admitted to her need to draw the line at the idea of relocating cockroaches.

The book also reflects Maya’s own life journey, which began in her birthplace, Jakarta, Indonesia, where she and her older brother, President Barack Obama, spent a large part of their very multicultural childhood.

After mentioning at the table that we homeschooled our daughter, I learned that Ann also homeschooled Maya, instilling in her a fierce love of learning and to value the best of the past.

Maya and Obama

Maya and Obama

“The script is not narrowed when we know where we came from”, Maya said. “If we are not content with the roots we are handed, then we can write our own stories.”

Ladder to the Moon artfully enfolds many complex themes ~ the interconnectedness of us all, healing from loss, and the pragmatic value of building bridges. These also radiate through Maya’s work as an educator. With a PhD in international comparative education, she has taught middle school, high school and at the University level for many years.

Maya and illustrator YuYi Morales

Maya and YuYi Morales, the book’s illustrator

She shows students the value of mediating between perspectives, urging them “to remember the collisions, shifting borders and layered perspectives that have contributed to who you are. It is important to refrain from applying rigid ‘you-are this-so-you-must-be-that’ labels to people.”

By way of this magnificent gift to her children Maya links a world of readers and listeners to the teachings of Stanley Ann Dunham’s unwavering spirit, captured beautifully in this line at the end of Ladder to the Moon:

“She sat for a quiet half moment, feeling proud for having helped others learn to move forward and upward and around.”

Maya wonders what lessons her daughters might have learned from their grandmother if they could have met her. Indeed, Ladder to the Moon is a beautiful answer to that question.

____________________________________________________

About the author:

Anita Jones is a writer, visual artist and oral tradition storyteller. Her novel-in-progress, Peach Seed Monkey, was a novella semi-finalist in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. She’s the Executive Director of the Gaines-Jones Education Foundation, a family foundation she co-founded with her husband, Robert Roehrick. They live in northern California with their daughter. You can contact Anita at peachseedmonkey@gmail.com.

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