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Obama’s Sister: What Our Mother Taught Us

Maya Soetoro-Ng reflects on her childhood with brother Barack, her own family and children, and how to keep everyone connected.
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Maya Spread #58


In 1984, YES! Publisher Fran Korten worked alongside Barack Obama’s mother, Ann Soetoro, at the Ford Foundation’s office in Jakarta, Indonesia. Ann’s daughter, Maya, who was 14 at the time, attended the Jakarta International School with Fran’s daughters, Alicia and Diana. Maya was recently in Seattle preparing for the launch of her new children’s book, Ladder to the Moon, and Fran talked with her for the first time in 27 years. The book is a tale of Maya’s daughter Suhaila’s adventure with her grandmother Ann, who died in 1995, long before Suhaila was born. In the storybook, grandmother and grandchild climb a ladder to the moon where together they look back at the Earth. As they see tragedies unfold, they reach back to help. The book, launched in April 2011, is illustrated by Yuyi Morales, and published by Candlewick Press. Fran talked with Maya about the book, her life, and her reflections on her mother and her famous brother.


Maya Ng photo by Kelli Bullock

At home in Hawai'i, Maya Soetoro-Ng reads to her daughter, Suhaila, from her new book, Ladder to the Moon.

Photo by Kelli Bullock.

Korten: This is your first book. What inspired you to write a children’s book?

MayaNg: In 2008, I was campaigning for my brother and had a bit of down time because my husband was taking care of Suhaila, who was then 3 years old. So I was in Chicago in the basement of my brother’s home, and I thought to myself, if my brother can risk the enormous rejection [of possibly not being elected], then I can risk the much smaller rejection of not having anyone pick up my book. I became emboldened. I think the campaign resulted in a lot of people, not simply relatives, being emboldened to try new things. It was a very fruitful time.

One could also say that the book was born years earlier. When I was pregnant with Suhaila, I came across some boxes that Mom had saved for me that said “for Maya’s children.” They contained my childhood toys and books. Seeing them filled me with sadness that she wasn’t there to share this time with me. In a way it was like losing her all over again.

My daughter was born in 2004, just a couple of months before my brother made his speech at the Democratic National Convention. I suddenly had all of these new questions. So this was when I began imagining what my mother would have been like with her grandchildren and what they would have gotten from her.

Mom loved the moon. She would wake me up in the middle of the night to go gaze at the moon. I named my daughter Suhaila because in Sanskrit it means "the glow around the moon."

Korten: Have your children read this book?

Ng: Yes, I’ve read it to them. In fact Suhaila, who is now 6, helped me with a couple of the ideas. The orphan children leaping up like flying fish—that was her idea.

Korten: How does your other daughter, Savita, feel about her sister being in this book?

Ng: She doesn’t know it’s her sister because she is 2 and can’t read, so she thinks it’s her. She points and says “That’s me.” Then Suhaila says, “No, that’s me,” and she gets very upset. I’ve got another book in the works. It’s a young adult novel entitled Yellow Wood, based on the Robert Frost poem—two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and we took the one less traveled, and that made all the difference. In that book the main protagonist’s name is Savita. I joke that I can’t have another child without another book contract.

Korten: Ann is, of course, grandmother to Barack and Michelle’s children, Malia and Sasha. Have they read the book?

Ng: Yes, they have. They liked it, though they have not seen the version with the illustrations. I had received that version at Christmas, but we had so much going on I forgot to bring it. My brother’s book had just come out, so we talked more about his book. At Christmas several families and old friends join us—there’s about 13 children in this group. It’s a wonderful opportunity for my brother to be precisely who he has always been. He can completely relax. He even connects with high school friends.

Korten: In the book, why did you have the grandmother and grandchild go to the moon?

Obama family photo by Maya Ng

Maya Soetoro-Ng with brother Barack and mother Ann.

Photo courtesy of Maya Soetoro-Ng

Ng: Mom loved the moon. She would wake me up in the middle of the night to go gaze at the moon. I named my daughter Suhaila because in Sanskrit it means “the glow around the moon.” So it was in honor of my mother. Part of why she loved the moon was that for everyone it was the same. Maybe they were looking at it at a different time of day, but if it was a new moon for you, it would be a new moon for me.

So the moon became a symbol of connection in that way. The main message of my book is that we are interconnected, that we can help one another, that our actions have an impact on others. So why don’t we act to impact one another benevolently instead of adversely? I wanted the moon to act as a place where everyone could gather, since it is the same for everyone. It’s a very calming force. I think of the moon and the tides—there’s sort of a sweet earthly caress that takes place through the water. So I thought of the moon as a place of sanctuary, as a place of healing and a reminder to all of us that we share the same space. Even though it feels like we are far away, we are in fact united and connected.

Korten: If you think of a 5-year-old reading this book, what do you hope the child gets out of it?

Ng: I don’t imagine children of that age reading this for the first time by themselves. I think it can be a means for parents to have conversations with their children about the people who came before them, people perhaps who are gone.

I was thinking of specific things when I wrote about worlds and languages lost and about natural disasters, strife, and trembling towers. But I don’t name them because I want the book to be relevant for many years to come—to others who will have their own events. I want parents to be able to choose whether to use this book to talk to their children about the fact that bad things happen—people did lose their lives with this tsunami or that quake.

I wanted the images to be neutral enough that parents could simply say that sometimes life is hard. And if you have the power to make others feel better and if you are loving and kind, what does that mean? What does that look like? I think it’s an opportunity to have conversations about empathy, about caring, and about humanizing traits that we want to develop in our own children. And perhaps giving kids a place where they can safely ask questions about things that have happened. But not every parent will feel comfortable talking about that with a 7-year-old. So a parent or a teacher can choose. I’d love for this book to be used in elementary schools as well. 

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