Portrait at White House State Dinner, 2009
Photo: Wikiman2222/Wikimedia Commons
Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama’s Sister, Reads from Her New Picture Book at Teachers College
“Come. Tell me everything….” So ends the captivating picture book, Ladder to the Moon, by Maya Soetoro-Ng, a first-time children’s book author and sister to President Obama. This powerful phrase resonated in Milbank Chapel here at Teachers College last night, where a packed-in crowd listened as Ms. Soetoro-Ng read from her just-released book and spoke of the power of storytelling to bridge generations, the interconnectedness of our world, and the importance of instilling a call to service in young people. Ms. Soetoro-Ng made clear that these values have been a part of her since her birth: that they can be traced back to the words and deeds of her mother.
This event, initiated by Candlewick Press and hosted by the TCRWP, was introduced by Lucy Calkins and by Susan Fuhrman, President of Teachers College. The audience was taken with Soetoro-Ng’s direct style right from her opening invitation: “Let’s talk story,” referring to a Hawaiian tradition of communal storytelling.
Obama and Soetoro-Ng’s mother, Ann Dunham, was a cultural anthropologist who, in the author’s words, always wanted to “wrap her arms around the world.” In Ladder to the Moon, a little girl, based on the author’s own daughter, encounters her recently deceased grandmother at night and journeys with her to the moon, where they look down on our planet and can see trouble brewing. The book, richly illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is both a loving tribute to Soetoro-Ng’s mother and a message to her daughter and to other young people that even the very young have the power to reach across difference and help others.
This message clearly hit home with one group of students. After her preliminary reading and remarks, the author joined the audience to watch seven eighth graders from the Clinton School for Writers and Artists perform poems they had written in response to Ladder to the Moon. Each poem was dedicated to a parent or grandparent and spoke to the legacy of those elders. There was not a dry eye in the chapel as Soetoro-Ng led the standing ovation for these performances, all of which concluded with, “Come. Tell me everything.”
Soetoro-Ng, born in Indonesia, holds a PhD in international comparative education from the University of Hawaii; prior to that, she studied at Barnard and at NYU and took some courses here at Teachers College, as President Fuhrman revealed last night. During the Q&A after the performance, the author spoke about her writing process. She said that the idea for the story had originally consisted of two friends falling off the sidewalk into a non-human world. Taking a suggestion from a friend, she decided to try resituating the story to the moon¬—a move that really hit home. “My mom used to drag me out of bed at three in the morning to look at the moon,” Soetoro-Ng said. Her association of the moon with her mother, and to her daughter Suhaila, whose name means “glow around the moon” in Indonesian, became a symbolic bridge between generations that helped give the story its shape.
After the event, guests gathered in the Teachers College student lounge for a book signing. The first in line were the student performers, who also had a chance to speak with the author during a pre-talk reception (sponsored by the Teachers College Office of Development and External Affairs). “She was so great with the kids,” Katherine Hernandez, a teacher from the students’ school, said afterwards. “She really made them feel special.”
Everyone walked away from the evening convinced of Soetoro-Ng’s message: telling stories brings people together.
Article contributed by Audra Robb