At last month’s Winter Institute, PW caught up with President Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Va. She was in town to meet with her editor, Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Candlewick Press, and to talk with booksellers about her forthcoming picture book, Ladder to the Moon, illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Although her debut children’s book has touches of magical realism and takes its title from Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1958 painting with a floating ladder on an aqua background, the story is also rooted in the physical world. Soetoro-Ng wrote it in Chicago at her brother’s kitchen table during the presidential campaign, while she looked after her daughter, Suhaila, now six.
“It was a wonderful way to take flight and have magic during the grueling campaign,” says Soetoro-Ng, whose name culls up a sense of magic all its own. She was named for poet Maya Angelou. “Part of what inspired me was thinking of Mom and what she was missing in terms of my brother and his career trajectory and the children. I was watching Suhaila’s development, and I marveled at the speed of her learning. I could see she was full of questions, and our mother would have been wonderful with her.” Suhaila also shares her grandmother’s fascination with creatures large and small; the two are even similarly built.
Soetoro-Ng stresses that the book didn’t come from sadness about Suhaila not getting to meet her grandmother, Ann Dunham, also Obama’s mother, but “sweetness.” She began writing by imagining what it would be like for her daughter to spend the night in her mother’s arms. “The rich emotional tapestry of being a mother, becoming a mother, connects you to your own mother. I didn’t realize how much I’d become her. I pass a mirror and am surprised by how much I look like her,” she says.
But as much as the book belongs to Soetoro-Ng and her mother, “Suhaila really owns the book,” she says. It’s not just that Suhaila appears as a character alongside her grandmother Annie, but, says Soetoro-Ng, “she made suggestions, and she knows the story well.” Ironically, though, it will be Suhaila’s younger sister, Savita, age two, who will accompany her mother on much of her 10-city, month-long tour, although Suhaila will attend events near their home in Honolulu. Candlewick has committed to a 200,000-copy first printing supported by a $250,000 marketing campaign.
An education specialist for the East-West Center and a lecturer at the University of Hawai’i’s College of Education, where she teaches multicultural education and the history of education, Soetoro-Ng says that she’s always written stories. “I’ve always kept a journal and brought storytelling into my teaching.” Despite the celebrity of a famous brother and the demands of work and family, she continues to write. Her husband helps make that possible by taking care of the children to give her weekend writing retreats.
So far, Soetoro-Ng has been pleased with the publishing process, including the selection of Yuyi Morales to illustrate Ladder to the Moon. “I was surprised,” she says, “by how beautifully her illustrations met all of my expectations. I envisioned precisely what she created.” As for Candlewick, Soetoro-Ng appreciates the fact that another house might have wanted her to write about her brother. “Candlewick does a superb job in supporting writers and stories with a balance of nurturing and guiding words, and allowing freedom for authors to think about the stories they want to tell,” she says.
Currently Soetoro-Ng is working on a YA novel, also to be published by Candlewick. It features a young heroine, born into a time of war, who discovers she has the power to heal.
Ladder to the Moon by Maya Soetoro-Ng, illus. by Yuyi Morales. Candlewick, $16.99 Apr. ISBN 978-0-7636-4570-0