Kid Reporters

TFK Chats with Maya Soetoro-Ng

President Barack Obama's half sister gives TFK the scoop on her new children's book

May 13, 2011

 

 

Videography by Jeremiah Ysip and Joe Perry. Editing by Mitos Briones.
 

Growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, Maya Soetoro-Ng and her big brother, Barack Obama, were taught by their mother to be kind, to explore and to dream big. While their mom is no longer with them today, Soetoro-Ng is sharing what she learned as a little girl with her own daughters, Suhaila and Savita.

Soetoro-Ng's new children's book, Ladder to the Moon, gives her kids the chance to "meet" their grandmother. The picture book follows a young girl named Suhaila and her Grandma Annie as they go on a magical journey to the moon and across the globe. Along the way, they meet and give help to lost souls who have suffered through man-made and natural distasters. Soetoro-Ng says the book is a tribute to her mother's compassion.

TFK Kid Reporter Veronica Louise Mendoza had the honor of chatting with Soetoro-Ng, recently, in San Francisco, California (watch the interview above). Read on to see what the author says about the book and about growing up with the future President of the United States.

TFK:

What inspired you to write a book about connecting a grandchild to her grandmother?

MAYA SOETORO-NG:

I was inspired by the idea that the people that came before us had a lot to impart, and that they might be able to teach us things that help us face our future with greater courage and skill. My mom was a very lovely communicator. She was compassionate and she empathized with people far and wide. I wanted her energy and her spirit to be conveyed to my daughters and my nieces and other children. So I thought that perhaps I could bring her back to life through this children's book.

TFK:

Were you close to your grandmother?

SOETORO-NG:

I was. I became very close to her, especially in the last 10 years of her life. She was a very different person than my mother. She was very sensible, practical and grounded. She was a banker, very detail-oriented. Whereas my mom was more of an adventurer. She was someone who took brave journeys intellectually and physically and traveled far. They were both very strong women who did a good job of supporting us and making us feel strong.

TFK:

How did you come to make the moon your mother's home in the book?

SOETORO-NG:

My mom used to wake me up when I was about 13 to go look at the moon at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning. As you might imagine, I wasn't always interested in checking it out. She would always sleep at 8:30 p.m. and would wake up at these wee hours and would want to chat with me. I would grumble and be irritated and roll my eyes. Ultimately, after she passed, I realized how precious those moments were.

TFK:

What do you think of when you look at the moon?

SOETORO-NG:

I think it's as gorgeous as [my mom] thought it was. I remember her love of how the moon was the same everywhere. That was really compelling for her. For me, I think of other people in my life and around the world when I am under the moon now.

TFK:

What message do you want kids, including your daughters, to get from reading Ladder to the Moon?

SOETORO-NG:

That children are really strong for a couple of reasons. One, because they are going to be building our future; young people's brains and ability and skill-set are advancing, which is very different from previous generations. You are in command of what is necessary to make the world more peaceful. You have the power to heal and inspire greatness. Young people have a voice that should be heard. The other message is that our world really is interconnected. Let's work on connection and not division. Let's reach out and get to know one another better. When we act, we have to think of how our actions impact other people.

TFK:

What was Suhaila's response after she read Ladder to the Moon?

SOETORO-NG:

She dug it! She was really excited about the fact that she had a silver teacup, with moondew in it. She thought, "Wow, that's cool." She loved being in the book. She loved being the image of someone who is growing and changing and realizing her own power.

TFK:

What is your biggest hope for your daughters?

SOETORO-NG:

Happiness, basically. I hope that they have poise and confidence. I hope that they use their voice and that they find happiness in a broad sense of community. I hope that they will become brave and not reckless. I want them to feel confident that they will make their way in the world and put their own stamp on things. I hope they find love in lots of places.

TFK:

What was President Obama like as a kid?

SOETORO-NG:

He was not this boy who was in student government or who got straight A's. I'm not saying that other young people shouldn't get straight A's or shouldn't participate in student government, but he was a regular kid. He was really interested in basketball and all kinds of sports. He was interested in friendships and loved to learn. He was a good reader and a good thinker. He was very smart, but he wasn't always studious. He didn't always apply himself. He definitely made mistakes, but he didn't really make any big mistakes. That's why I tell people, "Don't make any mistakes that you can't recover from." He made enough mistakes to learn from them. He was completely human and these mistakes helped him grow.

TFK:

In Ladder to the Moon, you write about natural disasters. What would you say to comfort the victims of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan?

SOETORO-NG:

I send enormous amounts of love. I don't know exactly what I could say that is of value beyond reminding them that we are thinking of them, that we will not forget, and that we know how hard it must be to recover from something that atrocious. We admire the strength the victims have, and we are reminded of our vulnerability and humanity and heroism in these times. I think what they need most is for young people to reach out and send words of support and love that help them know that they are not alone.

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. During this time, communities across the nation celebrate the culture, traditions and history of Asians Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. To learn more, visit asianpacificheritage.gov.


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