During his run for the presidency, Barack Obama often talked about his mother, Ann Dunham, and the lessons she taught him through her work with poor rural communities around the world. Dunham died of cancer in 1995, before any of her grandchildren were born.
Now the president's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, has written "Ladder to the Moon," a children's book that attempts to connect her young daughter, Suhaila, with the grandmother she never knew.
The book’s title was inspired by a picture post card Dunham gave Maya as a child. It features a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe which depicts a ladder floating against the night sky, with a half-moon high above it.
In the book, little Suhaila asks her mother what her grandmother was like. "Like the moon," her mother replies. "Full, soft and curious." Suhaila longs to meet her, and one night, her wish comes true. A golden ladder appears at her window and Grandma Annie invites the girl to come along on a magical journey.
"The book is about an evening spent helping others to come up to the moon after natural disaster and religious strife and conflict," says Soetoro-Ng. "And the moon becomes a sanctuary, an imagined place to heal and rest in hammocks until we’re laughing loudly again."
It seemed natural for Soetoro-Ng to connect her daughter and Grandma Annie through the moon. Her late mother, she says, always loved the moon because it was the same for everybody, no matter where in the world they were. Under the glow of the moon, she recalls, her mother shared her most meaningful tales with her children.
That’s how Soetoro-Ng says she and her brother, President Obama, remember their mother - as a great story teller and great role model.
"Like me, he feels that she’s someone who gave us a strong moral compass, that she gave us compassion and desire to recognize the things that are common to all humanity and reach out across the divides even when doing so is hard," she says. "That’s something tremendously valuable."
It wasn’t just her mother’s tales that shaped who she and her brother have become. Soetoro-Ng says what parents do is more important than what they say. Dunham, who had a PhD in anthropology, worked in rural development in some of the poorest places in the world.
"I recognize, for instance, that in making sure that we came along to villages and to her work, that our mother was trying to get us to see that these village people were just as important and powerful and loving and had just as much to teach as upper class, well-educated people."
Although her goal was to introduce her mother to her daughter, Soetoro-Ng says "Ladder to the Moon" has something to say to other young readers, and older ones as well.
"Slow down and think about the lessons of the elders. I think it’s true we look forward to enormous amounts of information, but I think we would be better off if we thought about the kinds of wisdom and thoughtfulness that we need in order to handle the amount of information ahead."
Although Suhaila never knew her grandmother, Obama and Soetoro-Ng knew theirs. Their mother's mother had an enormous influence on them.
"Our grandmother was a formidable woman, very practical and very strong, very smart. She was for me a balancing, steadying force. She took care of us. Both my brother and I lived with her for a time and she allowed us to be brave because we knew that she would always take care of us, that there would be a safety net beneath us. And that was an important feeling to have. It was a great gift."
Other messages present in "Ladder to the Moon" are that all people are intertwined and that service is important. Soetoro-Ng says children need to know they are strong enough to take responsibility for themselves and others.
"We need to teach our children empathy and care and love and communication and social responsibility in preparation for adulthood. We can’t afford to live in isolation and we need to teach our kids that the things that they do not only matter to others far away, but impact others who live far away and there are ripples of effect. So that means we need to be responsible and thoughtful about our actions, about our relationship to the environment, about the way that we communicate and we ought to do so kindly."
Soetoro-Ng hopes "Ladder to the Moon" triggers conversations between parents and children about the values and tools the young generation needs to have a positive impact on the world.