Maya Soetoro-Ng, illustrated by Yuyi Morales,
Ladder to the Moon
Candlewick Press, 2011.
Ages 4 and up
“What was Grandma Annie like?” young Suhaila asks her mother about the grandmother she never met. “Full, soft, and curious,” her mother replies. “Your grandma would wrap her arms around the whole world if she could.”
For children who never had the opportunity to meet a cherished grandparent, the absence of that influential figure becomes a presence in their lives, intensifying the feelings their own parents have about their loss. “Becoming a parent made me think of my own mother with both intense grief and profound gratitude,” writes Maya Soetoro-Ng in a note following the text of Ladder to the Moon. “I wished that my mother and my daughter could have known and loved each other. I hoped that I could teach Suhaila some of the many things I learned as I grew up witnessing my mother’s extraordinary compassion and empathy.” In the case of Soetoro-Ng and her daughters, the grandmother in question has intrigued many people around the world as she is also the mother of U.S. President Barack Obama, Soetero-Ng’s older half-brother.
Since the beginning of the Obama campaign, journalists and politicians have wondered and written about this mysterious and unconventional woman, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died in 1995. There is no question that she, a noted anthropologist and often single mother, had an enormous influence on the lives of her children and thus on history itself. Her daughter’s dream story about the young Suhaila meeting her grandmother comes from a personal, family perspective that will resonate with any child in such a situation, as well as giving adult readers a new insight into this enigmatic figure.
Grandma Annie encourages Suhaila to use each of her five senses to reach out to the rest of the world. Together they find people in trouble: trembling in earthquakes, trying to outswim Tsunamis, and praying for peace. Annie and Suhaila reach down from the moon to offer their solace and comfort as they bring these people up, making the moon brighter for all to see.
Yuyi Morales’ stunning illustrations bring diverse people together to share and connect on the moon. In one scene, they tell stories around a campfire, each with a glowing circle of words around her head. These lines, pulled from traditional narratives and the personal stories of Morales’ friends, represent six languages and four different alphabets.
Above all, Soetoro-Ng says of her mother, she was a storyteller. Those stories have been the inspiration for much of the author’s own life; and with a story, she and Morales honor this posthumously famous woman in a deeply personal yet universal way.