Dunham, divorced from Obama’s father and years later from Soetoro-Ng‘s, died in 1995 at age 53 of ovarian and uterine cancer before the births of her four grandchildren _ Suhaila, her 2-year-old sister Savita and their famous cousins, Malia and Sasha Obama.
A natural storyteller, Dunham passed on many of her best to her kids while under the glow of the moon.
“The moon sort of guided us to points of intersection,” Soetoro-Ng said. “She loved the moon so much because the moon was the same for everybody and all of these people and places were connected because we shared the same moon.” The book takes its title from Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1958 painting of a floating ladder on an aqua background.
Born in Jakarta, Soetoro-Ng attended Barnard College and the University of Hawaii before earning her master’s in secondary education from New York University. She spent several years teaching and developing curricula for public middle schools in Manhattan, then returned to Hawaii and received a Ph.D in international comparative education.
She now lives with her family in Honolulu, working as a cultural educator for the nonprofit East-West Center and lecturing in the education department at the University of Hawaii.
So when did she find the time to write a children’s book? In Chicago, at her brother’s kitchen table while helping to get him elected president. Soetoro-Ng had always wanted to write a book for young kids. At the time, Obama had just signed a contract for “Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters,” his picture book released last November.
“I felt suddenly brave, taking the risk of trying to get published,” she said.
Soetoro-Ng, nine years younger than the president, has always celebrated her multicultural heritage as the daughter of a white American and an Indonesian dad, but Dunham has brown skin in the book _ and deliberately so.
Soetoro-Ng showed her illustrator, Yuyi Morales, photos of Dunham and Suhaila before Morales went to work and “asked her to not be true to those pictures.” Morales drew partly on her own Mexican heritage in creating the drawings.
“I wanted her to try and capture their spirit, but I told her I wanted them to be ethnically ambiguous,” she said. “I wanted them to be every woman and every child. I wanted a European child, an African child, an Asian child to be able to feel a certain familiarity in their visage.”