Maya Soetoro-Ng is a teacher, peacebuilder, and the author of Ladder to the Moon, a children’s book based on the views and life lessons of her mother. We had the opportunity to speak to Professor Soetoro-Ng and listen to a panel on peace education during our visit to the Hawai’i Book and Music Festival and she agreed to an interview. Here's what she had to share with us:
Ladder to the Moon tells the story of a young girl, Suhaila, who goes on an adventure with her grandmother Annie. What inspired you to write this story?
I actually conceived [the idea] of the story when I was pregnant with my first daughter, Suhaila, the protagonist in this book. I came across a box of books and toys from my childhood that my mother had left for me. And on the top of this box, my mother had written “For Maya’s children”. She had died nine years earlier, so I was very sad and I thought about how much she has missed and how much of her lessons and views on life my daughter would miss. I thought, “Well, at least I can share the stories that my mother shared with me, as well as stories about my mother, with my daughter.” I did that as best I could. Some years later, I wrote this book that imagines an evening spent between my mother and daughter, and tried to articulate those lessons I think that my mom would have imparted, namely, that we are all connected and interdependent and that young people are very strong and there is much they can do to serve and to help. So that’s the gist of the book.
For Mom, recognition of our interconnectedness means that we are responsible for seeing things from other people’s points of view. So a lot of the book is about learning to wash our eyes and to understand the world and our symbols after having seen through the lens of another person, another faith, another language. That’s why the book opens with a view of Earth from the moon’s perspective. My hope as a teacher was that the book would be shared between students and their teachers, between children and their elders, and used to stimulate dialogue and to prompt story telling about the student’s families or the children’s elders who came before them. The idea is to just get everyone thinking about their own lives and families, ancestors, and their potential moving forward.
A major theme in the story is the connectedness of humans across ages, race, nationality, religion, etc. These are ideas that adults sometimes find difficult to understand. Was it difficult to put these ideas into Ladder to the Moon for children to understand?
I think that sometimes we present it as complicated, because it is never easy; it does require a tremendous amount of courage. But I think that that bravery is something we can build in young people at a very early age. We need to practice listening in order to do that, careful listening where we’re not just anticipating what we’re going to say next. We need to give ourselves the opportunity to be uncomfortable with difference and tough conversations with people who believe differently.
How do you stay motivated?
It is hard work and it does require some consistency and persistence. There is this woman who is an anxiety therapist and a stand-up comedian and she talked about how we spend a lot of time “awfulizing and catastrophizing” and it’s so true. It’s so easy to do because there’s a lot of which there is to awfulize and catastrophize. It’s hard to stay buoyant and optimistic, and sometimes if you are, then you’re accused of being Pollyanna. I do think it’s time to see peace as action-oriented, rigorous, vigorous, and pragmatic. It’s about embedding it in actions, not just having the ideas and the words and the desires stimulated, but also to get the body moving.
I was able to listen to a little of your talk at the Hawai’i Book & Music Festival where you spoke about peace as education. You’ve taught and developed curriculum for many schools around the country, and you currently work at University of Hawai’i at Manoa. You’re also a co-founder of Ceeds of Peace. Can you talk about the work you do in peace education and why teaching peace is so important to you?
In schools, I teach these structured academic controversies where students have to argue one side, but then in the next breath argue the other side and ultimately negotiate an agreement between those two sides or identify their own true feelings by pulling from more than one side. We look at current events by reading newspapers in the English language from all over the world and make a comparison as to what’s prioritized in this space or what’s ignored. What is the tone, and does that change from space to space? You can begin to see the truth from multiple perspectives that way. There’s no reason why we should teach students history or current events from any single perspective.
In English classes, I also have students write letters and poems and journal entries and pulpit speeches about people who are invisible in the history books or not included. They research lives from the perspectives of people who live far away and perhaps with whom we are in a state of conflict. With these kinds of exercises and emphases, we are going to create adults who are much more emotionally agile in their problem solving. I think it really is just about a willingness to be brave and not just seeing bravery as a physical thing or something needed during a moment of emergency. Bravery is also that thing that allows you to walk down a dusty road with the sun on your back. It’s about persisting even in the face of discomfort. We have so many children’s books that talk about this subject.
With Ceeds of Peace, we try to share these children’s books. We try to help parents and teachers understand how to use them for action and to get young people to do acts of kindness, like practicing nonviolent communication with their siblings. I think that there are things that we can do even with infants to practice mindfulness, careful listening, and anger management. As young people grow up, we have to convince them that they are leaders and peacebuilders through social and emotional learning from a very early age to empower them and have them think about community. I take my daughters out to the fish ponds, we pick up invasive species and plant them in the garden, and we do indigenous reforestation. A lot of the work that we do in service learning is not just about a single-day beach clean-up. What is what you’re doing going to accomplish for the future? What are the long-term impacts? How do we tip the scales? How are you changed by the service that you do? We have a lot of books that can inspire and motivate families and schools to raise up strong young leaders. I feel pretty hopeful about it.
The illustrations by Yuyi Morales are absolutely gorgeous.
Aren’t they? I think they’re so amazing. I mean, she really took my words and brought them to life. I actually think the illustrations are better than the text, because I made the mistake that many first-time authors do of using too many words. If I were to rewrite it, I would use far fewer words and put in a little more whimsy. I think the illustrations are practically perfect. She is an incredible woman; a puppet-maker, an animator, she is such a prolific and multidimensional artist. Her sister was the first female mayor of Xalapa, Mexico, so she comes from a pretty formidable family.
How did you decide that she would be the artist to create the illustrations for Ladder to the Moon?
My publisher, Candlewick, whom I adore, had worked with Yuyi Morales before, so they recommended her. I fell in love with her work and contacted her with their assistance. Candlewick will also be publishing my next book, a young adult novel that will be out in 2017.
Could you tell us more about the young adult novel you will be releasing in 2017?
The novel is called Yellow Wood. The main character is of course named Savita, after my youngest daughter. Since Suhaila was the protagonist in Ladder to the Moon, Savita was like “Where am I?” Yellow Wood is about a girl in a world at war, and she is someone who walks between worlds as a young teacher and peacebuilder. She is a figure who is based on Siddhartha, the Buddha figure, but she’s a 16-year-old girl. Her love interest is based on Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita. I’m bringing in a lot of the Asian images of my childhood into this western narrative construct. Savita is working to find her sister, from whom she was separated as a result of this war, and to learn more about her mother and her mother’s people. Her mother died trying to retrieve her sister. I talk about the young girl’s journey and its complications. But I won’t tell anymore! It’s been a lot of fun writing it. It is time consuming, of course, with a full-time job, so it’s slow-going, but it’s nice to be able to do this on the side. I feel very fortunate.
In between writing, teaching, and traveling around the world, what do you when you have free time?
I honestly spend a lot of time playing with my kids. We spend a lot of time outdoors, we hike, we go to the ocean, the girls bike, and we also like movies and books. My daughter is a Girl Scout, so we try to make the Girl Scouts feel relevant and explore ideas of what it means to be a woman and a feminist in this time. We also have a couple of cats with whom we play; they’re crazy, wonderful additions to our family. My husband is a far better cook, but we do try to cook meals together and find new markets and corners of our island and our community.
Do you have any advice for writers hoping to publish a children’s book?
I would say there is no better time than now. I went the more traditional route by finding an agent and seeking a publisher through my agent, but that being said, now you can begin by writing a blog that offers teasers, gain followers, and self-publish. You can also create a lot of interest through images, creating short films, and doing multimedia presentations. I’ve seen wonderful artists and writers who’ve gathered together with others and done readings in community spaces to get a lot of grassroots interest in their work. I would say keep finding new audiences and venues and try to explore ways to capture interest at the local level even as you send out manuscripts or images to agents and publishers. I think to combine the more traditional routes and methods with some of these new mediums is a really good idea.
Try to tell stories that are familiar to you, but require you to challenge yourself. There’s that saying, “write what you know”, and that is true, but also try to take flight and use writing, or art if you’re an illustrator, to discover new layers of yourself and the world. I think that courage is definitely the most important thing these days. I believe everything that is wrong in our world is the result of fear…fear of the other, fear of our own failure or our own power. I would say to writers to tell themselves, “I have nothing to lose both in telling my stories, and then working to sell them.” I feel like nothing is more important than re-embedding our lives and their lessons in interesting stories, so I wish them a lot of luck.
Any last thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
I talk a lot about how we can teach history through stories. Why have we fragmented it into facts and numbers to be memorized? Stories are our most important gift to ourselves and the world, even if those stories may be purely visual or purely oral. There are a lot of important stories to tell that can offer guidance and inspiration and imaginative solutions and can also excite us and entertain us, and that’s the best part of being human, so I just say to them, “good luck! Go for it!” And whatever you do for a living, anyone can be a great story teller. I think of myself as a teacher and a mother [first], then an author.
The great thing about today is that the process of becoming a writer has been somewhat democratized, and that means there are so many opportunities for people who are talented to share stories, even if writing isn’t necessarily their vocation.
We would like to thank Maya Soetoro-Ng for her time and for sharing so much interesting information about her work and views on peace. You can learn more about Ceeds of Peace on the organization’s website here, and purchase Ladder to the Moon on Amazon.
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