“Mum, this is a really beautiful book”; my 13-year-old son is usually more interested in action, thriller novels, but picking up my press copy of Sulwe, Academy-award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o’s debut children’s picture book, he was visibly enthralled by the narrative and rich, colour palette and enchanting illustrations created by Vashti Harrison.
Along with stunning visuals, the picture book packs a powerful message about colourism, the preferential treatment of those with lighter skin, in a simple and heart-warming story aimed at young Black girls, arguably the demographic that needs to hear this affirmative message the most.
Nyong’o, who starred in Queen of Katwe and as Nakia in the billion-dollar box office smash hit Black Panther, based the book on her own experiences growing up in a society that places less value on darker skin.
Raised in Kenya, before moving to the United States, in a recent interview with the BBC’s Newsnight, Nyong’o said colourism “is the daughter of racism” in “a world that rewards lighter skin over darker skin”.
“I definitely grew up feeling uncomfortable with my skin colour because I felt like the world around me awarded lighter skin.”
Nyong’o words are familiar to many of us. The booming industry of skin lightening, and “bleaching” creams also attests to the “lighter is better” drivel. She continued: “I definitely grew up feeling uncomfortable with my skin colour because I felt like the world around me awarded lighter skin.”
She said her younger sister, whose skin was lighter, was called “beautiful” and “pretty”, it’s easy to internally translate these experiences into feelings of not being worthy. Stopping these negative and destructive thought processes from an early age is crucial and that’s where books like Sulwe can help.
This is 5-year-old me. I reflected on this little girl's feelings and fantasies when I decided to write my children's book, #Sulwe. With this book, I wanted to hold up a mirror for her. Here's why: pic.twitter.com/KsivFjWl7X
— Lupita Nyong'o (@Lupita_Nyongo) October 1, 2019
Obviously drawing from her own experiences, Nyong’o’s debut book follows the life of a five-year-old girl ‘Sulwe’ whose name means “star”, but her ‘skin is the colour of midnight’. Being darker than everyone else in her family and in her class makes Sulwe feel uncomfortable. She is determined to find a way to lighten her skin, until a reminder from her mother – and an unforgettable adventure in the sky – shows her where her beauty really lies.
Who better to write a story of empowerment and self-belief than the stunning and accomplished Nyong’o? Her many successes include gaining an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in her first feature film, 12 Years A Slave, a moment she has captured forever by dressing the character of Sulwe in a similar style and colour dress that she wore for her special night.
Illustrated by Vashti Harrison, who herself is an author of the wonderful children’s book Little Leaders: Bold Women in History, Sulwe is a healing book for children from all backgrounds and anyone who is young at heart that would value an uplifting story about self-love.
Buy Sulwe here.