Written by Lupita Nyong’o and illustrated by Vashti Harrison (Penguin Random House)
Sulwe is a book of rare power and beauty. Dealing with colourism*, self-esteem and learning that true beauty comes from within, this is actress Lupita Nyong’o’s ode to loving yourself.
Sulwe has skin the colour of midnight. She is darker than everyone in her family. She is darker than anyone in her school. At school everyone admires her sister’s light skin, but make make fun of her dark complexion, calling her ‘blackie’ and ‘darkie’ and ‘night.’ She feels hurt and sad and battles to make friends. Filled with self-hate, she tries to rub the darkness away with an eraser, but it hurts. She tries her mama’s makeup but it doesn’t work. She tries to eat only the lightest, brightest foods. No change. Sulwe ends up praying for her skin to be fair and to be beautiful, to have daylight and have friends. Her mama reminds her that Sulwe means star, saying “brightness is not in your skin, it is just who you are.”
Sulwe is not convinced but then one night a shooting star appears at her window and offers her a supernatural journey. Here she learns that her skin is just as beautiful as the other shades of colour. She learns through the metaphor of day and night, that her skin colour is no mistake, and that she is needed. She was designed with purpose. She is bright and strong in her own way.
Standards of Beauty
This is Lupita Nyong’o’s debut children’s book and it leaves you with such a feeling of inner happiness. It sheds light on what many children go through – whether it is the colour of their skin or their weight, or their height or their inner feelings of unworthiness – and it allows children to see and be seen. Limited standards of beauty affect our self-esteem and confidence in ways we can only understand years later, as adults. This book plays a vital role in addressing this issue for children now, so that they know they are more than their looks. And whatever their looks are, they are beautiful. My only caution with the book for some children is that if they have never seen their darker skin as a problem, it may introduce the idea, so judge for yourself whether this is an appropriate book for your child. Listen to the book here to decide before you buy it.
Women of Colour
Listen to Lupita’s Black Women in Hollywood speech to understand the power of her book, particularly for young girls of colour. She says her own pivotal turning point came when her mother told her: “You can’t eat beauty…” explaining that what fundamentally sustains us is compassion for ourselves, and for those around us. We all need to “get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”
The illustrations are by celebrated author and artist Vashti Harrison and she makes Sulwe’s beauty and tenderness radiate from every page. Harrison is also author of the Little Leaders range of books which we love. And she illustrated Matthew Cherry’s Hair Love which is such a great story dedicated ‘to black and brown boys and girls everywhere to learn to love their natural hair.’ It also has a heartwarming relationship between a father and his daughter – definitely role model material!
If you loved this you will love local book I Have Brown Skin and Curly Hair by Karen Theunissen. (Jacana) and Wanda by Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali. If you want pre-school books on diversity check them out here.
*Colourism: “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.”