Sulwe by Lupita Nyong'o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison
written by Lupita Nyong'o
illustrated by Vashti Harrison
Review Copy from Simon & Schuster
Sulwe, which means "star" in the Luo language of Nyongo's native Kenya, has skin the color of midnight. Everyone else in her family has lighter skin, the color of dawn, dusk and high noon. Her sister Mich is given pet names like "Sunshine," "Ray," and "Beauty," while Sulwe is called "Darkie," and "Night," feeling hurt every time. Dreaming of being the same color as her sister, Sulwe tries to rub her darkness off with an eraser. She tries to cover it with her mother's makeup. She tries to "work from the inside out," eating only the "lightest, brightest foods."
Finally, she tells shares her sadness with her mother, who reminds her that her name means star, telling Sulwe,
. . . you can't rely on what you look like to make you feel beautiful, my sweet. Real beauty comes from your mind and your heart. It begins with how you see yourself, not how others see you.
Sulwe listens to her mother's wise words, but struggles to change how she sees herself, wondering, "How could she have beauty when no one but her mother seemed to see it?" A fable about sisters helps her to change how she sees herself and her idea of beauty.
Day and Night love each other very much, but they are treated differently by people who think Night is bad, ugly and scary while they praise the loveliness of Day. Fed up, Night "walked right off the earth." At first, the people were happy, but soon enough they realized they missed Night. Day finds her and convinces her that the world needs her and people will accept her just the way she is. The stars chime in, telling Night that, "Brightness isn't just for daylight, Light comes in all colors. And some light can only be seen in the dark." Sulwe wakes, beaming, knowing she is, "Dark and beautiful, bright and strong."
Sharing a picture of her 5-year-old self on social media, Nyong'o explained the purpose driving Sulwe.
With this book, I wanted to hold up a mirror. Here's why:
As a little girl reading, I had all of these windows into the lives of people who looked nothing like me, chances to look into their worlds, but I didn't have any mirrors. While windows help up develop empathy and understanding of the wider world, mirrors help us develop our sense of self, and our understanding of our own world. They ground us in our body and our experiences. Sulwe holds up a mirror for dark-skinned children, especially to see themselves reflected immediately, and it is a window for all the others to cherish peering into.
Colorism, society's preference for lighter skin, is alive and well. It is not a prejudice reserved for places with a largely white population. Throughout the world, even in Kenya, even today, there is a popular sentiment that lighter is brighter.
I imagined what it would have been like for this little girl to turn the pages of her picture books and see more dark skin in a beautiful light. This book is my dream come true for kids like her today.
Harrison's animation-style illustrations are beautifully sweet when showing Sulwe and her family, but also powerful when conveying the reality of colorism and the pain it causes. Bringing the fable of Night and Day to the page, Harrison's illustrations take on magical and majestic qualities and add depth to the story, despite the fact that she is using a narrow range of yellows and blues.
An author's note from Nyong'o shares her childhood experiences with colorism, leaving readers with these important words, especially in this age of screens and social media:
There is so much beauty in this world and inside you that others are not awake to. Don't wait for anyone to tell you what is beautiful. Know that you are beautiful because you choose to be. Know that you always were and always can be. Treasure it and let it light the way in everything that you do.