This week’s marvelous new picture book comes from Academy Award winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o. Sulwe is written by Nyong’o and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. It tells the story of a girl ashamed of her dark complexion until she goes on a nighttime adventure to discover the beauty in her darkness.
Nyong’o uses descriptive language to describe Sulwe’s skin color as “the color of midnight.” She writes that Sulwe did not look like the rest of her family, “not even a little, not even at all.” Her “midnight” darkness is contrasted with her mother’s complexion of “dawn,” her father’s of “dusk” and her sister’s of “high noon.” Nyong’o uses the times of day to extend the imagery of skin complexion.
The book explores a girl’s journey to self-acceptance as she sees her inner beauty. Sulwe is driven to shame over her skin color as her peers exclude her and called her hurtful nicknames like “blackie” and “darky,” while they called her light-skinned sister “ray” and “sunshine”. Driven by this shame, she tries everything from using an eraser on her skin to using makeup to eating bananas to lighten her complexion. After all of these attempts fail, she turns to prayer. Her prayer ends with a rhyme, “if you hear me, my lord, and would like to comply, may I wake up as bright as the sun in the sky” only to find “not a trace of daylight in her midnight skin.” She is consoled by her mother, who tells her to look for her inner beauty. As she goes to bed that night, a shooting star appears in her room and takes her on a journey. She sees the story of night and day as sisters and how people wanted day but not night, calling them names similar to the ones Sulwe and her sister get called: “lovely,” “nice,” and “pretty” for day, and “scary,” “ugly” and “bad” for night. Nyong’o draws this parallel between Sulwe’s experiences and the legend she is told. After realizing that only daylight is exhausting, the people plead to have night back, recognizing her unique beauty as Sulwe claims her own beauty.
Harrison’s full-bleed illustrations complement Nyong’o’s writing and set up a rich contrast between light and dark. We see Sulwe standing on her own against a starry midnight sky in the opening spread. Her attempts to lighten her skin are displayed in panel format. The illustrations grow bolder and brighter as Sulwe goes on her nighttime adventure with a shooting star. The sisters in the legend, night and day, are pictured beautifully, their colors contrasting on each spread, but still mirroring each other as sisters do. In the final spread, we see Sulwe standing alone, this time in a light and bright background.
Nyong’o based the story on similar experiences of being teased for her dark complexion, as she outlines in her author’s note. Though she notes that the fantastical adventure Sulwe goes on is fiction, it symbolizes a journey to self-acceptance that the author did go through. With the obsession with lighter skin as a standard for beauty in African and African American communities, this book is a great way to push back and show children to value inner beauty. Even if this book does not serve as a mirror to a child’s experiences, the theme of self-acceptance is a universal one any reader will connect with.