By Yvonne J. Medley
“Sulwe has skin the color of midnight. She is darker than everyone in her family. She is darker than anyone in her school.
Sulwe just wants to be beautiful and bright, like her mother and sister. Then a magical journey in the night sky opens her eyes and changes everything.
In this stunning debut picture book, Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o creates a whimsical and heartwarming story that will inspire children to see their own unique Beauty.”
In Sulwe, (released in November, 2019 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers), readers of all ages will stumble upon the stunning, yet, vulnerable transparency of Lupita Nyong’o—vividly drawn for all to see.
In May at BookExpo America (BEA) held in New York, the actress stood behind a podium, preparing to share details about her latest endeavor. Nyong’o, 36, who won an Oscar for the film, titled, 12 years a Slave, grew emotional, speaking about the influence she now has as a role model for others—especially young girls. She teared up.
“Sulwe,” she told an auditorium packed with writers, publishing industry insiders, booksellers, librarians, and avid readers that, “this story is near and dear to my heart.” But when Nyong’o was approached with the idea of penning a picture book, she politely pooh-poohed it.
However, the literary world beckoned because the acclaimed actress owned a personal story that needed to be shared. In 2014, when Nyong’o received an award at Essence Magazine’s 7th Annual Women in Hollywood Luncheon, her agent spied both premise and potential in the acceptance speech she rendered.
“Essence is of course a big beauty magazine that celebrates black beauty in all of its forms—the beauty we possess and also the beauty we produce,” said Nyong’o, who is also a producer. “I took that opportunity and that platform to talk about a time when I struggled to find beauty in my own dark skin.”
She was hopeful that her presence in magazines, said Nyong’o, “would be a source of validation for young people, growing up, struggling today. That speech struck a chord with many people and was shared far and wide on the Internet.” Gradually, she realized, she said, “that the lessons I had learned, and was hoping to teach about self-love and self-acceptance needed to be heard by people who are not going to click on my speech.”
“It needed to be heard by children—at the precipice of change—right when they’re starting to get a sense of the larger world, and starting to internalize how other people see them. I wanted to talk to that impressionable child, who has always been told that they were not valuable by anybody. I wanted to change the course of their suppression thinking. ”
Growing up, Nyong’o struggled with being the bearer of a dark-skinned hue. Her parents were loving and supportive, she expressed, but they, alone, were no match to combat how societies, worldwide, view dark skin versus light skin. For proof, at the BEA, the actress, also notable for her work in the films Black Panther and Us, and for her contributions to the stage, laid out a few illustrations found in various literary classics, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears. And she compared them to several children’s books to which she was privy as a child that depicted black characters in hideous and derogatory fashion.
In her picture book, Nyong’o bravely pulls down the prejudice and pain of colorism among people of the same ethnic and racial group. Strategically, she confronts the issue, head-on, while also managing to be whimsical, engaging and fun.
“When children’s books are successful,” Nyong’o said, “they are lessons, deferred. We love them now. And understand them later. The value grows with time. I want the book to be the seed that they [children] can grow from—and draw from in later years.” She added that the name, “Sulwe, by the way, means star in Lou—my mother tongue—one of the forty-two languages spoken in Kenya.”
But the task of writing a children’s book, creating a project of which she could be proud, turned out to be intense, she admitted. “I was actually overconfident,” she said with a bashful chuckle. “I finally decided to do it—because I said—like, ‘oh come on. It’s just a few words on a piece of paper. How possibly long could it take?’”
Wanting to express what she felt in her heart, she wrote an eight-page essay and gave it to her agent. “And he said, ‘like, come on. This is not a children’s book.’”
And that’s when she realized that she did not know what to do. “So then I paused. And I took a year just reading children’s books, and actually learning that they are like Haikus; they’re poetry. [I learned] that you have to be still,” she said. About writing a children’s book, she added, “I definitely gained a deep respect for what it takes. I was completely humbled by it.”
Nyong’o also credits the book’s illustrator, sought after by Simon and Schuster, Vashti Harrison, for expanding Sulwe’s invaluable message and journey. “I was fortunate,” said Nyong’o, “to partner with someone who is immensely talented; who brought my text to life through her luminous illustrations for this project.”
One might say that these two transplanted New York Brooklynites clicked. Nyong’o was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents. Harrison is originally from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. She is also an accomplished filmmaker and author. Her first name is pronounced, “Vashtee,” she clarified with a smile because, “my mom is Trinidadian, and in Trinidad that’s how they say it.”
Harrison, 31, always knew she had a talent for visual arts, but stopped drawing as a child because, “I really wasn’t saying anything with my art. But when I was in college, I found my way to cinema. I studied experimental film, and it was kind of the first time I got to express actual meaning through my artwork.”
Harrison prides herself on working hard, researching her field and hunting for answers—especially when she was first carving her artistic footprint. Her goal is to not just translate a story, but to extend the story. “And so I feel like I’ve tried to choose projects that I can bring something to, and would have fun working on,” she said. She had a blast working on Sulwe, she shared, and she is grateful.
Nyong’o gave five reasons for why she wanted to created Sulwe, one of which, she said, “As artists, at every level of human experience, we are looking for the beautiful. Something that gives priority to our souls, not just our physical needs. We drink in nature. We yearn for the beautiful. We create the sublime.”
But perhaps, her fifth reason hit home the hardest for so many. “I decided to write this children’s book to heal grown-up wounds. I wanted to give myself the book that I never had,” she said, adding that Sulwe is, “for all those who still don’t feel that they’re enough.”
“It’s never too late to love the skin you’re in,” she finalized.