Children’s Book “Sulwe” By Lupita Nyong’o — Empowering Dark Skinned Girls

Book cover of my copy — illustration by Vashti Harrison

The Hollywood actress, Lupita Nyong’o, published her first children’s book last year in cooperation with illustrator Vashti Harrison. The decision to embark on this journey was a deeply personal one as she states in the author’s notes at the back of the book. The story is based on her own experiences as a child of being bullied and feeling ugly, because of her dark skin. Now she wants to spare young black children the agony of feeling unworthy of love, simply on grounds of their skin colour. Her goal is to uplift children with darker skin and make them realise that they are beautiful, just the way they are.

The story Sulwe revolves around the protagonist of the same name — a little girl, whose skin colour is darker than that of her family. Her skin is as dark as “midnight”, whereas her mother’s colour is described as similar to “dawn”, her father’s as comparable to “dusk” and her sister’s skin as the colour of “high noon”.

As Sulwe experiences that the children in school call her light skinned sister pet names associated with brightness, she herself feels self-conscious about them calling her names reminiscent of darkness. This causes her to shy away from her schoolmates and leaves her with a lack of friends.

In the course of the story, Sulwe tries various things in order to make her skin lighter. And when also her prayer to God is not answered with her wish for fairer skin, she is devastated.

As her mother discovers the reason for her sadness, she tries to comfort her by telling her that she is beautiful and real beauty comes from within.

“Real beauty comes from your mind and your heart. It begins with how you see yourself, not how others see you.” (Lupita Nyong’o, Sulwe)

That night Sulwe goes on a magical journey that teaches her the value of the night and that she herself — with her “midnight” skin — is just as valuable, important and beautiful as any other person with lighter skin.

This children’s book is a beautiful tale about the importance of valuing and accepting yourself, in order to be open to people and allowing them the chance to see one’s worth and beauty for themselves. It is a heartwarming story that has the potential to increase the image young darker children might have of themselves and boost their self-confidence.

The earlier children know that they are beautiful and accepted, just the way they were born, the less likely their self-worth will be shattered by comments of others.

Even though I am of mixed ethnicity — Nigerian and German — and have a lighter skin colour, I used to feel like I did not fit into German society. My skin colour was never represented anywhere and children in school made fun of my hair. These feelings of not fitting into the portrayed beauty standards that are visible in the media can start very early on in a child’s life and might shape their image of themselves for a long time into their adulthood.

This is why positive representation is so vital in all the media, already starting from books and toys for children.

The books illustrations by Vashti Harrison are beautifully crafted. The imagery is created in subtle colours with a focus on the figures, rather than the surroundings and background. The pages are not overloaded with little details so that the children can easily focus on the relevant images. The storyline is readily comprehensible and fun to follow. The dreamlike compositions of Sulwe’s magical journey are especially delightful to discover. The filigree patterns of the figure’s outfits and the page margins are illustrated with great love for detail.

Thank you to Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison for this beautiful cooperation.

Illustrations by Vashti Harrison, copyright © 2019 by Lupita Nyong’o

Primary literature:

NYONG’O, Lupita. Sulwe. New York, Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019.

Promotion of Afrocentric Creative Content