Tuesday 29 December 2020

#CBR12 Book 90: "Sulwe" by Lupita Nyong'o and Vashti Harrison

Page count: 48 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Sulwe is the colour of midnight. Her mama is the colour of dawn, her father the colour of dusk and her little sister is the colour of high noon. Sulwe has darker skin than anyone in her family and pretty much everyone at school. While her little sister is given positive nicknames like 'ray' and 'sunshine', Sulwe is called 'darkie' and 'night'. This is obviously deeply hurtful to the little girl, who remains withdrawn and friendless. 

Sulwe tries a number of things to lighten her skin - she rubs herself with an eraser until her skin hurts, she steals her mother's makeup, she eats only light, pale-coloured foods (hoping to change herself from the inside out) and she prays earnestly to God to perform a miracle and lighten her skin so she'll look more like her sister. Sadly, the next day, Sulwe's skin is still as dark as before.

Sulwe's mother sees her daughter's sadness and reminds her that her name means 'star' and says: "Real beauty comes from your mind and heart, begin with how you see yourself, not how others see you." That night, as Sulwe is trying to sleep, a shooting star comes to her window and takes her on a magical journey. 

Sulwe learns the ancient story of sisters Day and Night, who lived together at the beginning of time. Night became sick of the people calling her unkind names and clearly preferring her sister Day to her, so she left and went away. After an extended period of only daylight, people came to understand just how much they had lost. Day searches for her sister and manages to persuade her to come back. The People rejoice because they now understand how much they need and cherish Night. "Some light can only be seen in the dark."

Sulwe wakes the next morning, happy and confident. She can always remember the lesson she learned from the fable by looking up at the starlit sky.

Lupita Nyong'o wrote this book, which is semi-autobiographical, to show young children that everyone is beautiful, just the way they are. In interviews, she's confessed that she too was called a number of unkind names and made to feel less pretty and beautiful than her lighter-skinned younger sister. Even more appallingly, it wasn't just children that made her feel ugly. At one point, a teacher asked her how she was ever going to find a husband, since the husband's skin is supposed to be darker than his wife, and Lupita's skin was already so very dark. The story of praying to God to have her skin lightened is based directly on her own childhood experiences.

Nyong'o wanted to shed a light on colorism, "the daughter of racism", as she refers to it. Now not only an award-winning actress, as well as a director and producer, but she can also add author to her accomplishments. She's also considered one of the most beautiful women in the world (rightly so), but it took her a long time to feel comfortable in her own skin. She wrote this book so young children can realise their own worth and beauty sooner. She's also mentioned that all the books and stories she read as a child featured light-skinned heroes and heroines with blond hair and blue eyes. "Being able to see yourself reflected in imaginative and aspirational material is so important because, I think as human beings, we see ourselves when we see ourselves in others." In Sulwe, little dark-skinned children can see themselves and hopefully realise they're not worth less because of the colour of their skin than anyone lighter-hued.

The entire book, which is short, moving, and very beautiful, is made even more breath-taking because of the illustrations throughout by Vashti Harrison. Especially the pages where Sulwe sees the story of Day and Night are gorgeous. 

Judging a book by its cover: Seriously, look at that stunning cover! Don't you just want to pick that little girl up and cuddle her and give her anything she wants in the entire world? Her luminous face, big eyes, and the way she's reaching up towards the reader. That the whole story is about how this gorgeous child feels ugly and worthless is heart-breaking. 

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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