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Posted on Oct 21, 2019 in Author Interviews, Author Spotlight

BAM! Interviews: Lupita Nyong’o on the publication of her first children’s book

Academy Award-Winning actress and producer Lupita Nyong’o has written her first children’s book, and we are loving the beautiful message behind it. The stunning picture book is about Sulwe, a little girl who is unhappy with the color of her skin. Lupita Nyong’o took the time to answer a few of our burning questions about the story behind Sulwe, and her own experience with colorism growing up. Keep reading to learn more about the inspiration behind Sulwe, and what we can do to find our own beauty within.

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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, actress Lupita Nyong’o creates a whimsical and heartwarming story to inspire children to see their own unique beauty.

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In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, you confess that, like Sulwe, you were teased as a child about the color of your skin. Can you tell us more about those experiences? When were you able to accept the beauty of your “night-shaded skin”?

Colorism is a pervasive issue worldwide, even in Kenya where I grew up. I remember trying various methods to lighten my skin, much like Sulwe does in the book. Learning to love my complexion was a long journey that required fighting against the established beauty ideals being celebrated in the media. Having a supportive family and a beauty role model, like supermodel Alek Wek, helped me on the path to seeing myself differently. My hope is to do what Ms. Wek did for me for a new generation.

How did your own experiences as a young Kenyan woman living in Mexico, and later in the United States, shape your career as an artist?

I think my upbringing gave me the skill of adaptability and the gift of a diverse cultural perspective. Sometimes it takes leaving home to really get to know it, identify with it and embrace it. I feel that way about my relationship to my country of origin Kenya. I have never felt more Kenyan than when I am away from it. That said, I also feel like a citizen of the world, eager to learn about other people and inhabit other perspectives in my art.

This story, and Sulwe’s struggle to recognize her own beauty, reminds me of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Did that book influence you? What other books or works have influenced you?

Unfortunately, I was not aware of The Bluest Eye growing up. My first experience of the story was a production of the play adaptation when I was in college. I was very moved by it.

“I Like Myself,” by Karen Beaumont comes to mind. I love this lyrical ode to self-esteem. I enjoy the rhyming couplets, the silliness captured in the art, and the sincerity of the overall statement made, to like one’s self. I’d like to believe Sulwe would own this book.

I have been heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Seuss. I love his bold and humorous rhyming skills. His use of repetition to build a narrative is unparalleled, and his ability to weave life lessons into what seems like ticklish jibber jabber is astounding. Who can deny the brilliance and truth of the phrase, “There is no-one alive who is Youer than You?”

Also, Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima is one picture book that heavily influenced my writing of Sulwe. I love the whimsy of both the story and the illustrations. It is a tale about being the odd one out, adoption and belonging and it is told so gently and sweetly.

Tell us about how this story was born. What made you want to tell this story as a picture book? Do you think you’ll write more children’s books?

I knew I wanted to write a book about a young girl struggling with her dark skin, and it made sense for the book to be accessible to the youngest readers since colorism impacts children from a very young age. Those children need to have stories they can turn to that validate their feelings around this issue. As for writing more children’s books, I have a few ideas but I am waiting for them to become a compulsion, like Sulwe did.

Sulwe’s mother reminds her that her name means “Star,” and that brightness defines her, even if it isn’t in the color of her skin. When you first had the idea for this book, did you always know the girl’s name would be Sulwe?

Yes! The story began with the name; I came up with the title before anything else. I remember distinctly a time when I was taking a walk with my mother at night in Kenya, and she looked up at the sky and said “Look at the stars,” in our language, Luo. For some reason it registered profoundly to me what a beautiful word we had for stars: sulwe. I knew in that moment I wanted that name for my daughter. Instead I gave it to my literary daughter! It felt important to imbue her with love, purpose and light. Brightness and whiteness are often used interchangeably, but this is not accurate. Light comes in so many forms, white is just the most celebrated. We need to change that!

Is Sulwe’s mother based on your own mother?

Certainly. Sulwe’s relationship with her mother takes some inspiration from my own, but the details are different. Like Sulwe’s mother, mine is and has always been a source of comfort and support, guiding me to see that out of the work of loving beauty is born.

Can you tell us more about the story of Day and Night?

I envisioned Day and Night as sisters, equal in every way other than how they are perceived by people. This understandably has an impact on how they begin to see themselves. The story as it unfolds in Sulwe acknowledges how much the way the world reacts to us can have an impact on our self-worth, and I hope the story offers a path towards self-love despite the ignorance of others.

What was it like working with illustrator Vashti Harrison? Did your vision of Sulwe and her journey in the night sky come to life the way you imagined?

The collaborative process of creating Sulwe and her world with Vashti was creatively rewarding. She truly brought the text to life, and we labored together over many of the details throughout the book. Each spread is deeply considered and layered. Vashti was a wonderful partner in this process.

Do you have any advice for young people of color who might be going through something similar to Sulwe?

My message to those who are struggling to love themselves is something I share in my Author’s Note at the end of the book: “Don’t wait for anyone to tell you what is beautiful. Know that you are because you choose to be. Know that you always were and always can be. Treasure it and let it light the way in everything you do.”

Do you have any advice for how to be an ally to young people of color?

Listen to them, and amplify their voices. Pass the mic to those from communities that are not often given a platform.

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