Book Review: Sulwe

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[Content Note: Today’s post talks about prejudice and colorism. If these are things you need to take into consideration, definitely give this a miss, and go check out some of my other stuff. No hard feelings at all, you do what you need to do in order to care for yourself. We’ll kick it together some other time. Deal? However, if you decide to move forward with today’s post, and it brings up some difficult feelings for you, I encourage you to reach out to the people at the Crisis Text Line. For you readers outside the U.S., this site has some resources specific to your local area.]

I was at the library recently due to a recent lack of resources since my old computer bit the dust several months ago, and my late mom’s computer doesn’t have what I need. When I went to pick up a mask from the box, I saw a display of books in celebration of Black History Month. They included picture books, kids’ chapter books, and books geared toward older readers. One of them was Sulwe, by Lupita Nyong’o.

Yes, I know, it’s a kids’ book. Just run with me here, mmm’kay? I promise, I’ve got a point here.

Released in 2019, this book takes us into the life of Sulwe, a little girl who doesn’t fit in with her classmates. On the first page, we meet Sulwe, dressed in a school uniform of a pink polo shirt, gray skirt, white knee socks, black loafers, and gold studs in her ears.

“Sulwe was born the color of midnight.”

We see that her family has different skin tones from her, with Mama and Baba in the middle, and her sister Mich being “the color of high noon.”

At school, Sulwe stands by the wall while the other kids play at recess, and we see the awful ways people call her out of her name.

Sulwe wishes she could be a part of the other kids’ games at recess, and she wishes she could have “real friends.”

We see Sulwe embark on a (thankfully!) short-lived project to make her skin lighter, first trying an eraser under the premise that if it lightens pencil marks, then it’s gotta work the same way on skin.

No, Sulwe! Bad idea! Erasers on skin is brutal. Hand ’em over, mmkay?

Tried it once, and it sucked, big time.

Sulwe then sneaks into Mama and Baba’s room and tries on her makeup.

Still a bad idea, Sulwe! How ’bout we hit up Sephora when you’re old enough, if this is still something you’d like to explore, and check out Fenty Beauty instead?

In the last phase of her project, she tries light-colored foods. If we are what we eat, and carrots and sweet potatoes can turn lighter skin tones orange after a steady diet of them, then this’ll work!

All it got Sulwe was an epic stomachache, and an even deeper longing for lighter skin.

The next day, Sulwe tells her mom everything, and it’s time for a little pep talk.

“Mama asked, “What is your name?””

“Sulwe, she muttered.”

“And what does it mean?”

“Star,” Sulwe whispered.”

Sulwe’s Mama teaches her and the reader that what’s on the inside matters more than looks. Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, and it comes from within.

“It begins with how you see yourself, not how others see you.”

But Sulwe couldn’t understand how it was possible to see anything close to beauty and lightness, when nobody else saw it.

In the style of A Christmas Carol, Sulwe gets a visit from a shooting star that night, instead of the Christmas ghosts. Together, they go on a ride through the universe. The shooting star introduces us to Night and Day, sisters at the beginning of time.

Just as people treated Sulwe and Mich differently, people treated Night and Day in a similar way, assigning negative attributes to Night and calling her out of her name.

Night walked away after the straw that broke the camel’s back. Soon, everyone grew tired of the daylight, and something had to give. Day finds Night, and Night says that Day doesn’t know how it is to be mistreated because of their looks.

Day couldn’t argue with that, but Day says that we need her. When Night returned, the people felt a huge sense of relief.

The stars even had their moment in the spotlight, so to speak.

“Brightness isn’t just for daylight. Light comes in all colors. And some light can only be seen in the dark.”

Night and Day become a team once again, celebrating each others’ version of brightness. Who cares if anyone else saw it?

The shooting star tells Sulwe that it’s our differences that make our world what it is. Sulwe wakes up the next day, ready to take on the world. No more hiding or hanging out on the sidelines. There’s a place for her in the world, and she’s gonna take it.

If she ever forgets what Mama and the shooting star taught her, all she has to do is “look up at the sky on the darkest night to see for herself.”

This book’s complete with all the feels, from the way Sulwe’s classmates ostracized her, and the overwhelming longing she felt at being a part of her classmates’ jump rope marathons, to the despair we see her in during her project of trying to lighten her skin.

Colorism is a very real thing, and while I can’t speak to it personally, I’ve seen it happen, and it needs to stop.

The illustrations are brilliant, and Sulwe’s so adorable. Like, I could totally see this as an opportunity for merch and a franchise unto itself. Like, for instance, t-shirts, gym bags, even a doll like the Disney Animators or American Girl dolls.

All in all, I’d give this one a 10/10, and in the style of Siskel and Ebert, two thumbs up.

I know it’s a kids’ book, but there’s a lotta wisdom to be had in it, with valuable takeaways for everyone who reads it.

That’s how you know you’ve hit the mark. Over to you, readers. Have you read Sulwe? Own a copy of it? Bought it for someone else? Donated a copy to a library? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways, so drop ’em like they’re hot below, and let’s talk.

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