Lupita Nyong’o (text) and Vashti Harrison (illustration), Sulwe, Puffin Books, October 2019, 48 pp., RRP $24.99 (hbk), ISBN 9780241394328
Sulwe is the story of a dark-skinned girl, named Sulwe, who longs to have lighter skin and so be beautiful like her mother and sister and the other girls at school. When a shooting star tells her the mythical parable of the two sisters, Night and Day, she comes to accept the beauty and value in her own uniqueness.
There are essentially two stories in this short picture book. The story of Sulwe’s real world concerns about her appearance evolves into a mystical, mythical story as the parable of the two sisters is told to her. According to the parable, the light coloured sister, Day, is praised for her beauty, but the dark sister, Night, is considered bad and ugly. It is only when Night leaves the world in anger at being treated badly, that the people come to appreciate her role in the daily cycle and to recognise her “silver sheen, elegant and fine”.
The book’s digitally produced images are reminiscent of TV animations, which make them both familiar and engaging for children. Foreground images stand out in bold colours with glossy finish. Facial features are appealing with large, expressive eyes and body language and facial expressions which convey characters’ emotions. The colourful backgrounds of the images are not only attractive but also suggestive of context – dark, dreamlike, sparkling backgrounds evoke imaginative scenarios whilst fuzzy backdrops suggest time and place of real world contexts. The images take on a dreamlike, magical quality as the story evolves into the mythical parable of the sisters.
Sulwe conveys an important message of self-worth for all young children, but especially those who are overly concerned with their appearance. Children whose features make them different in some way will also find the story relatable. There are some more subtle themes, such as prejudice and bigotry, which are worth exploring with kids who are old enough to understand.
Reviewed by Barbara Swartz