The theme of beauty shines brightly in Academy Award–winning actress Lupita Nyong’o’s debut picture book, Sulwe (S&S, Oct.), illus. by Vashti Harrison, author and illustrator of Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. Nyong’o describes it as “the story of a young girl and her journey to find the beauty in herself.” The title, which means “star” in the Luo language that Nyong’o spoke as a child in Kenya, is also the name of the book’s protagonist. Sulwe is a five-year-old Kenyan girl who is self-conscious about her dark skin, which is “the color of midnight.”
Not so long ago, Nyong’o herself was an insecure teen who felt decidedly un-beautiful because of her own dark skin. And it was another kind of star—African supermodel Alek Wek—who eventually made Nyong’o feel seen, and, yes, beautiful. Nyong’o memorably shared these sentiments in a 2014 speech at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon that went viral. “I used my platform as an honoree to talk about my own feelings about black beauty and the colorism I experienced as a child,” says Nyong’o. “That speech offered the seeds of the book that would become Sulwe.”
Though the seeds were planted then, the actress says that it was the literary division of the agency that represents her, Creative Artists Agency, that “got the ball rolling” to encourage her to transform her story into a picture book. After working on the project with those staffers, Nyong’o adds, “We met with a number of children’s book publishers, deciding on Simon & Schuster after a meeting with their team and a phone call with my now editor [Zareen Jaffery],” Nyong’o adds. Though Nyong’o prefers not to discuss plans for future books, she has numerous film projects to keep her busy. “I have a movie coming out later this year called Little Monsters, which was quite fun to film,” she says. “It’s a dark comedy and I play a kindergarten teacher. So I had the chance to work with some fantastic child actors.”
Nyong’o says she has been looking forward to her first BookExpo. “My understanding is it’s like ComicCon for books, which sounds very exciting.”
Today, 8–9:30 a.m. Lupita Nyong’o will appear at the Children’s Book & Author Breakfast, on the Main Stage.
Today, 10:30–11:30 a.m. Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison will sign prints from Sulwe at the S&S booth (1838, 1839).