Values: Acceptance, Equality, Pride, Positivity, Joy, Empathy.
Lupita Nyong'o is a well-known actress who has drawn upon her own experiences to write this bestselling children's book. Sulwe is the story of a five year old Kenyan girl who is upset about the colour of her skin as she is darker than the rest of her family and friends. Lupita Nyong'o has talked openly about her own experiences of this as a child and teenager, and of how it made her feel insecure.
In the story, Sulwe compares herself to her sister and parents, as well as her friends at school. People openly compliment her sister for her lighter skin and this makes Sulwe feel sad and ashamed. Heart-breakingly, we see Sulwe trying to change her skin tone by rubbing it out with a rubber, and by eating light-coloured foods. Nothing works and she eventually opens up to her mum about how she is feeling. The reader cannot help but feel compassion towards Sulwe as a single tear runs down her face. Sulwe's mother tells her that her name means Star and that she shines brightly. Sulwe cannot believe this, until one night-time a shooting star appears and takes her on a magical journey. On the adventure, she learns the story of two sisters - Day and Night. Night feels inferior to Day, and walks off the Earth. Eventually though, Day finds her and explains that they are both needed and special in their own ways. Sulwe finds peace and happiness in her appearance at the end of the story.
Books about racism can be difficult to find and difficult to explore with children, because as adults we have an innate desire to protect children from hurt. However, this book provides a very honest and accessible way to discuss this important issue with children. It's beautiful illustrations by Vashti Harrison make it appealing and emotive at the same time.
I would discuss the Value of acceptance with the children when reading this book. What does it mean to be accepted? What is the opposite of acceptance? I would continue to have a conversation about racism and what this means, breaking it down so that it is not just 'black' and 'white' to explain that there are different shades of skin tone, and that this can be a root of discrimination too. I would ask children how Sulwe might be feeling when people taunt her and leave her out because of her skin colour. This would lead on to talking about empathy.
Colourism as a form of racism is a very real issue not only in Britain, but globally. I taught in Sri Lanka for a year and found it very upsetting that children there could be nicknamed based on their skin tone (lighter skin tone being 'preferable') and that products to lighten skin tone were readily on sale. I think it is important to talk about issues that children may face because although we want to protect children from harm and distress, it is also our responsibility as adults to educate children about what is right and wrong so that future generations do not face the same prejudices.
Sulwe gives opportunity to talk about so many Values. Equality would be high up on my list to explicitly teach; inequality is engrained in this book and at the end Sulwe realises that she too has an important part to play in her family and community. Equality is readily taught in British schools, so having a book that clearly teaches this is great for school leaders, teachers and librarians. I would also discuss the Values of pride and positivity. By the end of the book, Sulwe has realised that she should be positive about her skin tone and have pride in her name meaning 'star'; sadly this isn't the case for all children though and those attitudes can be exacerbated by the views of adults and others around them. You could talk about what children in your class are proud of. What makes them feel good about themselves? How could they compliment someone else to make them feel proud?
There are lots more Values you could discuss using Sulwe as a starting point. I would also use love, respect, kindness, compassion and community as a way of beginning, but you may take it in other directions based on the children's responses to the story. You may find that children open up about their own experiences of racism too and this may take its own course. It is a book that allows an open and honest conversation around race and how different people view race. Lupita Nyong'o has made this complex and intimidating issue very readable and relatable even with young children, and for that, this book should be applauded and on your Values bookshelf.
Lastly, how can you not talk about the Value of joy when you see that last page? It is full of happiness and is a complete change from the start of the book.
I bought my copy at Blackwells, Oxford and you can also find yours there - or at other local bookshops.
You can also follow Lupita Nyong'o on Twitter @Lupita_Nyongo and you can find a dedicated website for the book here: https://sulwebylupita.com/
I really hope you enjoy it. If you want to find books with similar Values on my blog, please use the hashtags: