The ‘Star Wars’ actress is writing her first children’s book, and other authors tell Moneyish about the struggles they faced getting diverse books published
Lupita Nyong’o is showing kids that beauty is more than skin deep in her latest role — author.
The Academy Award-winning actress is writing her first children’s book, “Sulwe,” inspired by her own struggles with the perception of beauty, growing up as a kid in Kenya. This is the latest in a number of new books incorporating themes of race, gender and inclusivity.
The picture book, out next year, follows a five-year-old girl named Sulwe (which means star), who feels insecure about her skin color and is determined to find a way to lighten it. As the story unfolds, Sulwe goes on an adventure into the night sky and learns the true meaning of beauty with a little help from her mother.
“Sulwe is a dark skinned girl who goes on a starry-eyed adventure, and awakens with a reimagined sense of beauty,” Nyong’o wrote in an Instagram post announcing the book.
I am pleased to reveal that I have written a children's book! It's called "Sulwe"! Sulwe is a dark skinned girl who goes on a starry-eyed adventure, and awakens with a reimagined sense of beauty. She encounters lessons that we learn as children and spend our lives unlearning. This is a story for little ones, but no matter the age I hope it serves as an inspiration for everyone to walk with joy in their own skin. Coming January 2019!!
“She encounters lessons that we learn as children and spend our lives unlearning. This is a story for little ones, but no matter the age I hope it serves as an inspiration for everyone to walk with joy in their own skin,” Nyong’o added.
Like her main character Sulwe, Nyong’o also struggled with the idea of self-image growing up. In a 2014 speech, she mentioned how she often felt “un-beautiful” as a child because every time she turned on the TV she would see only pale-skinned women, and no women that looked like her.
The push for more diverse characters in children’s book has been a slow climb. Only 14% of kids books published in the US had black, Latino, Asian or Native American main characters featured, according to a 2015 study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. What’s more, around 80% of the people in editorial — authors, illustrators, editors — are white, according to industry data from publisher Lee and Low.
To combat this, big publishers have started smaller imprints for writers of color. In 2016, Simon & Schuster created an imprint for Muslim children’s books in an effort to include more Muslim characters into mainstream literature for kids. And in 2014, Penguin Random House launched the Spanish, self-publishing platform Megustaescribir.com designed to provide Spanish authors with publishing, marketing and distribution services. Then there’s independent publishers like She Writes Press for female authors; Bharat Babies, which focuses on South Asian-inspired stories; Cassava Republic promoting African American writers; and minority-owned Lee and Low books, the largest publisher of multicultural children’s books in the US.
“It’s important that the bigger publishing houses set the right tone,” literary agent Liza Fleissig tells Moneyish. “By doing these imprints, it’s opening up even more doors to give authors greater access to tell their stories.”
Young adult author Amalie Howard faced discriminatory criticism when pitching her book “Alpha Goddess,” a story about a girl who finds out she’s a reincarnated Indian goddess, to one of the big five publishers in 2012.
“They said ‘Sorry, this is too exotic.’ I was horrified. I thought ‘Too exotic? Does that mean I’m too exotic to exist in this space?’ Howard, a South Asian woman, recalls. Her book was published by Sky Pony Press in 2014, but she says there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in helping writers of color get their books on shelves. “It’s still a struggle because we’re selling into a default mainstream. We’re still fighting to be seen and to be published. I just want people to see there are other stories out there.”
Children’s book author Suzy Ismail also had a difficult time getting her kids book off the ground. She put out “The BFF Sisters,” a coming-of-age story about five Muslim girls from different backgrounds, months after 9/11 and faced terrible reviews. It wasn’t until a decade later that her story found a more mainstream audience.
“I don’t think the world was ready for a book about Muslim girls at that time,” says Ismail. “Years later it started getting included in summer reading lists, but it took time.”
In 2014, the hashtag #WeNeedMoreDiverseBooks went viral and spawned a non-profit organization by the same name dedicated to help promote literature that is more inclusive of all young people by circulating books with characters of varying race and cultural backgrounds.
Last year, Scholastic’s “Why Am I Me,” by Paige Britt, hit shelves featuring a beautiful story of humanity and diversity as two characters — one with brown skin, another with light skin — travel home together on a train and ask the driving question “Why am I me?” that prompts them to form a connection. Another, “George,” by Alex Gino, tells the story of a transgender girl who wants to play the part of Charlotte in the school play “Charlotte’s Web,” but the teacher tells her she can’t because she is a boy. And the trend extends to the young adult genre with “The Hate You Give,” by Angie Thomas, which follows a main character who is drawn to activism after she witnesses the police shooting of her unarmed friend.
“You’ve got to talk to kids about this stuff. It’s important so they can broaden their horizons,” says Katie Davis, a children’s book author and illustrator.
“All of this hate comes from fear of the unknown. When you read a book, it opens your mind and lets you live in someone else’s shoes and feel empathy. If you’re empathetic, it’s very hard to hate. If you can open your heart to other people who are different than you, are you’re not going to hate them.”
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