By Marcus Jones
February 23, 2021 at 01:03 PM EST
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Credit: Matthew Soltesz

Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o has already seen much success with her debut children's book, Sulwe, including it bestseller charts, winning an NAACP Image Award, and receiving a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for its art by Vashti Harrison.

The next step, though, was recording an audiobook in a way that matched the gorgeous story about a girl named Sulwe who goes on a magical journey in the night sky that helps her learn to appreciate her dark skin. "Vashti added so much life and detail with the pictures. So her illustration was very influential in what soundscape we added to the audiobook," Nyong'o tells EW.

Telling the story out loud though was something the author had been preparing for since she wrote the book. "I have a very active imagination, [so] when I was writing, whenever there was a new voice, I would imagine it in my head."

Listen to a clip of the Sulwe audiobook, available now on Listening Library, below, and read on to learn how Nyong'o figured out the mythology and sound design for Sulwe — plus find out which one of her costars was the first person she heard read it aloud.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before we get to the audiobook, I wanted to say congrats on the news Sulwe is being made into a Netflix animated film. How'd that come about?

LUPITA NYONG'O: The book, when it first got released, got a lot of love and Netflix was interested in developing it into a movie. And I was really impressed by the team over there and their enthusiasm and their vision for it, so we decided try this out.

You did a storytime video with them where you read the book. Was that good practice for the audiobook, and did it get the ball rolling on them making it into a movie?

Yes, that was definitely good practice for the audiobook. I think the Netflix reading was the first full recorded reading that I had done. So it was definitely worthwhile for the audiobook. We were already far enough into the conversation about the movie at that point. So it was a bonus.

Were you eager to voice your own audiobook? I imagine it's using a bit of a different skill set than other forms of acting.

Yeah. I didn't question it at all. I love audiobooks. I actually prefer audiobooks to reading [physical] books, so it's a medium that I've been very curious about. And I thought it would be amazing to have the opportunity to read it myself. Often when I was writing the book, I would read it aloud a lot because I wanted to see how it would feel for a child to experience the book when they can't read it themselves. And I wrote it wanting for the story to be wholesome, even if you couldn't see the images at the same time because when I was younger I remember my mother reading me stories sometimes, and she'd be sitting opposite me instead of with me seeing the book at the same time. It would frustrate me so much to not be able to see the images when I wanted to. I'd have to wait for her to turn around and show me the pictures. So I wanted for the story to be able to be enjoyable and full even if you didn't have the pictures in front of you.

Thinking about recording the audiobook, how did you find the right tone? Because scenes early on, like Sulwe trying to erase her skin is really harrowing stuff when viewed from an adult perspective.

Yeah, but you know, Sulwe is such a personal story for me. So I really wrote it out loud. Like I had a very, very lively voice in my head as I wrote it. And I was very keen to make sure that though it dealt with heavy stuff, there was still a whimsical quality to the story and that the things she does, she thinks they're a great idea, you know? So the heaviness of it, I wanted to show the solution-oriented quality in Sulwe rather than the, "Oh, woe is me" quality. And so I was very, very clear on what tone goes where.

With that said, have you seen emotional responses to the book from both parents and children?

Oh yes, I certainly have. It's been quite overwhelming actually, but also just so fulfilling to hear people talk about how much of themselves they have seen in Sulwe. Actually, the very first time I heard the book read aloud, it was by Penélope Cruz. I was on a shoot with her and she read it to her daughter. And as she read it, she got to a point in the book where Night and Day reunite and she broke down and cried, and it was just the sweetest moment. Her daughter was so confused because you're like, "Wait, what's happening?" And Penélope had to explain to her that it's hard to read about a child who was not appreciated for her dark skin. So it was just such a beautiful, pure moment. For me, that was such an encouraging first experience of my book in someone else's mouth.

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That's amazing. And that really leads right into the next thing I was going to ask, which is how have international readers responded to the book? Because I feel like colorism can be different in each country, but it does seem to be a universal issue.

Yes, it is a universal issue, but I think beyond colorism, this is a book about difference, right? And so anybody who's felt different, felt like the odd man out in any way, feeling like a recluse or a pariah, anything, they relate to this book. So I can't say that it's a book that has had trouble finding its audience and its audience is quite diverse. 

Even in that moment with Penélope and her daughter, her daughter had never really thought about how different a dark-skinned person can experience the world. And so just to see her innocence in that moment of like, "I don't understand why anybody would dislike a dark-skinned person," that in itself was a teaching tool. So you don't necessarily have to relate with Sulwe, but you can relate with the desire to feel included, you know? So it's been helpful both for people with dark skin to relate to Sulwe, but it's also been helpful for people who it never crossed their mind, that anybody would have that problem, to grow that much more sensitive to colorism.

Was working with Justin Ellington on the music and audio design at all similar to working with illustrator Vashti Harrison on the book's visuals.

You know, I have to say that it was so alien to me working with Vashti. When I did work with her, I didn't know what role I had to play, and so I learned a lot about what she needed from me through that experience. And I applied that to how I started my relationship with Justin. So one of the things that I did, I wanted the audiobook to have the same level of cultural specificity that the book has. It doesn't announce itself to you. It doesn't have a Kenyan flag on it or anything like that, but the book is very specifically about a Kenyan girl's experience. And so even like the doorknobs, I sent Vashti pictures of doorknobs from Kenya and things like that, so that the keen reader could see those things and appreciate them, but it's also universal in its application. So I wanted that to be the rule of thumb for the audiobook as well. 

So I created a playlist of East African music, or the music that I felt was emblematic of the world that Sulwe comes from to inspire Justin's imagination off the bat, and what he came up with was so exciting. It's so cool to see an artist at work and what they derive from all these random things you throw together. And so that informed how we started our relationship, and then it was its own experience trying to teach myself how to communicate with a musician, a sound person. It was a learning curve for sure.

In talking about the book, you mentioned that one of the foundational aspects of it was the Essence speech you delivered in 2014. Did you return to that at all while working on the audiobook, to see how you delivered the speech as well?

Absolutely not. That's a no. I think doing a speech and telling a story like this, I don't know, they just feel like very different genres to me. So it didn't even occur to me to go and watch my Essence speech. I also don't particularly enjoy listening to myself, so if I can do the work without having to listen to myself, I'd prefer that.

In making the audiobook, were there times where it felt like you just had to push through listening to yourself to find the right cut?

Well, yeah, I mean, you brace yourself. At this point I have to subject myself to my own voice all the time, so I'm accustomed to the discomfort. With the very first draft, there's always a dread and a procrastination to listen to it, but then once you do so, and you break yourself in, it becomes a lot easier. And then, I am a fierce editor of myself, so I listened very keenly and I'm very critical. But I try and make it constructive criticism toward myself to try and get us to a finish line. So I have a lot of pep talks with myself through the process.

Which voice did you have to workshop the most? Cause you do voice for Sulwe. You do specific voices for the star, and Day and Night.

Yeah. I think the part that I workshop the most was when Night comes back and the people are rejoicing, and then there's all these different voices coming through. There was a version where I used to sing it. And so I tried all sorts of things there because I wanted it to feel varied, and give the illusion of a crowd cheering for Night.

Credit: Matthew Soltesz

Are Day and Night rooted in any mythology? Because there's such beautiful world building within Sulwe.

No, not that I know of. I grew up with a lot of orature and oral storytelling from my grandfather and my father and my aunts, stuff like that. So I think that may have been the research, the subconscious research that I had been doing all my life. But actually, the Night and Day story just came to me one day. I was in Cuba visiting for the first time and I just woke up and it poured out of me. It's one of those things where I wish I could take credit for it, but it's just like, the genius knocked, walked in, wrote the thing, and then left.

It does feel representative of both the mythology young children are told and the mythology they create in their heads when they're figuring things out at 5 years old.

Yeah. We got told a lot of origin stories when I was younger. Kenya has 42 tribes and each tribe has its own mythology. We would learn about those mythologies in school, and it's almost like every tribe has the story of how their people began. So I grew up learning and hearing those kinds of stories. 

I really love an origin story and how it makes you look at things that you take for granted, or things that are just basic, in an interesting way. So the idea of the relationship between Night and Day came out of that kind of origin story tendency in my mind.

One of the most polarizing metaphors for dark skin complexions are references to chocolate, and that's not present at all in Sulwe. Was that purposeful?

I don't pass judgment on the word "chocolate." I think its application can be very endearing, but it can also be annoying depending on how it's being used. It really just depends on setting and context and all that. Comparing dark skin to chocolate has been done and done and overdone, so for me it wasn't particularly an inspiring metaphor to go to.

This book was written a lot from my personal experience, it's like a very liberal autobiography. And when I was younger, I got teased and called "night" a lot. And I had kids say to me, "We can't see you in the nighttime," that sort of thing. So I was really thinking about the relationship with night and how oftentimes, even in children's books, night is where the evil things happen. Night is the thing that children are meant to be afraid of. And I secretly wanted to reclaim night and look at it and portray it in a more beautiful light. So that's why I went that route.

In general, books have played a big part in many aspects of your career. Thinking of some of the recent projects you'd been developing like Born a Crime and Americanah, do you have a status update on those, and are there any other books that you're reading that you're keen on doing more with?

Well, unfortunately Americanah is no longer a go, but Born a Crime is still very much in process and I look forward to that. Yes, there are other books that I am reading and keen on — and not yet ready to talk about.

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