Lupita Nyong'o‘s big imagination was fueled by the colorful characters and worlds contained in the pages of the books she enjoyed as a child.
“I would get lost in the tulip with Thumbelina and imagine visiting the bears’ house with Goldilocks,” the Oscar-winning actress tells PEOPLE. “I envisioned braiding my hair as long and blonde as Rapunzel. I dreamed of being Hansel and Gretel’s little sister with the wisdom to tell them not to trust that old woman.”
“I traveled to all the places and learned all the lessons and was all the people my storybooks introduced me to,” ela continua, “and it was glorious.”
Nyong’o, 38, recently appeared at the 2021 Celebração Nacional da Leitura at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Ela era one of several speakers at the annual event hosted by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, a charity whose work is based on the former first lady’s belief that “literacy is the key to a life of equity, opportunity, and prosperity for all Americans.”
Born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, Nyong’o adored the books of her childhood but says they gave her a “warped sense of where I belong in the world.”
“My story books rarely ever had people like me in them. I have colonialism to thank for that,” ela diz. “Everything good and worthy of my daydreams, of my imagination, and of my aspiration was white, e portanto, I was not right. I was not enough and I was not of value.”
No 2019, Nyong’o wrote a children’s story of her own. Illustrated by Vashti Harrison, Sulwe tells the story of a little girl who was born “the color of midnight” and goes on a magical adventure through the night sky that helps her see and appreciate the beauty of her dark skin.
“The value of lighter skin shades over darker ones impacts children from a very young age,” Nyong’o says. “I felt it was important to create a story that validates that experience because books have the power to open our eyes to our very selves. Sometimes it takes seeing something in someone else in order to perceive it and understand it in ourselves.”
Acknowledging the power of books to open minds and reading as a way to experience the world through new perspectives, Nyong’o says the story of Sulwe is written for “children of lighter complexions too” so that they may “grow empathy for an experience that they may not personally have, while they enjoy the warm, welcome whimsy of Sulwe’s story, and maybe even just relate to the feeling of being different.”
Nyong’o encourages young women and girls to be “read curiously” about the lives and experiences of others and “to know yourself and others in equal measure.”
Books, ela diz, make that possible.
“Curiosity is the appetite with which we face the world and literacy is how we feed that appetite with a varied and wholesome diet,” Nyong’o says, adding that everyone should “read to build on what you know and also to explore what you do not.”