Reviewed by Caroline Bradley
Sunflower Sisters explores colourism through a perceptive portrayal of South Asian and Nigerian cultures in this simple story that sends a very clear message about diversity within black cultures.
Neighbours and friends Amrita and Kiki are excited about imminent family weddings. When Amrita’s Aunt arrives, she displays some outrageous views about skin colour and beauty such as staying out of the sun, drinking saffron and milk and not wearing colours that enhance darker skin! The shocking attitude of the older generation portrayed by the visiting Aunty is balanced by the reassuring mother and the enlightened daughter, showing that older isn’t always wiser and the younger generations are more informed and less influenced by outdated perspectives.
Amrita’s mother is careful to ensure her daughters are proud of who they are and what they look like. She is an excellent role model and highlighting her positivity and the messages she embodies would be worthy of extended discussion.
You look beautiful, just like that tall sunflower – proud and radiant
The symbol of the sunflower perfectly encapsulates the theme of pride – standing tall and exuberating confidence and of course being happy. The seasonal links throughout: white as snowdrops and colourful autumn leaves, make useful simile examples too.
The final pages show the two girls growing up together and starting a fashion boutique, a nod to the authors own interest in fashion, and a positive and hopefully ending. There is further explicit reference to colourism on the last page which includes a definition and further information into why colourism is wrong and what the reader can do about it.
The illustrations by Michaela Dias-Hayes are instrumental in telling this story of colour. The hues and tones are vibrant and the detail in the clothing and traditional costume is fantastic. The gold lettering and petal detail on the cover and the double spread covered in beautifully painted sunflowers further reinforce how precious, proud and happy children should be about who they are. The catwalk of colour at the end of the story is stunning and shows the richness and variety of Asian and African dress.
Although the portrayal of colourism is realistic, particularly in relation to the views of different generations; Sunflower Sisters demonstrates the saying ‘children learn what they live’ and it highlights the importance of showing children through our own behaviour and the language we use that colourism is wrong and should not be tolerated by strangers or even friends and family.
Affectionately dedicated to Monika’s daughter, Gurbani: her own ‘sunflower’, this book reinforces the message of motherly love and support. It is a delightful ‘own voices’ story, with the important distinction between black cultures celebrating diversity and it would add breadth to any picturebook collection.
Personally I found the literary style a little too obvious and explicit. I think the same messages could be conveyed more meaningfully through inference and suggestion, letting the reader respond personally to the story, particularly if this is an issue that affects them. However this important message is one I hope to see in more books for this age group, who are at a key stage for developing tolerance and empathy skills. For comparison and further examples of celebrating people of colour, specifically in relation to appearance, you may like to look at the exquisite Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, I am Brown by Ashok Banker and My Hair by Hannah Lee.