Review: A Persian Princess

A Persian Princess by Barbara Diamond Goldin, illustrated by Steliyana Doneva

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Jane Kohuth

In this book, Raya, a contemporary young Persian American Jewish girl, celebrates Purim with her family and friends from her neighborhood. Raya bakes koloocheh, traditional Persian Purim cookies with her stylish grandmother Maman joon, who recounts eating the crunchy cookies shaped like little “Hamans,” (the Purim villain) when she was a child in Hamadan, Iran. Raya is disappointed that she is not old enough to be in the Religious School Purim play like her brother Nati, who is playing the important role of Mordecai, Queen Esther’s cousin. Raya wants to be a sparkly princess for Purim, so, to cheer her up, Maman joon takes her up to her bedroom, which is decorated with colorful Persian items, perhaps brought from Iran. Maman joon wraps Raya in layers of colorful scarves and strands of gold coins to create a Persian princess costume.

Raya is delighted with her costume and wears it as she and Maman joon go out to perform the Purim tradition of delivering mishloach manot, Purim treats, to their neighbors. One child wants to know more about the Purim story, so Raya decides to put on her own Purim play. In this way Raya is able to show agency and overcome her feelings of being left out. Maman joon and Nati help Raya to put on a successful play for her parents and other people in the neighborhood, and Raya’s Persian princess outfit becomes a Queen Esther costume. The play also gives the author the opportunity to review or introduce the story of Purim for readers. The strength of The Persian Princess lies in its detail about Persian Jewish customs, the warm relationship between Raya and Maman joon, and the simple and satisfying agency shown by the child character, rather than in lyricism or read-aloud quality. While the pictures are cheerful, it feels like the illustrator missed an opportunity to add even more color and detail.

The Persian Princess is a welcome addition to the limited number of Purim picture books. Its text and illustrations are warm and appropriate for its target preschool and early elementary audience, and it offers a window into a part of the Jewish community not often featured in children’s books. The Jewish people in Raya’s neighborhood are also refreshingly diverse in appearance. The Persian Princess stands out because it introduces children (and likely many parents as well) to Persian Jewish Purim customs in a fun, child-friendly way. It also creates an illuminating link between the ancient Jewish community of Persia, where the Purim story took place, and modern Persian/Iranian Jews, a community with which many American Jews may be unfamiliar. As Maman joon points out to Raya, the story of Purim supposedly took place close to where she grew up. Adding both information and interest, several illustrations feature pictures on the wall of family in traditional dress, what appears to be a location in Iran, and traditional Persian rugs and tea items. Back matter gives a little bit more information about the Purim story and the history of Iranian Jewry. The dedication also indicates that an Iranian Jewish family helped the author with the details of the book.

This book has strong literary merit and Jewish cultural content, and is a likely contender for a Sydney Taylor notable or honor distinction.

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Reviewer Jane Kohuth graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in English and Creative Writing and from Harvard Divinity School with a Master's Degree in Theological Studies. She has worked as a Jewish educator, a children's room library assistant, a writing teacher, and a children's bookseller and organizer of author events. She lives in Holliston, MA and is represented by Bookmark Literary Agency.

Jane's books include DUCKS GO VROOM, ESTIE THE MENSCH, and ANNE FRANK'S CHESTNUT TREE, all published by Random House, DUCK SOCK HOP, published by Dial, and WHO'S GOT THE ETROG?, published by Kar-Ben. Her books have appeared on several best of the year lists, including Bank Street's Best Children's Books of the Year, The Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best Children's Books of the Year, The New York Public Library's Top Ten Picture Book Read-Alouds of the Year, The American Library Association's Great Early Elementary Reads, and Parent's Magazine's Twenty Best Books of the Year. ANNE FRANK'S CHESTNUT TREE was named a NCSS Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. Both ESTIE THE MENSCH and WHO'S GOT THE ETROG are PJ Library Books.