Monday, February 10, 2014

The Tyrant's Daughter

Title: The Tyrant's Daughter
Author:  J.C. Carleson
Publication Information:  Knopf Books For Young Readers. 2014. 304 pages.

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "Talking about my world, seeing its distorted, fun-house-mirror reflection in the eyes of these American acquaintances, is okay. Their perspective is now mine, and my reality is not theirs. But somewhere between our differences is a shared space where we are friends."

Laila is a princess, the daughter of a king. Or so she thinks. The kingdom is never named; yet, from the names and the descriptions, it is clear that it is a Middle East nation.

After the assassination of her father, she, her mother, and her six year old brother are whisked away and relocated to the United States. Here, they struggle to reassemble their lives. Laila is a teenager trying to fit in to her new community - friends, boys, and the high school social scene. In that, she faces the same struggles that every teen faces - mean girls, friends who have their own issues, the fear of being "different." Laila struggles to find her place, "It seems I can only convey a world to them that sounds either much worse or much better than mine actually is. Was."

She also meets Amir, who is close to her age and from a small village in her home country. In their attempt to find a new place to belong and to fit in, they are the same. However, Amir's family and his home have been ravaged by the actions of Laila's father. In that, they are polar opposites. How does she reconcile that simultaneous bond and divide?

In addition, Laila is caught up in political maneuverings - from Laila's mother, from the US operatives responsible for their relocation, from people like Amir who have also relocated from the same country but who sit on the opposite side of the political fence, and from her own uncle who was responsible for her father's death. Her confusion and her desire to do the right thing carry through the entire book and lead to a powerful ending.

As an adult, I really enjoyed this book. It does a good job of capturing the experience of someone new to this country. It captures that pull of a new home and of the culture left behind. It also tells a story that goes behind the headlines. Political leaders around the world end up in positive and negative headlines, but what of those who surround them and those who love them? One of the biggest eye-opening experiences for Laila is to think about her father not as the one who loved her and who played with her but as the one who was a dictator and caused harm to so many.

Laila's mother points out, "Remember this, Laila. No matter what you hear about your father, no matter what happens, remember that he was the one who had faith in you and love for you when no one else did." Throughout the book, Laila tries to reconcile that vision with the other reality of her father who was a tyrant responsible for the death and destruction of so many families.

My biggest concern with this book is the suggested age of the target audience. To me, this is an adult book with very adult topics of loss, politics, and difficult choices. Will the target audience of pre-teen and young adult readers be able to understand the story the book is telling? An adult reader may catch the references and understand the "back story" even though no names are named in this book and no locations are specified. That is what gives the story and the characters depth. Will a young reader have that knowledge or understanding?

The book does include a commentary and a list of online resources at the end, which again are written for an adult audience. I don't know how many young readers will read the commentary or even care to. Without that understanding, what will the target reader leave this book with? Will a young reader focus on the sometimes violent political machinations and the differences? Or will young reader leave this book with a realization that people, no matter where they are from, are the same with similar emotions and struggles and needs? As Laila and her new friends find, "A friend is a friend in any language."

For that impressionable age, I would like the focus on the similarities to be much stronger and much clearer. Otherwise, the book will serve only to build on the stereotypes and prejudices found in the media these days.

Truly, the book should be marketed to a different, more adult audience.

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