In Barbara Diamond Goldin’s new Purim picture book, a little girl, Raya, enters her grandmother’s room and is overcome by the sensory experience. There is a golden samovar, an ornate hamsa symbol on the wall, and a trunk filled with silver and silk. This is not a fairy tale; it is a true-to-life story of intergenerational love and the traditions which grandparents hope will survive through their grandchildren. With moving text by Goldin , a Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award recipient, and lively pictures by Steliyana Doneva, the unique relationship between Persian Jews and the festival of Purim becomes vivid for young readers. Author and illustrator seamlessly blend the history and unique customs of this ancient community with the close bond between a Persian grandmother and her American grandchild.
Raya is frustrated by her younger child status. She will have to wait one more year to participate in the religious school’s Purim play in which her brother, Nati, has a starring role. Her “Maman joon,” (grandmother) is sensitive to this ordinary, but no less painful, feeling of being marginalized. Maman joon is empathic, creative, and super-competent. She can bake koloocheh cookies with Raya and skillfully repair Nati’s Mordechai costume. Her connection to the younger generation is caring as well as protective. Showing Raya the treasures of her past, she explains the way her family celebrated Purim when they lived in Iran. While her granddaughter’s longing to dress as a princess may be shared by other American children, to Maman joon, it is a way to ensure the vitality of their special heritage. Offering her traditional dresses to Raya, she comments, “It would make me happy if you wore them. They remind me of people and places I miss.” As she details the beauty of that past, she is moved to tears.
Maman joon’s warmth and dignity informs the book on every page. In Doneva’s pictures, she is an elegant older woman with salt-and-pepper hair, some wrinkles, and dangling gold earrings framing her face. She helps Raya plan an alternative Purim play to be held at their home, inviting the neighborhood, and she helps Raya deliver mishloach manot—boxes with Purim treats. Along with the food, the children receive a lesson in the meaning of the holiday from Raya, who, inspired by her grandmother, narrates the tale of Queen Esther’s bravery. There is more to being a queen than wearing a pretty costume; Raya’s relationship with her Persian grandmother reinforces this lesson.
The Purim play further emphasizes Maman joon’s influence. In a reference to her powerful presence in Raya’s life, her grandmother puts on her own father’s robe, a paper crown, and a beard, transforming herself into a king. Raya notes that her grandmother no longer looks like herself but she is thrilled to have Maman joon assume the role of Ahasuerus, the ruler convinced by his wife to save her people: “The king took Esther’s hand and said, ‘I will change Haman’s decree. Your people are saved.’” In helping her granddaughter understand the meaning of their Persian identity, she has also succeeded in saving her own lost experience.
A Persian Princess is highly recommended andincludes “A Note for Families,” explaining both the festival and the history of Jews in Persia (modern Iran).
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.