It is hard to not compare a big, brightly colored Princess book to the golden standard of a Disney princess story, which obviously isn’t fair. But for as much as I wanted to love this strong Muslimah and her doe-y eyes as she saves herself and the kingdom, I felt the author let me down. The plot feels overly familiar, it is like a mix of Rapunzel in Tangled (minus the tower and Mother Goethel), Anastasia (not Disney, but in the same genre), throw in Jafar and (a nice) Iago from Aladdin, sprinkle in Islamic wisdom and insights, and tada you have Princess Siyana.
Siyana is the daughter of King Tariq and Queen Fatimah, the wonderful rulers of Lusitania. While still a baby, the evil Chief Advisor Shargor kidnaps the young princess and leaves her in the neighboring mountainous kingdom of Baetica. As her kingdom searches for her, a traveler in Baetica finds her and gets her to Ms. Salma at El Sol Orphanage. Her life is good growing up. She shares her knowledge of modesty and salat with the younger girls at the orphanage, and has a very close relationship with Ms. Salma. Meanwhile, in Lusitania, Shargor has imprisoned the King and Queen and is ruling unjustly and ineffectively. When Siyana is 16 years old Ms. Salma surprises Siyana with a trip to Baetica for an interview at Baetica Academy, Siyana’s dream school. While there, a tornado tears the two apart, and Siyana is rescued by an elderly couple. This couple is struck by her name and fill her in on the story of the missing princess. Siyana boldly journeys to the castle, storms in, frees her parents, forgives Shargor and presumably they all live happily ever after.
The author puts not just Islamic values of forgiveness, and kindness to others in the story, but pushes the point of hijab and talking to Allah (swt) as well. Siyana discusses how at the orphanage they don’t cover, but when they go out they do. One of the younger girls even asks her, “why wear such a pretty dress if no one can see your hair?” Hijab comes up a few times through the book and isn’t too awkward. However, I felt the concept of writing letters to Allah (swt) a little forced and less smooth, especially considering it is the title action of the book. Once a week the girls at the orphanage write letters to God with special pens Ms. Salma had given them. They then drop these letters in the lake. A bit odd for the environment in my opinion, but I get it I’m cynical. In her first letter she writes about wanting to help others and even remarks, “Oh my Lord, my Guide, my Everything, How I’ve missed you, even though I talked to you just an hour ago in my Salaah!” The author has Ms. Salma explain that you can always talk to Allah (swt) and that duaas and letters are good, but remembering Him in your heart is the best. Siyana writes two letters in the book, and the letters aren’t long, but it seems like the lead up in to them and after them, explaining the connection to God through many different forms is good, and which are better, and which are required, etc., gets a bit wordy. Again I do acknowledge my own unease with writing letters so formally to Allah (swt) in literature. I have now reviewed a few books were it presents itself, and in all cases I find it weird, and I don’t know why. Interestingly the Author never uses the word Allah (swt), but she does use hijab and salaah. And there is space at the back of the book to write your own letter to God.
I do like that the plan is for Princess Siyana to rule the kingdom and that she is traveling for educational reasons when the tornado strikes. I also like that Ms. Salma seems to be a strong independent woman and that Siyana, doesn’t wait around for someone to save her parents, she takes control, trusts Allah, and saves the day.
The book is beautiful and big. The illustrations are radiant and well done. At 40 pages long, there is also a recipe for Macaroons and amaze at the end, the story is quite long in both the number of pages, and in the amount of text on each page. I would place it on at least a 3rd or 4th grade level for reading, and possibly a KG or 1st grade level for story time. The book isn’t dry, but it would definitely test a 3 or 4 year old’s attention span. Obviously it is an Islamic alternative to the mainstream princess story, but at $19 and the way it is beautifully presented, I guess I wanted more than just Islamic morals infused into something so familiar. I feel like the author could do more, it is definitely within her writing ability and the publisher, Sun Behind the Cloud, who it seems is responsible for the illustrations as well, definitely know what they are doing.
There is a youtube teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qS_Jw2rp8Q
and an interview with the author https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCclUg9pUXI
Thank you for this review. It’s definitely eye opening when someone gives you food for thought from another point of view! As the author and sketch illustrator of this book, there is no doubt some Disney-esque like qualities came to play. At the onset we wanted to give young readers a similar high quality book in terms of graphics on a very small budget. Also growing up with Disney stories, they must have had an influence in the way I conjured stories, but I tried hard to keep the storyline as realistic as possible which came with some limitations. Princess Siyana’s Pen is the story of my personal ideal, it’s something and someone I have aspired to be all my life. I named my daughter after this character and book. I try to write letters to God (which the word I kept generic for non Muslim audiences to demonstrate that it is indeed the same Almighty Lord we all share, love and worship) each week to build closeness and as someone who comes from a heavy Political Science and Security background, the main point of the book was how she subtly overted a monarchical system in place, although she had the power to do otherwise. The main theme I wanted to convey was humility and positivity largely centered around relationship building with the Almighty. Looking back I wouldn’t change a thing about it, but I do appreciate critical feedback that can help me improve as a writer for future publications!