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The Tyrant's Daughter

Poignant tale of a fictional dictator's teen daughter.

What parents need to know

Educational value

Because Laila's homeland, a composite of several Arab and Muslim countries, is never named, readers will find similarities between recent world events and Laila's situation. An author's note helps match up aspects of the story with real places and events. Readers also will learn about conditions in many countries where women are to remain "invisible," sons can inherit political dynasties, and the West is considered evil.

Positive messages

The biggest message: Don't live in a bubble of your own comfortable experience, but rather be aware of what's happening around you and across the world. The book shows how even people considered "evil" may have been loving and kind to those closest to them; no one is completely evil because humans are complicated. Laila's story reveals difficulties that face immigrants: how strange, new, and confusing it is to suddenly be American, dealing with the fact that some things are great here and others not so wonderful. There also are important messages about realizing your parents have lives quite apart from being your mother and father and about complex class issues that can divide people.

Positive role models

Laila tries hard not to be a haughty princess. She befriends high schoolers and answers their questions about her country. She values the truth, and, once she finds out, she's horrified at her father's regime and its actions. She's a poignant example of someone struggling to find her identity between two cultures.


There's a great deal of violence in characters' recollections or in news coverage. Laila remembers how much armed security her family had and how her father was killed at her uncle's behest. She recalls dead bodies, gunshots, and gathering mobs trying to kill her and her family.


Laila grinds against a male classmate at a school dance. She kisses a boy for the first time. On another occasion, their make-out session seems headed for sex until he stops them. A few other kisses; mentions of sex and the big differences between the ways her culture and American culture deal with teen sexuality.


Occasional strong language includes "s--t," "bitch," and "whore" and insults such as "terrorist," "tyrant," "oppressor," "dictator," and more.


Laila marvels at how many Starbucks she encounters and how they all look exactly alike inside. Her mother buys an Audi. The "Golden Arches" are part of the scene.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Laila's mother, Yazmin, drinks more and more as the story continues; Laila wonders if her mom is becoming a "sloppy" drunk. A CIA agent is seen smoking a cigarette a couple of times.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that The Tyrant's Daughter, a contemporary young adult novel about a fictional assassinated dictator's 15-year-old daughter, portrays life in oppressive countries and how the children of the aristocracy or leaders are kept clueless and isolated from reality. Violence, from torture to explosions to ambushes and assassinations, is part of the landscape. But it's not all violence and politics: There's humor, occasional strong language ("s--t," "a--hole," "bitch"), and romance (kissing and one intense, interrupted make-out session). A good pick to read with your teen, this novel, written by a former CIA agent, offers plenty of conversation topics: international politics; cultural and religious differences; the immigrant experience; and how parents and teens interact.

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What's the story?

Fifteen-year-old Laila, her glamorous mother, Yazmin, and her 6-year-old brother, Bastien, aka "the little prince," are the surviving family of a deposed dictator in a fictional Middle East country. The CIA saved them on the day of her father's assassination, and now they're settled in an apartment in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Tutored privately since she was a child, Laila is fluent in English but still needs help translating the strange customs of American high schoolers. As she tries to fit in to her new environment, she discovers the incongruous truth about her father's bloody political dynasty. Since her mother is expected to cooperate with the CIA, Laila is forced to be cordial to intense, brooding fellow expat Amir, who wouldn't have been fit to be a servant in the palace back home. Meanwhile, Ian, a smart, cute student journalist, shows Laila how sweet American guys can be. But she can't shake this feeling that she'll never quite be American so long as she's really THE TYRANT'S DAUGHTER.

Is it any good?


This engaging book is equal parts international politics lesson, coming-of-age story, and classic immigrant "fish out of water" tale. A former CIA agent, J.C. Carleson was inspired to write a book after wandering around in awe at the elaborately opulent children's quarters in Saddam Hussein's palaces. Making Laila, her family, and her home country a composite of various oppressive dictatorships lets Carleson conflate facts from several countries; she never shies away from noting that the United States sometimes backs these regimes as it suits its international policies.

Despite her initial ignorance of her father's bloody legacy, Laila is a believable, likable character. She's scandalized by how little even her "goody goody" new friends wear, but eventually she tries wearing a little satin dress for a dance. At first she keeps flinching and moving every time a guy comes near her, but as she tries on her American skin, she decides to see what it feels like to touch, kiss, and giggle -- all strictly forbidden in her homeland -- with a boy she likes. She never forgets that there's much more going on with her mother, the CIA, and her homeland than she'll ever understand, but she's no longer content to be a clueless princess. Laila comes into her own in a story with so much substance you'll want to look up every resource in the author's note to learn more about real tyrants and the families and nations they left behind.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the way the author uses descriptions of violence to inform, not titillate or scandalize. Does The Tyrant's Daughter give you a new perspective on bloodshed and oppression around the world?

  • Does the book raise your interest in international politics? What do you think of the CIA's involvement in backing coups and government takeovers?

  • What do you think you'd miss if you were in another country? What would you want to experience in a foreign land?

Book details

Author:J.C. Carleson
Genre:Contemporary Fiction
Topics:Brothers and sisters, Friendship, High school
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication date:February 11, 2014
Number of pages:304
Publisher's recommended age(s):12 - 18
Available on:Nook, Hardback, iBooks, Kindle

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Teen, 13 years old Written byAnIntelligentGiraffe July 16, 2014

Amazingly Explanatory

I loved the way this book connected the personal lives of the people we see in the news with the way we see them when looking through the kaleidoscope that is the media. I also was fascinated by the culture-shock that Laila experienced when she got to America and went to grocery stores, a school dance, and the library. Laila is a great role model because she seems to, despite her family's past, value every life and realizes when she is not being a good friend and apologizes. She can read people and has a way of always getting the information she needs. Some may find her nosy or dishonest for this, but I see it as proof of her intelligence.
What other families should know
Educational value
Great messages
Great role models