An Indies Introduce Q&A with Rhonda Roumani

Rhonda Roumani is the author of Tagging Freedom, a Summer/Fall 2023 Indies Introduce Kids selection.

Roumani is a Syrian-American journalist who has written about Islam, the Arab world and Muslim-American issues for more than two decades. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Los Angeles Times, Religion News Service, USA Today, and Salon, to name a few.

Roumani is also an author of books of nonfiction and fiction for children. She started writing children’s books in 2017, when she ran a book fair at her daughter’s school and couldn’t find a single book written by an Arab author; and found that the only book by a Muslim author was by Malala Yousafzai. She was a Pitch Wars mentee in 2019 and in 2021, she was named a Highlights Muslim Storytellers Fellow for 2021–2023. 

Roumani is currently a Contributing Fellow at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC, and an affiliate of Yale’s Macmillan Center, Council of Middle Eastern Studies. She graduated with a MS in Journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and received her BA in English and Political Science from UCLA.

Susan Reckers of Rakestraw Books in Danville, California, served on the panel that selected Roumani’s debut for Indies Introduce. Reckers called the book “a great introduction into social activism and using your voice in a positive way. You’ll cheer on and develop serious empathy for Samira and Kareem as they navigate dual cultures, cluelessly offensive classmates, and bullies.”

Here, Roumani and Reckers discuss Tagging Freedom.

Susan Reckers: Middle school drama is a universal experience across continents and eras. Why did you choose to have Samira be in 7th grade, rather than in high school? I’m asking because the backdrop of the story is so serious — the situation in Syria.

Rhonda Roumani: I wanted kids to know why the revolution started. What happened later on is a more complicated story, and it’s really sad. Tagging Freedom is sad, but it’s also a reminder that the conflict in Syria started as a moment of hope, as a call for freedom. And I think it’s important for our kids to understand that. I also believe that Upper Middle Grade books are sorely needed. Kids in grades 6–8 have questions about the world, but might not be ready for some of the content that exists in Young Adult books. I think it’s a great time of life when kids start to look outward. So, I thought it was natural for Middle Schoolers to learn about the start of the revolution, about what it means to leave your country when you don’t want to, about the heartache that a kid their age might experience, but also have the book end before the revolution turns into a full-blown war. If I was to write this book for high schoolers, it would have been a very different book.

SR: Bullying has long been a centerpiece of middle school drama, and sadly, likely will always be. Our main character, Samira, is bullied by a classic middle school Queen Bee, Cat Spencer. Did you have a Cat Spencer in your life? And what advice can you give your readers for dealing with Cats?

RR: I did not have a Cat Spencer. But I remember starting a new school in 7th grade and watching some girls bully another girl in our class about being fat. It made me so upset. I wanted to yell at them, to do something, but I was scared. I was super shy. And I did not want them to turn their wrath on me. I’ve felt terrible about not saying something all these years.

My daughter, however, directly experienced a Cat Spencer and it was heart-wrenching to go through that as a parent. I think the most frustrating part is that it felt like the school system wasn’t set up to support “the bullied.” They kept sending the kids who were being bullied to the counselor, rather than pulling aside the bullies who were causing the problem. Often the bullies are the “goody-two-shoes” who act one way in front of the teachers, and a completely different way with their classmates.

I guess the only thing I would advise a kid in the same situation as Samira is to find your people. In Tagging Freedom, Samira does that. Your people might not be in school. They might be a childhood friend. Or someone in a music or dance class. Or even an adult. No kid should have to go through that alone.

SR: In the author’s note, which was highly educational, you write: “The Syrian war created the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, with more than 400,000 deaths, 5.5 million refugees displaced around the world, and 6 million people displaced internally.” How did you take such a massive, complicated, global issue and make it so relatable in one household in the US?

RR: Before I started writing kidlit, I wrote about Syria for US newspapers. That experience helped me understand how little people really knew about Syria or the Arab world in general. So, when I had kids, and realized there were very few books written by Arabs or Syrians, I decided that we had to start writing our stories for younger audiences.

So, in Tagging Freedom I tried to show the small ways that many Syrians abroad personally experienced the revolution, and then the war — by way of phone calls, news watching, social media, and even small acts of protest. During the Arab revolutions, we celebrated with Egyptians who were celebrating in the streets (my husband is Egyptian), or watched news feeds of Syrians protesting with awe, and later with a lot of trepidation. I have family in Syria and had friends who were activists, most of whom had to flee. It was hard to watch it from so far away. So there were scenes from Tagging Freedom that were very much taken from our own family and how we experienced the revolution and then the war as Syrians and Syrian-Americans living in the United States.

Not knowing what was happening to a family member or hearing that something had happened in an area and not knowing if someone was okay was one of the hardest parts of that experience. Getting news that friends of family members had been kidnapped for ransom became very commonplace at one point. But, often, we just watched the news or tried to figure out what was happening by following social media accounts. And then there was the sadness that comes with feeling like the world wasn’t doing anything, or, worse, that people didn’t care. That was how we often experienced the revolution and then the war, even though we were far away, living in the United States. And I tried to incorporate some of those experiences in Tagging Freedom.

SR: The balance of ultra serious content and relatable humor in Tagging Freedom is impressive. Was it hard to keep that balance?

RR: I grew up in a family that was always joking, especially during difficult times. And I think kids (and adults) often use laughter to deal with hardship. Not to deny what they’re feeling, but to make the moment more real, and even more manageable. Kids need to laugh and cry and feel anger. I hope my characters naturally did all of those things. They’re natural parts of our day, of our experiences, and a big part of healing.

SR: Tagging Freedom is about so many things, from bullying and middle school drama to ongoing world events. I loved your overarching call-to-action message about using words and art for social justice. Thanks to Samira and Kareem, I will never look at graffiti the same way. At one point, Samira makes a banner that says: “Graffiti = Art + Activism = Artivism.” How do you want your readers to think about the power of art in general, and graffiti in particular?

RR: I often think about how we take for granted the freedoms we have here. When you’ve lived in an authoritarian country, you understand the far-reaching power of government and the fear that can exist in that country. Graffiti never existed in Syria before the war. No one would dare whisper something against the government, let alone spray paint a slogan or something subversive on public property. The consequences would be too grave. Artistic expression is controlled in authoritarian states. So, it was really telling that the first time graffiti appeared in Syria was when the people were asking for their freedoms.

Sometimes graffiti is the only way to say something, especially in countries where people are scared to speak up. It’s visible, for everyone to see, and yet it also allows for a certain anonymity. I don’t think we’ve given enough credit to how art can change the world — how it can relay messages and create empathy or anger or understanding, depending on what is needed in that moment. I love graffiti. I don’t believe in graffiti for the sake of defacing surfaces. But I do think that we have to understand the privilege we have when we can express ourselves freely, when we feel like our voices are heard.

Graffiti often lives on the margins, among communities or groups who don’t have the microphone or platform to get their message across. And that might be a clue that there’s a space or people or even a topic that we need to pay more attention to.

Tagging Freedom by Rhonda Roumani (Union Square Kids, 9781454950714/9781454950721, Hardcover/Paperback Middle Grade, $16.99/$8.99) On Sale: 11/7/2023

Find out more about the author on her website.

ABA member stores are invited to use this interview or any others in our series of Q&As with Indies Introduce debut authors in newsletters and social media and in online and in-store promotions. Please let us know if you do.

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