Posts Tagged #debut novel

WNDMG Wednesday – Introducing Isi Hendrix

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado


Introducing Isi Hendrix

Hello, WNDMG Wednesday readers … I am so excited for this month’s post. I get to introduce you to the amazing Isi Hendrix, author of the Afrofantasy MG Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans. (HarperCollins – USA and Usborne – UK, September 2023) It’s such a high-profile debut novel, it got TWO debut days: one here in the USA and one in the UK!

About Adia Kelbara

Adia Kelbara USA book cover

United States Cover

Adia Kelbara cover illustration

United Kingdom Cover

Life is tough for twelve-year-old orphan Adia. Her aunt and uncle believe she’s an ogbanje, a demon-possessed child that brings misfortune wherever they go, and Adia can’t disagree—especially when she suddenly manifests mysterious powers that she can’t control, causing an earthquake in her village.

So when Adia is offered a kitchen apprenticeship at the faraway Academy of Shamans, she flees with nothing but a pouch of change, her cat Bubbles, and the hope that someone there can figure out what’s wrong with her—and fix it. But just as she’s settling in, Adia stumbles upon a shocking secret: Unlike her, the kingdom’s emperor really is possessed—by a demon more wicked than any other. And he’s on his way to the Academy for a visit.

Joining forces with a snarky goddess, a 500-year-old warrior girl, and an annoying soldier-in-training, Adia must travel through hidden realms to exorcise the emperor and save her kingdom. But to succeed, she first must come to understand the powers inside her….

The fate of the world hangs in the balance.

Interview with Isi Hendrix

WNDMG: Welcome to the We Need Diverse MG (WNDMG) series. We’re honored to have you here!

First off, I have to say, I absolutely loved Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans. Your debut novel is the definition of propulsive reading. Adia is so easy to root for and connect with—plus, she’s wry and funny. This is a really hard mix of character traits to pull off, and I’m so impressed!

Developing Adia

WNDMG: What influences helped you develop Adia Kelbara herself?

author headshot - black woman with long curly braids framed by flowering plants

Monique Cooper Photography

IH: Adia is a twelve-year-old orphan living with her aunt and uncle. She doesn’t fit in with her family or anyone in her village of the Swamplands, which is currently overrun by missionaries. The missionaries showed up years ago and told Adia’s people that everything they believed in was wrong, and that to be good, they had to follow the beliefs of the people behind the Sunless Mountains. But Adia questions what she’s told.

I’m borrowing from real life with that aspect of Adia’s personality. My family’s conservative religion (introduced to my tribe by Western missionaries) absolutely did not feel right to me and I was her age when I began to question things and where this religion had even come from because it certainly wasn’t anything that was native to the Igbo people. So, for me, Adia represents the strength of indigenous wisdom and the ancestral knowledge that’s woven into our DNA that no invader or colonizing force can ever erase.

Adia Kelbara character art black tween wearing yellow dress in forest with orange cat

The Guardian Deity

WNDMG: What was the inspiration for Ginikanwa?

IH: Ah, Gini. My snarky Goddess. I’ve always loved the older, powerful mentor in fantasy novels, like Gandalf. Thankfully times are changing, but for far too long that role was almost always exclusively delegated to a grey bearded white man. So, I knew that I wanted Adia’s teacher and mentor in these books to be a woman, specifically an African goddess or an Alusi—a guardian deity of the Igbo people.

Book Banning and World Building

WNDMG: Your themes are so current and relevant, this book is almost contemporary. You tackle topics like religion, colonialism and mental and emotional health with grace and passion. Was this always going to be a book about colonialism or did that piece reveal itself to you as you wrote?

 IH: It revealed itself to me as I was writing it. I wrote my first draft before this book banning atrocity America is currently dealing with was in full swing, and even then I assumed I was writing something that would be banned. But once I saw what was coming out in this story, especially the commentary about religious colonization which is very personal to me, there was no turning back.

Blurb graphic adia kelbara

Let the Story be Born

WNDMG: As a writer, I am always curious about how authors choose genre. What was your process for deciding the best way to tell Adia’s story?

IH: I read widely, but (so far) every time I try to write a story it comes out as a fantasy story. So, I don’t fight it. I let the story that wants to be born be born. And I’m so glad it came out this way. Using a fantasy setting lets me explore these heavy themes in a way that—I hope—is accessible to children and also just a fun adventure story.  I re-read books now that were my favorite as a child like A Wrinkle in Time, and I’m in awe at how L’Engle and authors like her wrote these profound books that you could write a whole doctorate thesis about, but it’s also a book I probably read fifty times before I was ten years old. So, I think speculative fiction is a great way to explore big ideas and themes with young readers. Madeline L’Engle said one of my favorite quotes on writing. “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

((If you’re enjoying this interview with MG fantasy author Isi Hendrix, you might also like this archived WNDMG Wednesday interview with fantasy author Kaela Rivera)) 

Changes, Challenges, and Easter Eggs

 WNDMG: From the time you drafted Adia to the time you got your publishing deal, what has been the biggest change in your manuscript?

 IH: Ah, that’s hard to say without giving a huge spoiler! I’ll just say that a character I’d originally given an almost forgettable role to, ended up playing a major part of the story.

WNDMG: What was the hardest part of the book to write?

IH: Character-wise, I always struggled when my mentor or agent or editors wanted me to dive deeper into a character I don’t particularly like. The way I can’t stand this character you’d never think I was the one who created him. So, in my early drafts I tended to just blow him off as an irredeemable jerk. But everyone asked for the motivation behind why he behaves the way he does so I had to tap into that, and the story is all the better for it. Yes, I would have had an easier time writing a full-on villain, verses someone who’s morally gray. But the morally grey ones make for complex characters in the end.

WNDMG: Do you have any Easter Eggs in there?

Adia’s name is Swahili for gift and very fitting. But it’s also from one of my favorite song, “Adia” by Sarah McLachlan, and the song’s chorus is also extremely fitting for this character. It keeps repeating that “We are born innocent. Believe me, Adia, we are still innocent.” So I love that her name has a lot of layers in there. Naming every other character in this book took me a minute, but I knew Adia’s name right away.

character art Adia in purple dress surrounded by flowers

(There also may or may not be a Mean Girl’s reference somewhere in the book, because this book definitely has a mean girl in it.)

The Final Battle

WNDMG: Is there one scene you can point to that is the most important scene to you?

IH: The final battle scene. I’m not a visual writer. I don’t see everything in my head like a movie (and I wish I did). But that was the one scene that I watched play out from beginning to end. I was walking one evening and this download came out of nowhere. I froze on the sidewalk and was almost in tears. Then I ran home to write it all out.  I even had to go back and rewrite a lot of the book because I understood that was how it had to end. So that final battle scene where Adia goes up against the antagonist will always be what I consider the most important.

What’s Next

WNDMG: This is the first book in a planned trilogy. Can you tell us anything at all about what we can expect from Adia in Book Two? (Yes, this is definitely the sign of an impatient reader asking!)

IH: You’re going to find Adia back at the Academy of Shamans, this time as a student! But as always, everything goes sideways whenever Adia is at that school. So you’re going to see her dealing with a mysterious illness that’s plaguing the students and the kingdom.

WNDMG: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share with our readers?

IH: Read widely and read banned books!

WNDMGSo many congratulations to you from all of us at WNDMG and From the Mixed-Up Files … of Middle-Grade Authors!

Isi Hendrix author photo smiling Black woman with long braids wearing gold dress holding gold UK edition of book

About Isi Hendrix:

Isi Hendrix is a Nigerian American children’s book author who has been lucky enough to live and work all over the world, from the Himalayas to the Amazon rainforest, during her past life as an anthropologist. Now she’s based in her hometown of Brooklyn, NY, where she lives with a rotating roster of foster kittens and a stubborn refusal to accept that she is highly allergic to cats.

Isi’s debut middle grade novel, Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans, released in September, 2023.

To Buy Adia Kelbara and the Circle of Shamans:


Barnes and Noble

Stay in touch with Isi via her website!

WNDMG Wednesday- Interview with Anna E Jordan

Shira and Esther cover

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

WNDMG Wednesday – Debut Author Interview

I’m super excited to be able to introduce you and interview debut author Anna E Jordan today. Anna’s new book is SHIRA AND ESTHER’S DOUBLE DREAM DEBUT (Chronicle Books) and it launches on October 10, 2023.

I am extra excited to do this, as Anna and I are Agent siblings! I can’t wait to hold a copy of Anna’s book in my hands, and I am eagerly waiting for my preorder to arrive in October.

Shira and Esther cover


A fun middle grade book that draws on the fun switched identity  in THE PARENT TRAP and comedic tone of THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, this beautiful book features two Jewish girls navigating family, friendship, and faith.

Description taken from the publisher:

When Shira and Esther first meet, they can hardly believe their eyes. It’s like looking in a mirror! But even though they may look identical, the two girls couldn’t be more different. Shira dreams of singing and dancing onstage, but her father, a stern and pious rabbi, thinks Shira should be reading prayers, not plays. Esther dreams of studying Torah, but her mother, a glamorous stage performer, wishes Esther would spend more time rehearsing and less time sneaking off to read books. Oy vey! If only the two could switch places . . .

Would Shira shine in a big-time televised talent show? Would Esther’s bat mitzvah go off without a hitch? What’s a little deception, when it means your dreams might finally be within reach? One thing is certain: Shira and Esther are going to need more than a little chutzpah to pull this off. But if they do, their double dream debut is sure to be the performance of a lifetime.

Interview with Anna E. Jordan

I loved getting to talk to Anna about her new book and I think you will enjoy meeting her and Shira and Esther as well.


SSS: What is the inspiration behind Shira and Esther?


On a trip to the Society of Illustrators in the spring of 2014, I saw an exhibit of Drew Friedman’s book Old Jewish Comedians. I hadn’t gone to the museum to see it, but one drawing and explanation card caught my eye. It was about a comedian, Benjamin Zuckerman, whose father wanted him to be a rabbi, but he wanted to be a comedian. What if, I thought, there were two kids and they each wanted what the other had. From there, my research led me through the evolution of Jewish theater and comedy in this country.

SSS: So many important and wonderful themes in your book – could you elaborate on which themes resonate the most for you, and that you hope will be the most impactful for young readers.


I resist having themes or a lesson when I start to write the book and hope that by the end, I pose more questions than deliver answers to young readers. The characters struggle with some big questions in the text including: When and how should you follow your dreams? What does it mean to obey your parents? How can family and community support young people as they dream? What are different ways that we express our culture and are they all valid? How can we make room for magic in our everyday lives?

I’m sure that young readers will come up with their own big questions. Hopefully, they will find interpretations I didn’t even consider when I wrote the book. That’s the best part of sending a book baby out into world!

SSS: How are Shira and Esther similar? How are they different? Was it difficult to write a book in two points of view?


The book is actually told by a 3rd person omniscient narrator, but you are absolutely right about the difficulties involved with having two main characters.

Shira, the rabbi’s daughter, is a confident risk taker. She wants to sing, dance and tell jokes all the time. As you can imagine, that frustrates her father—the rabbi.

Esther, is happiest with her nose in a book and especially in books that teach her more about Judaism. Esther has big questions about the world and her place in it while her mother just wants Esther to take the stage.

 A lot of the revision work that I did with my first editor was about honing the differences between the two characters. Not only their character traits, but also their wants, needs, and faults. We wanted to make sure that the reader knew each character well before they switched places, so they could root for each character throughout her journey. Like the movie Parent Trap, the characters pretend to be the other character. When Esther became Shira, she still had to have her essential Esther-ness, and Shira had to hold on to her Shira-ness as Esther.

SSS: The subject of music and theater is important in the book—can you talk more about how you became inspired to write about music and the performance arts?


I sang, danced, and performed from the time I was six through high school. My two sons were also very active in school theater. I loved supporting their theater programs with makeup and set design and creation. As a 5th-grade teacher, I help with the annual production in my school too. It’s wonderful to watch students shine outside the classroom. Like writing, theater allows the artist to step out of their own life story and into another character for a time.

Also, as I mentioned previously, my research led me through the evolution of Jewish theater and comedy in this country from the Yiddish Theater and Vaudeville, to stand-up comedy in the Borscht Belt (the group of hotels in the Catskills that were owned by Jewish families for Jewish families when we weren’t allowed in other hotels), to television and finally Hollywood. 

SSS: Diverse books are so important (and a passion of mine!). How does the Jewish Faith play a role in your book and in Shira and Esther’s lives?


The Jewish people are an ethnoreligious group with an identity, culture, language(s), and religion. Judaism is our religion but we experience it in different ways. Shira has been raised as a practicing Reform Jew and Esther has been raised within the vibrant Jewish culture of the Yiddish theater. Each character goes on a journey to learn more about being Jewish and coming to understand their own experiences.

 Ultimately, both Shira and Esther embody pieces of my own Jewish Journey: the part of me that strives to study Torah and the part of me that wants to be immersed in my culture and community.

As the narrator of the book says:

“There is a saying that if you assemble ten Jewish people in a room and ask them a question about Judaism, you’ll get ten different answers. This is one of the most wonderful things about being Jewish: No one is Jewish in quite the same way.”

 One thing that was important to me as an author was filling a space in the children’s book market with Jewish Joy. So often, Jewish books have to do with the 3Hs: History, Holiday, or Holocaust. With the rise of anitsemitism in the U.S., it’s important that Jewish and non-Jewish children read about the positive aspects of Judaism such as education, social justice, community, and yes—humor and joy.


SSS: Will there be more Shira and Esther in the future?


As we say, “From your mouth to G-d’s ears.” Seriously though, one of the supporting characters, Benny Bell, has been talking to me more and more. I need to give him space in my writing time to listen to his story.

We’ll see!

Writing Process

SSS: How long did it take to write SHIRA AND ESTHER? And was it an emotional process (as a fellow author, all my books seem to come from personal experience. Was this the same for you?)


I’ve had other wonderful publishing experiences in my 22 years as an author, but I’m so proud that SHIRA AND ESTHER’S DOUBLE DREAM DEBUT is my first published novel. The seed of the book was in 2014, the manuscript was purchased in 2021, and now it’s 2023. That nine-year period includes two agents, a divorce, raising two children as a single mom, a variety of day jobs, many moves, many submissions and rejections, a pandemic, and the death of my father. It was a very long and emotional process.


SSS: Bonus question! Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to share with us?


I’m grateful that Shira and Esther found a publishing home with Chronicle Books. The team there gave this book so much time and attention. I had a double dream team of editors—Taylor Norman, who helped me hone the story and characters, and Daria Harper who worked with the sensitivity readers (for Yiddish and Jewish accuracy) and with the copy edits, mechanicals, and design. The designers did an amazing job as did the cover illustrator Marco Guadalupi (visit him on Instagram @marcoguadalupi85) It’s such a long process, and I feel so lucky.

Thank you so much Anna for answering my questions!

I hope everyone picks up a copy of your beautiful book.


Yes, please. Preorder, post, and review! Thanks so much for this lovely interview.

Those who preorder from Anna’s local independent book store will receive a signed book and swag!

Politics and Prose preorder link

You can also preorder on



For more Middle Grade diverse books, check out this wonderful book list on our site!


Anna Jordan picture

About Anna E. Jordan

Anna E. Jordan, an author and middle grades educator, was the recipient of the 2013 PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Children’s Book Discovery award and has an MFA from the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. SHIRA AND ESTHER’S DOUBLE DREAM DEBUT (Chronicle Books, 10/10/23) is her first novel. In addition to the rhyming picture book THIS PUP STEPS UP, her poems appear in the anthology THE PROPER WAY TO MEET A HEDGEHOG AND OTHER HOW TO POEMS (Candlewick, 2019). You can also find her work national magazines including Ladybug, Babybug, Highlights High Five. Follow Anna on Facebook and Instagram @annawritedraw or on her blog Creative Chaos (

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Rhonda Roumani Interview

image showing tagging freedom book cover with two characters in front of grafitti'd wall

Debut Author Interview with Rhonda Roumani on her upcoming novel TAGGING FREEDOM

I’m so excited to be able to introduce you to debut author Rhonda Roumani today. Rhonda’s new book is TAGGING FREEDOM (Union Square) and it launches on November 7, 2023.

image showing tagging freedom book cover with two characters in front of grafitti'd wall

I am extra happy about this interview, as Rhonda is a fellow Syrian-American Author and I had the honor of reading an earlier draft-which just brought me to tears because of how beautiful it was! I can’t wait to hold a copy of the finished book in my hands, and for more readers to dive into this incredible book.


A beautiful full-of-heart middle grade book about a Syrian and a Syrian-American cousin duo who learn to use their voices (and their art) to bring awareness to the calls of freedom from Syria.

Description taken from online:

Kareem Haddad of Damascus, Syria, never dreamed of becoming a graffiti artist. But when a group of boys from another town tag subversive slogans outside their school, and another boy is killed while in custody, Kareem and his friends are inspired and start secretly tagging messages of freedom around their city.

Meanwhile, in the United States, his cousin, Samira, has been trying to make her own mark. Anxious to fit in at school, she joins the Spirit Squad where her natural artistic ability attracts the attention of the popular squad leader. Then Kareem is sent to live with Sam’s family, and their worlds collide. As graffitied messages appear around town and all eyes turn to Kareem, Sam must make a choice: does she shy away to protect her new social status, or does she stand with Kareem?

Author Rhonda Roumani’s work as a journalist infuses Tagging Freedom with rich details and a realistic portrayal of how war affects and inspires children.

This is her middle-grade debut.

Interview with Rhonda Roumani

I loved getting to talk to Rhonda about her new book and I think you will enjoy meeting her and Kareem and Samira as well.

SSS: What a gorgeous cover! Who was the artist and anything readers should know about the beautiful artwork?

RR: The artist is Sara Alfageeh and I couldn’t be more excited about the cover! She captured Samira and Kareem perfectly. She’s so talented. But I’m especially excited because not only am I an Arab-Syrian-American author, but Sara is also an Arab American! I had seen some of her previous work, so when Union Square mentioned her as a possible illustrator, I already knew what a talented illustrator she was.

But I didn’t know that she already had an entire section of her website already dedicated to the Arab Spring and the revolutions that started in the early 2010s. So to have such an amazing artist, who is also an Arab and an American, who grew up in Boston and already understands the hope that fueled the Arab revolutions create the cover for TAGGING FREEDOM — it was just perfect. And I think the result speaks to that. It’s rare to have both the author and the illustrator be from the same background as the book – especially for Arab writers. There aren’t that many of us. So I am especially ecstatic about that.

 Also, on a fun note, Sara created a twitter thread on the process of creating a cover from start to finish, using TAGGING FREEDOM as the example. So, check it out!

SSS: Beautiful answer! What is your inspiration behind writing Tagging Freedom?

RR: I wrote TAGGING FREEDOM for so many reasons. The conflict in Syria is often described as a civil war, or the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation. Before the war, most people couldn’t even place Syria on the map. So I wrote TAGGING FREEDOM because I wanted kids to understand that the conflict in Syria very clearly started as a revolution – as a moment of hope—when Syrians believed they could create a new, better country, free of oppression and corruption.

The other thing I wanted kids to know is that kids, the same age as Samira and Kareem, helped ignite the revolution, with a simple act of graffiti. Right after mass protests led to the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—which the Arab world followed closely–  a group of kids from a southern Syrian town graffitied “It’s your turn doctor” on outdoor walls. Those kids were arrested, and their arrest ignited mass protests across the country.

So, in the end, it was these kids who inspired this book.

And, finally, there’s a story that happened at my kid’s school that also inspired me to write the activist parts of TAGGING FREEDOM. A few years ago, a group of kids from my children’s school wanted to hold a walk out for a Global Climate strike led by Greta Thunberg. These kids approached the principal and the principal basically said no, citing safety concerns. Then the parents took it to the PTA meeting and the principal doubled down on her position. An argument ensued and the parents left the meeting very upset. And it ended there. The students didn’t walk out.

But I imagined a different outcome- one in which the kids and parents refused to be limited by authority.

One of the phrases that my characters graffiti—using graffiti chalk in their Massachusetts suburban town is FREEDOM REQUIRES NO PERMISSION.

By that account, activism does not require permission. I believe the students should have walked out that day. And received detention. And then the parents should have told them that their detention is a badge of honor. In real protests, there are stakes. Kareem’s stakes are much higher than Samira’s. But in the end of TAGGING FREEDOM all the kids learn that lesson—in different ways. I won’t ruin the ending for you. But I wanted to tackle this idea directly.

SSS: Wow! I felt that! 

As a Syrian, reading this story broke my heart and yet I also felt so seen. What was it like to draw on memories and experiences of being Syrian as you wrote?

RR: Since I’m a journalist, I think I naturally rely on real events in my storytelling. So much of TAGGING FREEDOM is drawn from either my experience as a Syrian or Syrian American, my experience as a journalist, or from the experiences of family or friends.

I was not in Syria when the revolution started. But I did work as a journalist in Syria from 2003-2006—and I covered the country’s fledgling democracy movement at the time—and then the subsequent crack down that took place. I had never seen a protest in Syria—the crowds were small, nothing like the protests that Kareem took part in in the book. But they were demanding change and I held onto those images and those feelings when I described the revolution and protest in TAGGING FREEDOM. It was one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever witnessed. The stakes were really high, people were harassed, and protestors faced real harm. 

I also drew on the heartache of watching the revolution from afar. So many family members and friends left Syria, not knowing when they would return. And one of the most painful experiences is having to leave the people you love behind – for one reason or another. To know you’re safe and not know if your family is okay is another form of torture. And Kareem definitely feels that as the situation gets more precarious in Syria, while he is in the United States.

The other thing that I drew upon was the role of doctors. I knew some of the doctors working in Syria and they were really amazing. While others were escaping bombs, some of these doctors were either choosing to stay, or running towards the bombs. Although TAGGING FREEDOM takes place at the beginning of the revolution, I wanted to pay homage to them. So, Kareem’s parents stay behind to take care of the people because that is how they choose to support the revolution.  And Kareem has a hard time grappling with that. He knows they are doing something important; but he wants his parents to be safe, by his side.

 Most of what we’ve seen in the media are the images of Syrians as refugees on boats, or crossing Europe by foot. Those images are obviously devastating. But the subsequent war that erupted in Syria hit Syrians in so many different ways, many of them untold stories.

 And, of course, there were the everyday, lived experiences of being in Syria, and of growing up in a Syrian household. The way we teased our parents about something they would say in English. (They teased us when we messed up a phrase in Arabic too.) Or going to the mosque; or our food and how it was often strange to some of my friends, but so delicious! Or the way Samira had to learn to bridge her Syrian life at home with her American life outside the home. I very much did those things growing up. So, a lot of the book is based on my real, lived moments.

SSS: How are Kareem and Samira similar? How are they different? Was it difficult to write a book in two points of view?

RR: Kareem and Samira are quite different.

Kareem is headstrong and impulsive. He’s a 13 year-old boy who quickly embraces the ideas of the revolution. He loves graffiti and he understands that what is happening in his country is important. He wants to be part of the revolution, But he also ends up having to grow up quickly because of what has happens to him and to his country. His parents send him to America because they fear for his safety. He worries about his friends and his family from afar.

Samira is cautious, a little hesitant. But there’s real reasons for that. Unlike Kareem, who has always been part of the majority—Samira has grown up as a hyphenated Other—Syrian and Muslim in America. She has been teased because of her name. She has heard people say things about Muslims. Her home feels different than her friend’s homes. She has a community outside school that looks and feels very different than her school community. There are different social rules. Kareem is confident in who he is, but his identity has never really been challenged by his peers. Samira has had to deal with microaggressions. But, in the end, they both love their culture and who they are.

I actually loved writing this book from two points of view. I think the most difficult part was not making Samira’s arc feel silly, when placed next to Kareem’s arc. Their narratives do not have equal stakes. But I really liked writing from two points of view because it helped me break down the story. By alternating the voices, it even felt more manageable.

SSS: The subject of art is important in the book—can you talk more about how you became inspired to write about art and its role in freedom, specifically Syrian freedom? 

RR: When I lived in Syria, a friend of mine owned an Art gallery. There were so many talented young artists. But true art also necessitates freedom. And Graffiti is the ultimate form of artistic freedom because it’s out in the streets, for everybody to see. So graffiti did not exist in Syria before the revolution. And the fact that the revolution was ignited by an act of graffiti – and that graffiti and protest art became more commonplace during the entirety of theconflict is something I wanted to highlight. The character of Ramy is actually based on a real graffiti artist named Nour Hatem Zahra, who was nicknamed “Spray Man.”

SSS: Diverse books are so important (and a passion of mine!). How does the Muslim Faith and Syrian Culture play a role in your book and in Kareem and Samira’s lives?

Their faith and their identities are everything to Kareem and Samira. Samira goes to the mosque with her family regularly. She’s Muslim and Syrian, there’s no doubt about that. The fact that she has to reconcile her outside world and her inside world at home is something she’s figuring it out. She’s not ashamed of who she is, but she likes keeping them separate. It feels neater, maybe easier that way. But you can’t keep different parts of yourself separate for too long. You’re a whole person and you have to bring different parts of you together in order to be your full, realized self.

Kareem is also obviously very Syrian, as he explores what it means to be Syrian when your country is changing. And he’s Muslim, even though he has stopped praying since he arrived in the United States. In his most painful moment, he pulls out his prayer rug, which has been in the closet since he arrival, and he gains a lot of comfort when he finally does pray and performs the act of sujud, which is when Muslims touch their forehead to the ground. It’s a moment when one completely submits to God, to something greater than oneself. For Kareem, it’s a moment when he realizes so much is out of his control. He must put his trust in something higher. It is the ultimate act of faith and I loved putting that vulnerable moment on the page.

SSS: My heart is just in love with your book! Will there be more Samira and Kareem in the future?

RR: I don’t think so. I think another Samira and Kareem book would have to be YA novel. The next stage of the revolution is very different, and difficult. I don’t know if I want to write about that stage. It’s so painful. And so sad. That book would be a very, very different book.

Writing Process

SSS: Did your journalist background help you in writing TAGGING FREEDOM? How is being a journalist different or similar to writing middle grade?

RR: Definitely. I explained some of that above. I definitely took scenes directly from my own experiences as a journalist. And I thought of my many friends who were in the streets protesting at the time—or have had to leave the country for their own safety.

Writing for middle grade is so different. It was challenging. Journalists definitely tell – we’re not always given the space to “show” what is happening. So “the show, don’t tell” concept is not something we practice in daily journalism.

SSS: Any advice for fellow middle grade authors?

RR: I think the most important thing I did was find friends and a community of other writers. Do not write alone. The path is not easy. There are so many ups and downs. I got a lot of help from other Kidlit Author friends. So find your critique groups and writing partners. They are everything.

Thank you so much Rhonda for answering my questions! I hope everyone picks up a copy of your beautiful book.

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For more Muslim Book Recommendations, check out this RAMADAN BOOKLIST FOR EDUCATORS

image showing author Rhonda Rhoumani on a white background

About Rhonda Roumani

Rhonda Roumani is a Syrian American journalist who lived in Syria as a reporter for U.S. newspapers. She has written about Islam, the Arab world, and Muslim-American issues for more than two decades. Currently, she is a contributing fellow at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC. Rhonda lives in Connecticut with her family.