Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Tagging Freedom

Roumani, Rhonda. Tagging Freedom
November 7, 2023 by Union Square Kid
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

In 2011, Kareem lives in Damascus, Syria, and his cousin Samira lives in a suburban town in Massachusetts. Kareem and his friends are grafitti artists who go out early in the morning to put statements supporting a change in government up around their neighborhoods. As unrest grows in the area, this becomes more and more dangerous. Kareem just wants to go to school, play soccer, and hang out with his friends, but when boys about his age are killed, he wants to take part in the protests surrounding this. His parents, who are both doctors, do not approve, and when Kareem gets in trouble one too many times, they send him off to like with his aunt and uncle, Samira's parents, in the US. Sam is excited to see her cousin at first, but he is not the happy, fun kid she remembers, and they get off to a rocky start when some of her friends say insensitive things to Kareem and she does not correct them. She has struggled with being popular, and has decided to ignore some of the comments in order to have popular friends. Her best friend, Ellie, doesn't think that Sam should hang around some of these popular but problematic students, like twin siblings Cat and Dylan. Both girls are interested in art, but Sam is making posters for the spirit squad, which Cat runs, and Ellie wants no part of it. When Ellie talks to Sam, she learns about his tagging activities in Syria, and thinks about how they can do something like it to promote awareness in their town. They wisely use chalk paint that will come off in the rain, and while there is some positive feedback, people like Cat think that the painters should be expelled and arrested. When the situation in Syria worsens and his parents' hospital is bombed (they are okay), he is more desperate than ever to make the town aware of the situation, and eventually tags the school with actual paint. Will Kareem be able to make people understand his message?
Strengths: Kareem does not want to come to the US, but the situation in Syria makes his parents feel that it is better to send him away. I think this is important for readers in the US to understand. Kareem's reaction to living with his aunt and uncle is quite understandable, and he and Sam have very different perspectives on the people and events at their school. It's fascinating to watch him align with Ellie as Ellie and Sam become estranged. It was also interesting that Kareen could text his friends in Syria, especially since all of their texts are in code in case his friend's phones are ever taken by the police. It's sad to think that it has been an entire lifetime (for middle schoolers) since 2011; one wonders what happened to Kareem and if he would have gone to college in the US, or if he ever got to see his parents again. The intersection of art and activism will appeal to many young readers with these interests. The historical notes and glossary at the end are extremely helpful. 
Weaknesses: Is grafitti art or vandalism? There's a debate topic for your classes. I know where I fall on this topic. Whether or not you purchase this for your school library will depend on how YOU feel about that topic. 
What I really think: There are a growing number of books about the long standing conflict Syria and the challenges facing refugees; Marsh's Nowhere Boy (2018), Senzai's Escape from Aleppo (2018), Brown's Graphic Novel The Unwanted (2019), Warga's Other Words for Home (2019), Abawai's A Land of permanet Goodbyes (2018), Hughes' Displaced (2020), Dassu's Boy Everywhere (2021), and Saleh's Wild Poppies (2023). The inclusion of calling US attention to the plight of Syrians through art is what makes this stand out. 

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