I learned about A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan (Clarion Books/HMH, 2020) a while ago, but while the premise interested me, I learned about it at a time when I wasn’t reading much middle grade, so it never ended up on my TBR. But a trip to the library last week had me walking past a display of books about food from the children’s section, and this book was on there. ‘Wait, I know that book!’ I said to myself as I passed it. ‘Guess it’s time to finally read it!’ And into my bag it went. Dual narrative middle grade. So fun!
It’s the first year of middle school for sixth graders Sara (that’s SAH-rah, not Sarah as in Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Elizabeth, and neither is having the best of times. Sara’s new to the school, having transferred from her small private Muslim school after her parents could no longer afford it; Elizabeth is struggling with friend issues after her best friend has taken up with a more popular girl. It’s Elizabeth who’s enthusiastic about joining the after-school South Asian cooking class club; Sara is only there because her mom is teaching it. Their first interactions are hostile at best, and neither walks away feeling great.
But as their time together in the club increases, Sara and Elizabeth realize they have a lot in common. Both are daughters of immigrant mothers; both are having trouble making the transition to middle school; both are desperately in need of friends. But in order to forge a new friendship, both will have to learn to listen to each other, to form a bridge over what divides them and learn to appreciate what makes each of them unique. A cultural festival and a cooking competition will force them to work together, and what they create at the end will be far more than just a new recipe.
What an enjoyable novel. I love dual narratives, and I can’t remember ever having read one from the middle grade section. Sara is downright prickly at the beginning, and this is completely understandable. She’s a Muslim student at a new school, and it’s not like this country is super understanding about non-Christian religions, especially Islam. Her mother’s accent and unfamiliar-to-everyone-else dishes make her feel like she stands out even more, and her defensiveness, even to the most basic of inquiries, is a learned skill. She’s also carrying the financial stress of her family with her, knowing her mother’s catering business is struggling and costing the family money they can’t afford. She lashes out a few times at Elizabeth, and I wanted to hug her. We don’t make life for immigrants or second gen kids easy at all here.
Elizabeth is struggling with problems of her own. Her grandmother died over the summer and her mother is grieving. Her father travels for work most of the week, leaving Elizabeth and her brothers on their own while Mom knits, listens to podcasts, and cries. Elizabeth is deeply worried her mom is going to return to England and leave the family behind, and to top it all off, her best friend is following in her racist father’s footsteps and making hideous comments about Muslims and immigrants. Cooking club and learning to make delicious food for her family helps with the stress, but she’s not having the greatest year either.
The friendship the two girls forge is fascinating. It’s not an easy one; it takes work for Sara to let down her guard and accept that Elizabeth is well-intentioned; Elizabeth has to learn that Islamophobia is a constant part of Sara’s life, and that it’s also her responsibility to speak out and defend her friend from it. (I really loved the role Sara’s friend from her private school played in this; she’s a super chill character and the voice of reason in their interactions, whereas Sara is more impulsive and fiery.)
Both girls are carrying an enormous amount of stress for their ages, an unfortunately not-uncommon experience these days, and while readers may not be personally familiar with their exact problems, I feel like most middle graders will understand what it’s like to worry about family matters you can’t control.
The authors really worked well together to create two middle school girls who are challenged in a variety of ways, and who begin not quite as adversaries, but as two distinct characters who aren’t necessarily on the same page…but who, with a little hard work and understanding, make it there, and the results are great.
What a fun, meaningful book, from an excellent writing team!