MIDDLE GRADE FICTION
Saadia Faruqi, Laura Shovan
Hardcover (also available as an e-book, an audiobook, and on audio CD), 978-0-3581-1668-4, 336 pgs., $16.99
August 11, 2020
“Changing time means an America that’s different from a hundred years ago. Nobody likes change, not even my parents with their treasured memory of how things were done in the villages of Pakistan long ago.”
Sara Hameed, eleven years old, is in the sixth grade, missing her friends from the private Islamic school she’s always attended and feeling misunderstood and ostracized in her new public middle school. Sara’s parents are first-generation Pakistani Americans; her father is a pharmacy technician, and her mother runs a catering business out of their kitchen. Sara and her little brothers are pressed into helping with food preparation for their mother, and now—even worse—she has to sit through the after-school cooking class her mother has begun teaching. Sara is sick of food.
Elizabeth Shainmark, also eleven, is adjusting to middle school and smarting from changes in long-term relationships with family and friends. Her father is Jewish and American, her mother Christian and British, mourning her own mother who has recently died; meanwhile, Elizabeth’s childhood best friend has discovered fashion and middle-school cliques. Elizabeth loves to cook, so she signs up for the class taught by Sara’s mother, finding herself partnered with Sara when her best friend defects to the popular crowd.
A Place at the Table is new middle-grade fiction, a joint project by Saadia Faruqi of Houston and Laura Shovan of Maryland. Faruqi is the author of several other books, including the Yasmin series for early readers, the editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, and an interfaith activist. Shovan is the author of middle-grade novels Takedown and The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, as well as poetry for adults and children, and a poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council. A Place at the Table is their first book together, and it is a joy, eloquent of tween angst and the transformative power of friendship.
A Place at the Table is, fortunately and unfortunately, a timely tale. Sara’s family must deal with strangers telling them to go back where they came from, as well as the casual xenophobia of neighbors and acquaintances. It’s enough to make a person defensive and paranoid. Sara must learn to discern ignorance from malevolence, in the process opening her heart to possibility. Elizabeth witnesses, with growing unease, the attitudes that Sara is subjected to (“What’s wrong with American food?”). When her former best friend begins parroting the overt racism of her parents, Elizabeth must decide to stand for what is right, even if that means she stands apart.
The narration moves between the first-person accounts of Sara and Elizabeth, trading off in each chapter. This technique of alternating narratives is particularly effective at demonstrating how each girl sees the same event in different ways, allowing the reader to spot the divergence and how it could be mitigated. Sara and Elizabeth have more in common than they know: immigrant family, including mothers who are both supposed to be studying for the citizenship test but have misplaced their motivation; little brothers who are equal parts cute and exasperating; and economic challenges they aren’t supposed to know about.
There are touching moments, such as when Mrs. Hameed confesses to Sara that the real reason she had to change schools was because the family could no longer afford the private-school fees, and gentle humor, such as Sara’s observation, “White people blushing is such a scientifically curious phenomenon.”
Through cultural and religious misunderstandings (“Sometimes talking with Sara is hard work.”), involving Halloween and pierced ears; through biryani, samosas, and tarka daal, instant mashed potatoes, Hot Pockets, and mac and cheese; with the mezuzah next to Elizabeth’s front door and the Quranic verse in Arabic over Sara’s front door, Faruqi and Shovan exude possibility, writing about the ways we are more alike than we usually know.
As my travels have shown me, the importance of breaking bread in company cannot be overestimated. Our diversity enhances us like the ingredients of a recipe mingle, both retaining the individual flavors and melding into something new—stronger together.
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist, and interfaith activist. Her book Meet Yasmin!, the first book in an early reader series about a Pakistani-American girl, received starred reviews, and she is also author of the adult fiction book Brick Walls: Tales of Hope and Courage from Pakistan. She lives with her husband and children in Houston, Texas, where she is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry, and prose.
Laura Shovan’s debut middle-grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, was a NCTE 2017 Notable Verse Novel, a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year, and won a Cybils Award for poetry, among other recognition. Her second children's novel, Takedown, published recently and her other novels sit on over half a dozen state reading lists. She lives with her family in Maryland, where she is a longtime poet-in-the-schools for the Maryland State Arts Council.