I am so excited to talk about A PLACE AT THE TABLE (Clarion Books) today! I mean, who am I kidding, I always love to talk books … however, A PLACE AT THE TABLE is close to my heart. I’ve been friends with and admired authors Laura Shovan and Saadia Faruqi for years now, and Saadia is actually a former contributing author here at Mixed-Up Files, so getting to be a small part of their celebration for this work is exciting to me.
This collaboration between Saadia and Laura is simply lovely. A PLACE AT THE TABLE is a story of friendship, food, and fitting in, of family, connections, and trust. 6th graders Sara and Elizabeth are struggling to fit in at their middle school. Sara just transferred from the Islamic school she’d always gone to, and Elizabeth is facing a changing landscape of friends she’s always known. They wind up in the same cooking class together, one taught by Sara’s mother, and after a shaky start, wind up as cooking partners. The story of their growing friendship, the things they have in common and the things they learn about each other, is peppered with recipes from Sara’s Pakistani culture and Elizabeth’s Jewish culture.
And guess what? Saadia and Laura shared one of those recipes with us! Woohoo! You’ll get a chance to make your own Sufganiyot as well as appreciate the lovely artwork by Anoosha Syed on the recipe card.
And now that you’re salivating, let’s meet Saadia Faruqi (L) and Laura Shovan (R):
Interview: A Place at the Table
Origin Story and Writing Process
Laura: I had a loose idea for a novel based on my own childhood: a girl helps her immigrant mother through the citizenship process. But when my agent suggested working on a co-authored middle-grade story, something clicked. If this mother/daughter story were told by two girls from two culturally different families, the book could give a broader picture of what it means to be first-generation American. I admired Saadia’s writing and she’d shared with me that she’d recently gotten her U.S. citizenship. It was so exciting when she said yes to this project.
Saadia: It really was this moment of serendipity! Laura and I knew each other through the kidlit world, and she’d kindly helped me with a previous novel critique, but that was the extent of our relationship. Then she had the idea of a novel about immigration, and I jumped at the chance to discuss my very strong feelings on the subject in book form!
HMC: What was your writing process?
Laura: We are very grateful for Google Docs! Since this is a collaborative novel, we had to create an outline first. We planned which scenes and chapters would be told in Sara’s point of view, and which ones belonged to Elizabeth. From there, Saadia and I alternated writing the chapters. We always read each other’s work and shared comments and questions before moving on to the next chapter.
Saadia: It was very interesting to write a book with someone else, that’s for sure! For myself, I can tell you it was a struggle initially to be patient and learn, rather than lead all the time, which are two of my biggest faults. Once I understood that this experience was not only going to be different but also wholly worthwhile to me as a writer, I relaxed a little bit. The process has been great thanks to the internet, and conference calls and so much brainstorming. I remember sometimes even writing together while on the phone with Laura, one person dictating and the other typing. It really made for a wonderful experience!
Friendship and Food
HMC: Cooking is what brings your main characters, Sara and Elizabeth, together—it’s also how they bond. Since the two of you don’t live near each other, did you do any virtual cooking together?
Saadia: We didn’t do any cooking together, only because I’m never a willing cook for anybody! While food is definitely a major part of this story, it’s not a major part of my life. But since we’d chosen Pakistani food as the backdrop of this book, it fell on my shoulders to at least participate in the cooking aspects as much as I could. So I’d find YouTube videos of each dish we wanted Sara and Elizabeth to prepare, and then Laura would cook it on her own to test it out. Often she’d share pictures on social media, and I’d wonder – like Sara – how anyone outside my community could enjoy the dishes of my ancestors. It’s been an eye-opening experience for sure, and I know Laura’s family has enjoyed being introduced to Pakistani food!
HMC: Mrs. Hameed’s cooking class centered on South Asian food is also a part of how you explored some of your themes of bias and racism. Food is such an important part of culture and religion—and sometimes people can be mean about food unfamiliar to them. What do you hope your readers will think about as they read the cooking scenes?
Laura: My hope is that readers will become more adventurous eaters after spending time with our book. I loved learning from South Asian YouTube chefs and trying out their recipes while researching A Place at the Table. As our editor said, food is often our first experience when we learn about a new culture.
Saadia: Which first-generation kid hasn’t been laughed at for bringing their stinky or weird lunch to school? It’s a heartbreaking part of immigrant life, and really the first step into disassociating with your culture in a new environment, especially for kids who just want to fit in. My hope with this book is that readers will learn to appreciate the food of other cultures, and understand that it’s something that can bring people together rather than make them stand out.
HMC: NOTE TO OUR READERS … don’t forget … at the end of this post, we’ve got a treat for you … Elizabeth’s Bubbe’s Sufganiyot recipe. It’s a jelly-filled donut. YUM.
What Sara and Elizabeth Express
HMC: What was the most important thing for your character to express?
Laura: The most important thing Elizabeth expresses in A Place at the Table is speaking up when you know someone is hurting. She learns this from Sara, who makes it clear that being a friend means standing up for each other. Elizabeth is able to take that lesson and apply it to her home life, by advocating for her mother.
Saadia: I wrote this book to showcase my own children’s struggles with being first-generation kids, especially my son’s, who was in middle school when we started writing. So I wanted to express all the hurt and confusion that comes from that, but also give readers some insight into how to move past these challenges and have a positive middle school experience.
HMC: What is the most personally meaningful part of each character’s journey?
Laura: Elizabeth’s story overlaps with my own childhood experience in many ways. Unfortunately, my mother didn’t have a close female friend to share the joys and challenges of being an immigrant with. It was especially meaningful to me to give Elizabeth’s mom a special friend in Mrs. Hameed.
Saadia: Personally, Sara’s journey towards more kindness and understanding of her own culture, and of her parents, is the most meaningful. We see her start out as a person who emotionally shuts herself away so she doesn’t have to deal with the drama at school, but she’s also hurting because there’s such a huge gap between herself and her parents culturally. It’s a common thing for first-generation kids to go through. To have Sara work through these conflicts was very important to me, because I hope my own children can do the same as they grow older.
Coping with Stress
HMC: Elizabeth and Sara are coping with some pretty scary issues for children, including depression and financial worries, not to mention whether their mothers will pass the citizenship test. What do you hope readers will take from the way the girls coped with these stresses?
Laura: Saadia and I were part of a panel at NCTE 2019 focused on first-generation stories. One of the resources we shared was an education article that outlined several specific stressors that children in immigrant families cope with. These included mental health, finances, and loss of culture. Though A Place at the Table is a work of fiction, our aim was to accurately portray the challenges that first-generation kids experience. My hope is that readers, whether they are adults or children, will have a deeper understanding of those challenges and how they affect their students and peers.
HMC: Laura, what about Elizabeth is most like you? And least like you?
I was tall and awkward (and into Doctor Who) as a sixth grader, but Elizabeth is much more brash and outgoing than I am.
((Like reading this interview with Laura Shovan? Click HERE to read another interview — from the Mixed-up Files archives.))
HMC: Saadia, what about Sara is most like you? And least like you?
I was very grumpy and prickly in middle school, just like Sara! But her artistic talents are something I could never emulate.
((Like reading this interview with Saadia Faruqi? Click HERE to read another interview — from the Mixed-Up Files archives.))
HMC: Maddy is a challenging character. Was it difficult/painful to write her voice?
Laura: It was easy to tap into the shifting friendship story, because it’s one I experienced in middle school. The hardest part was showing why Elizabeth remained so attached to Maddy. Her view of Maddy had to change gradually through the book as Elizabeth developed a more mature view of what friendship means.
Saadia: Maddy is, on the surface, every POC child’s nightmare! Someone who is popular and outgoing, but has loud, negative opinions about people who are different. However, we never wanted any of our characters to be cookie cutter ones, so it was important for us to explore Maddy’s motivations and give her some redemption.
HMC: Open Mic Question – what else would you like us to know about Sara and Elizabeth or about A Place at the Table?
Laura: I would like you to know that I actually own Elizabeth’s TARDIS (from Doctor Who) high tops.
Saadia: I’d like you to know that Mrs. Hameed is a lot like me, except the cooking thing!
HMC: I absolutely love that you have those high tops, Laura. Coolest thing ever! And Saadia, I loved Mrs. Hameed’s calm, loving energy so much. Thank you both so much for doing this interview with me, and best of luck to you!
Laura Shovan’s debut middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, won several awards, including NCTE 2017 Notable Verse. Her novel Takedown was selected by Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way, and was on the ALA’s Amelia Bloomer list of feminist books. A Place at the Table, co-written with author/activist Saadia Faruqi, publishes on August 11 (Clarion/HMH). Laura is a longtime poet-in-the-schools in Maryland. She likes to knit, bake bread, and doodle robots.
Saadia Faruqi is a Pakistani American author, essayist and interfaith activist. She writes the children’s early reader series “Yasmin” published by Capstone and other books for children, including middle grade novels “A Place At The Table” (HMH/Clarion 2020) co-written with Laura Shovan, and “A Thousand Questions” (Harper Collins 2020). Saadia is editor-in-chief of Blue Minaret, a magazine for Muslim art, poetry and prose, and was featured in Oprah Magazine in 2017 as a woman making a difference in her community. She resides in Houston, TX with her husband and children.
Launch Events and Finding A PLACE AT THE TABLE
A PLACE AT THE TABLE is available here:
You can also attend these virtual launch events:
- Houston: Brazos Books, 8/8 at 3 pm Central Time
- Baltimore: The Ivy Bookshop, 8/11 at 6:30 pm Eastern Time
Anyone doing curbside pickup at the Ivy will receive some book swag.
Bubbe’s Sufganiyot Recipe
And now … at long last … the piece de resistance … the recipe for Elizabeth’s Bubbe’s Sufganiyot, featuring the artwork of Anoosha Syed.