Posts Tagged immigrants

A PLACE AT THE TABLE: FOOD AND FRIENDSHIP

A PLACE AT THE TABLE

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.

A PLACE AT THE TABLE

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):

Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan

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!

Fitting In

 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.

Personal Connections

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. 

Open Mic

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

Author Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan – Author

 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

Author Saadia Faruqi

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:

  1. Bookshop.org
  2. Amazon

You can also attend these virtual launch events:

  1. Houston: Brazos Books, 8/8 at 3 pm Central Time
  2. 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.

Bubbe's Sufganiyot Anoosha Sayed

Finding Home: Immigrants and Refugees in 7 Middle-grade Novels

No one gets into a story and identifies with its characters like middle graders, and since they are the growing tip of the human spirit, I thought I would talk about some books that encourage the kind of understanding of immigrant and refugee experience that seems sorely needed right now.
I’ll begin with Katherine Applegate’s lyrical free-verse novel, Home of the Brave. (Square Fish, 2008) Young Kele has escaped from civil war in the Sudan in which his father and brother were killed. His mother is missing and presumed dead (by everyone but Kele). Kele comes from a traditional cattle-raising village where cattle are valued as the basis of life and wealth. Suddenly he is relocated to another world in Minnesota, to live with an immigrant aunt and her family. He has had little education, and his English is limited to bits he has learned in refugee camps. Nevertheless Applegate has chosen to tell his story in first person, and she deftly unfolds it in spare free verse lines as he begins find language for what is happening to him. He arrives in Minnesota in the middle of winter and experiences cold and snow for the first time:
The man gives me a fat shirt
and soft things like hands.
“Coat,” he says. “Gloves.”. . .
His laughter makes little clouds.

Kele’s aunt works hard for low pay. His cousin has become bitter about their new status in America and mocks Kele for believing he will see his mother again. Kele finds his own way of reconciling his two worlds when he discovers a neglected old cow in a field and begins to care for her, drawing his friend Hannah from school and even his cynical cousin into the project.

Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab-Nye (Greenwillow Reprint 2016) Main character Aref Al-Amri is preparing to move to Michigan, where his parents will study for advanced degrees. He is not a refugee, because they are leaving voluntarily and are well off. Technically this is even not an immigrant story, because his move will only be for a few years, and because by the end of the book he still hasn’t left Oman! It’s about Aref saying a poignant goodbye to the places and people and ways he loves—his good friendships, his cat, rain sticks, fresh apricots and crispy fish and lemonade in clay cups, and most of all the outdoor adventures and rituals and games he enjoys with his beloved grandfather Sidi. Sidi assures Aref that he will return to Oman, like the turtles. I include this story because it fills in a missing piece in the way Americans often perceive immigrants, not considering that they come with a whole culture and life inside them about which most of the people in their new country have little knowledge or curiosity, that they have a language in which they are perfectly fluent, and that they still feel attachment to the place where they have always felt perfectly at home.

Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender (Yearling, 2010) is a novel in two voices.  One is Tyler, a Vermont boy who shares his family’s deep love for the land they have farmed for generations. Now that his beloved grandfather has died, his brother is leaving, and his father has been partially disabled in a truck accident, there are not enough hands to do the work, and his parents are talking about selling. Tyler feels helpless. Then miraculously his parents hire a family of Mexican laborers who come to live on the farm with their three young daughters. They are good workers and the farm is saved, but Tyler’s parents are being awfully secretive about them, and he wonders why.
The other voice is of Mari, the oldest girl in the laborers’ family. Her two younger sisters were born in this country and so are citizens, but Mari and her parents crossed the border illegally, and they must all be careful not to draw attention to themselves. Worst of all, her mother went back to Mexico when her grandmother was ill, then tried to come back but has not been heard from for months. Mari writes diary entries and long letters to her mother which she can’t risk sending even to the last known address. Mari and Tyler become friends when he shares his telescope with her, and their families grow closer too. But Mari worries constantly about her mother’s safety and the possibility of a raid, and Tyler is increasingly torn and confused by the growing realization that his parents have broken the law by hiring illegals, even though they could not have managed the farm without them.   When the worst happens, though, and family members are treated harshly by the authorities, even some of the town’s hardliners on illegal immigration band together to protect and defend this family they have come to know. Mari’s selfless act, supported by Tyler, who must make a courageous decision of his own, brings the story to a realistic but hopeful end.

Save Me A Seat by Sarah Weeks (Scholastic, 2016) “Save me A Seat!” The the most friendly, affirming words a middle-schooler can hear. As long as you have someone to sit with at assembly or in the cafeteria, you belong, you’re okay. Ravi, one of the two voices in this novel , has just arrived from India. He is fluent in English and was a star student back home, so he and his parents expect that he will excel in his new school and probably find the work too easy. He soon discovers that his favorite subject, math, is taught differently in America, and he is humiliated when his teacher sends him out for special second-language help because no one can understand his Indian accent! They can’t pronounce his long last name or even get his first name right (it’s RaVEE, not RAH vee). Ravi is also slow to realize that Dillon Samreen, a super-cool Indian-American boy in the class, not only is not going to be saving him a seat in the cafeteria, but is determined to mock and steal from and play tricks on him.
The other voice is Joe, who is also being taken out of class for extra help, but for  learning problems. Ravi is furious to be treated like a baby and associated with Joe, and he treats Joe rudely. In the course of the story, however, the two boys realize the Dillon is their common enemy, and they work together to beat the bully at his own game. (They ultimately contrive to get Dillon to put leeches in his own underwear –you’ll have to read the book to see how that comes about about!). Gradually Ravi admits to himself that in his old school in India he was insufferably superior and mean to those he thought weren’t as smart, and that he has been unfair in prejudging Joe who is not only not dumb but a good and loyal friend.

It Ain’t So Awful Felafel by Firoozeh Dumas (Clarion, 2016) will give readers some good background on the Iranian hostage crisis and the involvement of the U.S. government with the Shah. It’s the 1970s, and Zomorod Yousefzadeh (or “Cindy” as she has renamed herself to fit in at school) has been moving back and forth between Iran and California because of her father’s work in the oil industry. The latest move is to Newport Beach, and it’s not going well. At first she meets a neighbor girl, also named Cindy, and tries hard to like and be like her so they can be friends. But they have little in common, and Cindy#2 eventually snubs her and gossips about her. Zomorod/Cindy’s mother isn’t adjusting well either, so she has the added burden of being mom’s translator and social director.

So far these are not untypical young immigrant’s challenges. But then the Shah is overthrown in Iran and the conservative Muslim government of the Ayatollah Khoumeni takes over the country. The family is stunned and confused by Iran’s new policies, especially the persecution of former Shah supporters and the restrictions on women’s dress and activities. It gets worse. Iran takes Americans hostage and the crisis goes on for months (“This is not Islam!” her father cries). Suddenly the family are targets of anti-Iranian sentiment. They receive threats at home and taunts at school. Her father loses his job and can’t find another. Fortunately for Cindy, she has one good friend, Carolyn, who is extraordinarily open minded, accepting of and curious about their cultural differences, and stands by her when she faces ugliness in town and at school. Readers will pull for the lively and determined main character and enjoy her wry observations on the contrast between Iranian and American culture.

Gaby, Lost and Found by Angela Cervantes (Scholastic, 2015) Gaby misses her mother, an undocumented immigrant who was caught in a raid at her job and deported to Honduras. Gaby hoped to move in with her friend Alma’s family while her mother struggles to return, but her estranged father insists on moving in instead. He is a clueless and indifferent  parent and mostly neglects her, leaving her to feed and fend for herself with Alma’s house as respite. Like her mom, Gaby has a feeling for animals, especially strays, and when her class volunteers at the local animal shelter, she becomes attached to a scrawny, abandoned cat named Feather she would like to adopt. But her father hates cats and she has no place to keep Feather. Gaby’s job at the shelter is to write enticing flyers about individual animals to encourage people to adopt them. But she hopes the shelter can hold onto Feather until her mother somehow comes back and they can all have a real home together, as it should be. Meanwhile the owners who abandoned Feather are now threatening to reclaim her. Gaby takes desperate action.

My last selection, Warren St. John’s Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team That Changed a Town (Delacourte Press, 2012) is a true story, not a novel, though it reads like one. The original was an adult title, but the author has adapted it for young people. The heroine is the unlikely coach of a most unlikely suburban Georgia soccer club. Luma al-Mufleh grew up in a close, wealthy family in Amman, Jordan and went to the American School there, along with the children of King Hussein and Queen Noor. She loved competitive sports and her very demanding school soccer coach, but she was not allowed to play sports outside of school because she was a girl. Her parents sent her to college in the U.S., and when she graduated she decided to stay rather than go back to lead the restricted life of a woman in Jordan. Her father promptly disowned her and cut off her communication with her family. Luma struggled to support herself and eventually moved to Atlanta where she thought she would at least have better weather and lower expenses.
Out for a drive one day, she passed through the nearby town of Clarkston and was astonished to see people out on the streets in African and middle eastern dress and to find shops and stalls carrying the kinds of foods she was used to eating back in Jordan. On one of her many return trips, she saw some boys playing soccer in an apartment house parking lot and was struck by the passion with which they played. As she soon discovered, these were refugee kids from many different countries and conflicts—Ehthiopia, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria, Vietnam, the Philippines– and in some cases their only common language was soccer. She was determined to make something of this.
It took a while for her to convince African and Muslim boys that she knew a thing or two about the game and to get them to accept her leadership and her tough-love discipline (boys being coached by a girl?), but once the word got around, she was able to form a club called the Fugees with three teams for different age groups. It was even harder to get the town to help. Before it found itself becoming “the most diverse square mile in America,” Clarkston was a sleepy small railroad and farming town that had seen better days but was known for its hospitality. Now many residents had moved away seeking better opportunities, and many of those who remained were keeping to themselves, trying to ignore what was happening across the tracks where the refugees lived. Town officials were not interested in helping Luma with her efforts, either with funds or facilities, and while the Fugees played in rocky dirt parks, some ideal playing fields, originally designed for baseball or football, remained off-limits to the more “foreign” sport of soccer.
Yet Luma and her boys persisted. In her enormous task of forging a real team, she had to discourage “stars” and break down national sub-cliques by making English the only language spoken on the field. She arranged for and required afternoon tutoring for the boys so they could overcome their second-language problems and stay in school.
Outcasts United centers on one championship year, during which the Fugees played against mostly well-equipped private school soccer clubs from around the state. Despite many obstacles, including Luma getting arrested in front of the team and being sent to jail for a burnt-out signal light on her car, they prevailed.

I wish that anyone who has automatic thoughts on  what should or shouldn’t be done about immigrants and refugees could read this book. The portraits of these young Fugees and the detailed background of the crises their families have fled will help readers understand their challenges and their reactions upon coming to America. They would sympathize not only with Luma and the refugees, but with the townspeople they now live among, who are also dealing with the loss of a way of life they always thought they could count on, also trying to define home.


What makes the difference in so many immigrant stories is having a friend, that one person or small group who cares enough to get to know and accept the newcomer and help him or her face the indifference or intolerance of others. Maybe the readers of these and other books like them will see themselves as such a friend.

Sue Cowing is the author of the puppet-and-boy novel you Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012)