Posts Tagged Laura Shovan

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

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Sarah Scheerger on debut OPERATION FROG EFFECT

I just read an absolutely delightful debut called OPERATION FROG EFFECT (Random House), by author Sarah Scheerger. It’s funny, sometimes sad, has a wonderfully diverse cast of characters, and even includes a graphic novel element.  The multi-POV novel traces one transformative year in the life of teacher Ms. Graham’s fifth-grade students. Because of her innovative teaching style, students learn to rely on their own ingenuity, deepen their empathy for each other, and fight for what they believe in. Their story is told through their journal entries and drawings.

As I often do, I drafted my middle-grade son to read with me, and he loved it too, so when I got the chance to interview Sarah, I included some of the questions he had for her as well.

Interview with Sarah Scheerger

The Origins of OPERATION FROG EFFECT

MUF: What inspired you to write this book?

My fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Nubling, was innovative. He took risks, he made us think, and he understood when we made mistakes. He had a “growth mindset” before that was such a popular concept. He actually had us build our own model rockets in class and shoot them off on the school fields. (This probably wouldn’t happen today, but this was the eighties.) Mr. Nubling only had four fingers on one hand. One year (not my year), a student accidentally shot off his rocket while Mr. Nubling was still securing it in place. And despite losing a digit, Mr. Nubling continued to shoot off rockets every year with his fourth graders.

When I thought of writing a middle-grade novel, my upper elementary years jumped out at me as the most memorable. My character Emily has the voice most similar to my own fifth-grade voice. I connected with her need to belong and her confusion as her friend group shifts. All the characters in this story are fictional, of course.

MUF: Why did you decide to use a multi-POV approach?

I love the way multiple points of view provide the opportunity for misunderstandings, for unreliable narrators, and for a quick moving pace. I love the use of the graphic novel component (Blake’s voice) for multiple reasons. I see how my own children gravitate toward reading graphic novels, and I wanted a way to incorporate some of that element in this story. I thought perhaps the graphic novel component might widen the potential readership. Plus. . . I love how illustrations can convey emotions. Also, I wanted to create a character who has his own unique learning style. Blake is a student who struggles with writing but loves to draw.

Teaching Tolerance

MUF: I was fascinated by the Whistler/Non-Whistler project. Is that a real teaching model?

My fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Nubling, did this experiment with our class. To be honest, my memory is fuzzy, so I’m not sure whether he did an eye color experiment or based it on gender. I only remember my feelings of injustice! I was confused and upset… and that experiment has stuck with me ever since.

When writing this book, I researched the eye color experiment. It originated with a teacher, Jane Elliot. She talked about it on “Oprah” back in the nineties. Here’s a clip. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/02/jane-elliott-race-experiment-oprah-show_n_6396980.html

In my first version of Operation Frog Effect, I considered doing the actual “eye color experiment”. But after much thought, my editor and I decided the point would be most poignant if I selected something entirely random, like the ability to whistle. (By the way, I cannot whistle myself.)

About that Frog…

MUF: Frogs are an important symbol in many cultures – often indicating a need for transformation or cleansing, for a new perspective on life. I can’t help but wonder whether this symbolism tied into your choice of the frog as a class pet? Ms. Graham’s class had an incredibly transformative year!

You’re totally right. This was a transformative year for Ms. Graham’s class.
Sweet Kermit was an addition during my first round of edits. My editor and I were brainstorming titles and ideas for metaphors and themes. We decided that a class pet frog could bring out Blake’s nurturing/caring side, had the potential for fun complications (oops—frog on the loose!) as well as created fun cover art. (My heart melts for the frog on the cover of the book.)

The frog symbolism was important too. You’re right that frogs are an important symbol for many cultures, and my editor and I also loved the concept of making ripples. Frogs make ripples in the water, and my characters made ripples in the world. (I love the ripples on the cover too!)

Writing the Book

MUF: What is your favorite part?

I love Blake’s sections. Gina Perry did a fabulous job. I’m hopeful that his sections will reach kids in a different way than the traditional text. Interestingly, I rewrote all of Blake’s sections for the audiobook. It was a group effort—I worked together with the producer to transform the illustrations back into inner dialogue… what Blake would have been thinking as he was sketching. (This was so fun—the producer and I met for coffee and worked together!)

And the counselor in me loves the little tidbits of social-emotional learning that Ms. Graham shares with her class.

MUF: What was the hardest part of the book to write?

Oh, great question! I did find it challenging to keep track of threads and details across characters. I kept lists and charts. I wanted to give each character equal playing time, make sure they each had their own arc, their own strengths, and their own weaknesses. I wanted to be sure the voices were different enough to be distinct. I also took extra care with the representation of my diverse characters. I had seventeen different authenticity readers! Each reader shared different insights, from his/her own perspective. It was really important to both me and my editor that we take extra steps to be sure we represented each character authentically.

(Cool fact: the audiobook is narrated by nine different diverse voices. This was really important to me, and I’m so thrilled with the end result.)

MUF: How many times did you have to rewrite?

Too many to count! Let’s just say that I started this book when my daughter was born. And now
she’s four and a half!
I do love revisions, though. Once I have the skeleton of the book written, I enjoy going back and fine-tuning.

Writing Multiple POV

MUF: Multi-POV books can be a real challenge in revisions – how did you approach that challenge?

This was definitely a challenge! There were so many layers of revisions with this book. I managed this in a variety of ways, but mostly I followed these steps:
• I went through and revised threads/overall plot
• then went back through one voice at a time, looking carefully at how this specific change impacted each specific character (for example, all of Kayley’s entries, then all of Cecilia’s, etc.)
• And then… I went back through the whole manuscript from beginning to end.

These multi-layered revisions occurred many times throughout the revision process. One change in a single plot point impacted each character in his/her own unique ways. Each time I went through I found more details to change.

MUF: My son and I both had the same comps in mind as we read – BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT by Rob Buyea, and THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY by Laura Shovan. Did either of those influence your writing or your choice to do multi-POV?

Perhaps on some level, the book Wonder impacted my choice to do Multi-POV. I have a huge author crush on that book. R.J. Palacio reached so many kids, and I’ve enjoyed watching how teachers have incorporated Wonder into their curriculum. Since I’m a school-based counselor, I love it when teachers find creative ways to incorporate social-emotional learning and empathy-building into their curriculum.

I think Because of Mr. Terupt and The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary are great comps too. In fact, you’ll find all these books (as well as tips about classroom activities) in the School Stories Educator’s Guide at the following link: https://images.randomhouse.com/promo_image/9780525644125_5528.pdf

Thank you for reading Operation Frog Effect! Here’s a link to the audiobook clip: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/575577/operation-frog-effect-by-sarah-scheerger/9780525644125/

OPERATION FROG EFFECT, published by Random House, will be on shelves TOMORROW, February 26, 2019.

Sporty Girls! Interview with J.H. Diehl and Laura Shovan

We are thrilled to have on the Mixed Up Files today two authors with new middle grade books featuring awesome girls in sports! Welcome to J.H. Diehl, whose TINY INFINITIES came out on May 8th, and Laura Shovan, whose TAKEDOWN releases on June 19th.

TINY INFINITIES: When Alice’s dad moves out, leaving her with her troubled mother, she does the only thing that feels right: she retreats to her family’s old Renaissance tent in the backyard, determined to live there until her dad comes home. In an attempt to keep at least one part of her summer from changing, Alice focuses on her quest to swim freestyle fast enough to get on her swim team’s record board. But summers contain multitudes, and soon Alice meets an odd new friend, Harriet, whose obsession with the school’s science fair is equal only to her conviction that Alice’s best stroke is backstroke, not freestyle. Most unexpected of all is an unusual babysitting charge, Piper, who is mute—until Alice hears her speak. A funny and honest middle-grade novel, this sharply observed depiction of family, friendship, and Alice’s determination to prove herself—as a babysitter, as a friend, as a daughter, as a person—rings loud and true.

TAKEDOWN: Mikayla is a wrestler; when you grow up in a house full of brothers who are die-hard mat heads, it’s in your DNA. She even has a wrestling name: Mickey. Some people don’t want a girl on the team. But that won’t stop her. She’s determined to work hard, and win.

Lev is determined too–he’s going to make it to the state championship. He’s used to training with his two buddies as the Fearsome Threesome. But at the beginning of sixth grade, he’s paired with a new partner—a girl. This better not get in the way of his goal.

Mickey and Lev work hard together, and find a way to become friends. But at States, there can only be one winner.

This warmhearted, engaging novel by the author of the highly praised The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary explores competition among athletes, how it influences family and friendships, and what happens when one girl wants to break barriers in a sport dominated by boys.

TINY INFINITIES centers on a swimmer and TAKEDOWN features wrestlers. What inspired you to write about these sports? What was hard and what was fun about doing a deep dive into them?

Laura: I’m a recovering wrestling mom. My son wrestled for many years. During his practices and tournaments, I would sit in the bleachers and write in my notebook – little poems and sketches about what I observed on and off the mat. When my son moved on from the sport, I wasn’t ready to leave it behind. I still wanted to understand what it means to compete one-on-one, with no equipment other than your body, your brain, and your training. I needed to think through youth sports, and how competing at a high level affects not only the young athlete, but their entire family.

The hard part? By the time I was ready to write TAKEDOWN, it had been several years since my son hung up his wrestling boots. I had to relearn the sport and that was definitely a deep dive. I interviewed coaches, athletes, and wrestling parents, went to competitions, and watched hours of documentaries and tournaments on YouTube. The interviews were my favorite part. I love hearing people’s stories as I research a book. I made some good friends in the process.

Jean: In TINY INFINITIES, I wanted thirteen-year-old Alice to have an activity and a place to go outside her family. And I wanted her to have a goal she was seriously passionate about besides her goal to reunite her family. It needed to be a summer activity, because fireflies also play a key role in the story, and the season for fireflies in summer. For me, the book is partly about how a sport like swimming can help a kid through tough times.

Like Laura, I’m the mom of two kids who participated in the sport I wrote about. My son and daughter swam for a community pool summer team for more than a decade. I married into a swimming family, and in fact I’m the only person in two generations who did not grow up swimming competitively. We have age group, high school and college swimmers, water polo players, and one of my sisters-in-law trained to swim with the Argentine Olympic team. So I guess you could say TINY INFINITIES is my contribution to a family tradition.

The hard part, for me, was that Alice turns into a backstroker, and I don’t swim backstroke. Fortunately, I had plenty of family members to consult. I did lots of research, too, including – like Laura – reviewing YouTube videos, especially to watch backstroke races and tutorials in backstroke ‘starts’ and ‘turns’. The fun part was writing about what it’s like to participate in summer swim meets. I also loved getting to write in detail about something I’d never accomplished myself, that is, winning a backstroke race. And (minor spoiler alert) I loved writing about what it felt like for Alice to achieve her goal in the sport.

There seems to be so much pressure on girls these days to be “Instagram-ready,” and many aspire to a particular kind of stereotypical beauty and glamour. You’re showcasing a different type of girl. Did you think about the stereotypes that are imposed on girls and how to respond to that in your book?

Laura: One of my main characters, Mickey, is the first girl on an all-boy wrestling team. As a female athlete competing in a traditionally male, contact sport, Mickey has to confront deeply held beliefs about whether girls have the physicality, ability, and emotional strength to step on the mat and face a boy. It was important to me to give Mickey some female friends to talk this through with (her two older brothers – both wrestlers – help too). The character of Kenna, Mickey’s best friend and wrestling partner, is more aware than Mickey that middle school girls are expected to conform to feminine stereotypes. Her decision to walk away from the sport is devastating for Mickey.

I also wanted to look at societal beliefs about male athletes. The other main character in TAKEDOWN, Lev, sees wrestling as an important part of his identity. But when the coach assigns him to be Mickey’s training partner, Lev starts to question stereotypes too, especially around boys and toughness.

Jean: In my book, Alice’s new best friend, Harriet, is entirely engaged by her interests in math and science. Harriet enjoys reciting the first three hundred digits of pi and is laser-focused on creating a winning project for next year’s school science fair. She’s humble about being super-advanced in math, has an eclectic curiosity for the science of the world around her, and eventually leads an experiment to recreate firefly bioluminescence in a makeshift lab. Harriet is not entirely oblivious to feminine stereotypes around her, but she doesn’t allow them to define her – she has no time for them. I wanted to contrast Harriet with Alice, who has grown away from a group of friends more influenced by conventional stereotypes. I think Harriet gives Alice some sense of freedom to just be herself.

Friendship is an important part of both books, as well, and is such an important part of kids’ lives in the middle grade years. What was your goal in featuring these friendships?

Laura: My goal was to reflect the experience of moving out of the elementary school bubble and into junior high, a transition which can strain friendships. There are new kids to meet, new academic pressures, and a busier schedule as students travel between classes. Suddenly, the friends kids spent most of their elementary school day with are pulled in different directions. Both Mickey and Lev put so much time into their training and competition schedule, it’s easy for their non-wrestling friends to feel neglected. I wanted to show how my main characters struggle to form a good partnership with each other, even as they each fight to keep old friendships intact.

Jean: In my book, Alice makes three unlikely new friends. The first is Piper, a four-year-old girl who has lost the ability to speak and to hear language; the second Owen, Piper’s half-brother, an aspiring sushi chef who’s spending his summer being bounced around among relatives; the third is Harriet, who is new to the swim team and also thirteen. Unlike Alice, who has a talent for connecting to people, Harriet’s social skills are kind of like a stereo tuner with its treble and bass out of balance. Over the course of Alice’s life-changing summer, she influences her new friends in a profound way, and is influenced by them. My goal was to characterize how the good friendships we make – sometime the most unlikely friendships we make – can help us to grow up.

Thank you, Laura and Jean, for sharing your wonderful stories with us!

Kate Hillyer was a high school soccer player, including one ill-fated game against Mia Hamm. She runs, writes, and raises her three kids in Washington, D.C. You can find her online at katehillyer.com, and on Twitter as @SuperKate. She also blogs at The Winged Pen

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