Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A Place at the Table

Faruqi, Saadia and Shovan, Laura. A Place at the Table   
May 12th 2020 by Clarion Books/HMH
E ARC provided by Netgalley

Sara's mother is running a cooking club at her school, and she is forced to go along. She used to attend Iqra Islamic School with her best friend Rabia, but has recently moved to the public middle school. Elizabeth Shainmark is also attending the class with her friend Maddy, who has been spending more and more time with Stephanie. The students in the class are not very nice to Mrs. Hameed, making comments about the spiciness of the food and pretending they can't understand her accented English, and the home Family and Consumer science teacher Mrs. Kluckowski is openly hostile as well. Elizabeth, whose British born mother is working on her citizenship test, tries to connect with Sara, who is reluctant to engage with anyone in her new school. Elizabeth's mother is depressed after the death of her own mother in England, rarely cooks, and hasn't gone back to work. Things are tough at Sara's house as well; her mother started a catering business from their kitchen, but hasn't made enough money to pay back the loan, which is why Sara has had to move to public school. She is also studying to become a US citizen. As Sara and Elizabeth become closer, they introduce their mothers, hoping that the two will help each other out. Elizabeth is worried that her mother will return to England and never return to the US, but is helped somewhat when her father's mother, Bubbe, comes to visit the family. Elizabeth enjoys her family's Jewish traditions and can understand why Sara is often uncomfortable and scared because of racial prejudice. They both experience friendship troubles. The two work together on a recipe for a school contest and come up with Earl Grey ice cream with halwa bits in it, but run into trouble with Mrs. Kluckowski when making a test batch. Will the girls be able to help their mothers with gaining their citizenship and keeping their families afloat while navigating the unsteady waters of middle school?
Strengths: First of all, all middle grade books should include lots of food and sports! I loved that Elizabeth and Sara were reluctant friends, brought together by circumstances, but eventually warmed to each other and made a difference in each other's lives. I also enjoyed that they both had strong, supportive, intact families who were going through some difficulties. Family difficulties do impact children, and it was interesting to watch the two girls try to help out. Sara's transition to a public school was described in a way that made her bitterness understandable. Maddy's family was responsible for her behavior (her father calls Mrs. Hameed "that Arab woman" and talks about "people like us"), but she eventually rises above it. Stephanie was a character with hidden depths. It is good to see a book where parents are working on becoming citizens; I can't think of any others, and I certainly have a lot of students in this situation.
Weaknesses: It was hard for me to believe that Mrs. Kluckowski could be so mean; it would NOT fly at my school. Also, she should have just been grateful she still had a job as a home ec teacher, no matter who was using "her" classroom! I also had my standard grievance with a parent experiencing loss and neglecting her family as a result; I have decided to blame our culture and its expectations involving death rather than particular books. It's just always hard for me personally to read these depictions.
What I really think: This is a great addition to books with cultural connections by two #ownvoices authors working together, like Weeks and Varadarajan's Save Me a Seat and Rosenberg and Shang's This is Just a Test.

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