In A Place at the Table by Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan, Sara is nervous to start middle school. She’s used to going to the Muslim school, but this is public school where she will be the minority. Not to mention her mother’s catering business is struggling, and she still hasn’t gotten her citizenship. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is grappling with a newfound distance between her best friend, and with her fear that her mother might move back to England. Both girls find themselves in the same cooking class, though, and after some initial head-butting, find that they have a lot more in common than they thought. They team up to create a recipe for a competition, but wonder if they have what it takes, and if their burgeoning friendship can flourish.
This is such a sweet story! I loved both main characters, as well as their friends and family members. Everyone has a distinct voice and personality, and the conversations feel pretty realistic.
The themes are, while not particularly subtle, important and explored in a lot of depth. There’s a lot going on, but it’s all balanced well with levity. The girls discuss cultural differences, Muslim and Jewish traditions, and how to deal with racist behavior. The authors clearly were knowledgeable about these topics and didn’t talk down to their audience. And I like that both Sara and Elizabeth aren’t perfect allies for each other all the time, but when they make mistakes, they talk about it in a mature way, and both grow as friends.
Some of the scenes that deal with racism aren’t perfect, though. Some of the dialogue feels a little unrealistic, and the outcome of the microaggressions (or not quite so micro) seem rather idealized. I only wish real life could work out the way it does in this book, with everyone who had troubling attitudes learning the errors of their ways without any trouble. Still, I understand that this is meant to be an inspiring story for middle-schoolers, so it’s fine.
My favorite scenes, though—as much as I enjoyed learning about both girls’ cultures—were definitely the cooking scenes. I love the descriptions of the recipes, and the way it’s so clear that food can be such an enriching, unifying force. I really want to try some of the foods, especially the ice cream Sara and Elizabeth make at the end!
In the end, A Place at the Table is a kind, wholesome story featuring two wonderful protagonists. The diversity is excellent and the themes lovely. Everything might be wrapped up in slightly too neat a bow, but it’s not bad to be optimistic and positive. And the lessons are vital, especially for young people. But really, anyone can learn something from this book, and have a good time while doing so. And it’ll probably give you a craving for chai or Earl Grey, too.