Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan are the authors of A Place at the Table, a new middle grade novel for kids. Both of them have written other children's books. Saadia Faruqi lives in Houston, Texas, and Laura Shovan lives in Maryland.
Q: How did the two of you come up with the idea for writing A Place at the Table together, and what was it like to collaborate on this novel?
Laura: The idea started because I wanted to explore the concept of what it means to be an American when your parent is from another country. That’s how I grew up. However, when I was a kid, there were no children’s books that reflected my experience.
The initial idea was about a girl helping her mother pursue U.S. citizenship. But writing about being a first generation American felt like a bigger story than mine alone.
Saadia was the perfect person to collaborate with on A Place at the Table. I admire her work as a writer and activist, and Saadia had shared with me that she became a citizen just a few years ago. It was Saadia’s idea to add the cooking theme to the novel.
Saadia: Collaboration was fun! Don’t take me wrong, it was not easy to write an entire book together, but the challenges we faced were totally worth it. I learned a lot about craft, including revising, which is not my strong suit. I also discovered that the relationship between myself and Laura blossomed at the same time as Sara and Elizabeth’s did. That was definitely the best aspect of this collaboration for me.
Q: What inspired your characters Sara and Elizabeth?
Saadia: Sara’s personality is definitely like mine in middle school: keeping to myself, finding it difficult to make friends, and often coming across as rude because I wasn’t overly friendly. But the challenges Sara faces in the book are mostly taken from my son’s experiences in fifth and sixth grade.
Laura: Elizabeth is loosely based on my experiences growing up. As we worked on the book, though, Elizabeth developed her own personality. She’s much more brash and outgoing than I was at age 11.
Q: The novel alternates between the two girls' perspectives. Did you write the book in the order in which it appears, or did you move things around?
Laura: This is where working from an outline helped our collaboration. Before we began writing, we had to plan out which scenes would be in Sara’s voice and which should be narrated by Elizabeth. Saadia wrote the first chapter and then we wrote in order from scene one to “The End.” A few chapters were moved, changed voices, or got cut in the process, but we stayed fairly close to the outline.
Q: The book's title seems to include the themes of inclusiveness and food. How did you come up with the title, and what do you hope readers take away from the story?
Laura: A Place at the Table is a natural title for our book. For me, it represents friendship, belonging, and being a good ally. If we have a place at the table, it’s often because someone has made space for us to sit and join in the meal or the conversation.
Saadia: I’m an interfaith activist, and the term “a place at the table” has immense significance for me. It means allowing people of different backgrounds, faiths and cultures can all have a space and a platform to be part of the conversation. This book had the same mission for me, hence the tile was very appropriate.
Q: What are you working on now?
Saadia: I’m working on new Yasmin books for 2021, and another middle grade novel, A Thousand Questions, which is set in my birthplace of Pakistan.
Laura: I am working on several poetry collections for children right now. But my big project is a new middle grade novel. It’s a climate fiction story, which is a new genre for me!
Q: Anything else we should know?
Saadia: We’ve created a list of conversation starters that first generation kids (or any kids) can have with the elders in their families to learn more about their heritage. Our publisher also has an educator’s guide to help guide discussion in the classroom.
Laura: I am available for virtual school visits, book club meetings, and online writing workshops for kids and adults. If you’re interested in writing poetry, I run a community poetry project every February. Contact me through my website for more information: laurashovan.com/contact.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Laura Shovan.