Here are two and a half reviews of books for middle grade readers that combine cooking (or eating together) with making friends and the immigrant experience. What could be yummier?
Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu.
Harper Alley, 2020.
Read from my daughter’s library-sponsored Comic Book Club copy.
12-year-old Cici has just arrived in Seattle from Taiwan, heartbroken that they had to leave her beloved grandmother, Am-ma, behind. Cici enjoyed cooking with Am-ma, and now takes over the family cooking as her parents are both working. She’s also making her first friends, and while Jenna seems very nice, Cici is self-conscious about her own home and her own parents don’t understand the importance of American friendship rituals like sleepovers. When Cici discovers a cooking contest that would earn her enough money to bring Am-ma over to visit, she decides to enter. At first, she’s partnered with Miranda, the daughter of a chef, who isn’t impressed with her skills being only in Taiwanese food. Meanwhile, she has to keep the contest secret from her parents, who would be angry at her not putting all her energy into school. Cici starts reading and cooking her way through The Art of French Cooking, trying to find a way to impress the contest judges while still staying true to her Taiwanese roots.
The thin, slightly angular line work has a nice juvenile feeling, a distinct departure from the polished lines of the popular Telgemeier-style artwork. It felt expressive and immediate, as if Cici were drawing her own story. The mix of the new immigrant experience with the excitement of a cooking contest and the everyday struggles of middle school friendship make for a winning combination.
A Place at the Table
by Saadia Faruqi & Laura Shovan.
Read from library copy.
Sara has just started middle school at the local public school, instead of the private Muslim school she’d gone to all her life. She’d like to stay invisible, but this is impossible when her mother – with her accent, wearing her hijab – is teaching a Pakistani cooking class at her own school and Sara has to wait with her. Even though she knows everything being taught, sshe’d rather just sit in the corner and draw. Sara is really not interested in making new friends, but video chats with her bestie just aren’t the same as being together in person (we can all relate to this now!)
Elizabeth was looking forward to middle school with her best friend Maddy, but Maddy seems to be changing into someone she doesn’t recognize. Elizabeth’s mother has been depressed ever since her own mother died back in England earlier in the year, and her father is almost always traveling for work, meaning also that they’re not making it to Shabbat services at their temple as often as Elizabeth would like. But Elizabeth loves cooking, especially the Pakistani cooking videos she watches on YouTube.
It’s not until they’re forced to start cooking together that they realize that they are both stressed because their mothers aren’t US citizens and won’t take time to study for the test. Maybe this could be the solution? As we read their stories, narrated separately, we also see that both girls are old enough to start noticing their parents’ problems, but are frustrated by parents who tell them that they’re taking care of things. Both girls, too, find comfort in their different religious communities, and have to decide what to do about racist comments directed mostly towards Sara’s mother. There are a lot of issues, but they are presented in a way that feels real rather than like a laundry list, and the problems are offset by the fun of cooking and of inventing a new recipe for the cooking contest, as well as the genuine joy of new friendship and some fun sibling hijinks.
When I first heard about this book, I thought it would make a great pairing with Save me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan, which I had been meaning to read for a few years. I’ve now read both – I still think they feel similar, and yet quite different. Save Me a Seat is a much shorter and tighter book. It focuses much more on the two boys’ situation at school and their personal issues, and takes place over the course of a single week. I really enjoyed them both, but Save Me a Seat could work better in a classroom setting because of those factors. There is definitely room for both on the shelf – and even more stories of cross-cultural school friendships.