Is anything unimportant in sixth grade? This is a story about preteens on the verge of everything that is to come, from varied backgrounds and with complicated life situations, who interact with one another while trying to figure out who they are, who their friends are, and what’s important in life.
The well-defined characters are mostly sixth-grade girls, but fathers, brothers, and adolescent male friends round out the mix. The girls are very involved in establishing their own identities. One student, Sara Hameed, a new immigrant and a Pakistani Muslim, is challenged both by her otherness and having just transferred from the small private Islamic Iqra Academy to Poplar Springs Middle School, a larger and more diverse public school. Lonely but proud, her sense of isolation is heightened by having to sit in on the South Asian cooking class her hijab-wearing mother is teaching at the school. The salary from this class augments Mrs. Hameed’s not-as-yet profitable catering business. The financially-challenged Hameed family struggles to find its place in the United States, while Sara grapples with loving and admiring her family but wishing that everything was easier. She longs to return to her former school and reconnect with friends there.
Other main characters also deal with less than ideal family situations. Elizabeth, who is Jewish, lives with her depressed British mother, her frequently absent, workaholic father, and the unrealistic but painful fear that her mother will desert the family to return to England. Both Mrs. Hameed and Elizabeth’s mother, Mrs. Shainmark, the only non U.S. citizens in their respective families, have been, for various reasons, avoiding taking the exam for U.S. citizenship.
Elizabeth and Sara become unlikely buddies whose friendship is highlighted by food. Mrs. Hameed’s cooking class is so woven into the story that the smells of curry, turmeric and other exotic spices become strongly associated with many of the events that occur as the story unfolds.
Suspicion, racism, and conflict abound as people learn, in most cases, to look beyond skin color and religion to form friendships based on the aspects of life which unite them. The prejudices are evenly shared, although Sara, perhaps as a result of her stressful life, carries more anger and bitterness, imagining the worst of her fellow students even when no ill-will seems intended. Examples of less than benign intentions are also evident among the students, some of which clearly filter down from the attitudes of their parents.
The characters become more nuanced as the complex but not overwhelming plot plays out. Words in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, spice up the story. One yearns for the tantalizing recipes being taught in Mrs. Hameed’s class and one can almost smell the scent of lavender that Elizabeth associates with her recently deceased English grandmother. The reader is advised not to read this book when hungry!
Award-winning journalist and freelance writer, Helen Weiss Pincus, has taught memoir writing and creative writing throughout the NY Metro area to senior citizens and high school students. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Record, The Jewish Standard, and other publications. She recently added “Bubby” to her job description.