All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney; Farrar Straus Giroux, 415 pages ($17.99)
Inspired by her own experience, as a blond-haired, green-eyed Muslim of Circassian descent, Nadine Jolie Courtney has written "a love letter to Islam," a compelling novel of a 16-year-old girl who decides on her own to embrace her Muslim heritage.
During her family's frequent moves around the country, as her father pursues a career as an American history professor, Allie Abraham has been encouraged by her dad not to let people know she's from a Muslim family. With the reddish-blond hair, hazel eyes and pale skin common in people of Circassian descent, Allie has always been able to stay under the radar, to "pass." Her father, who moved to the U.S. at 18 to go to college, goes by Mo rather than Muhammad, is not a religious man and has never encouraged Allie to learn Arabic (which means she can't communicate with many of her relatives including her beloved grandmother). An only child, Allie has always been close to her father but fearing his disapproval, she hides her new interest in her faith, secretly buying a Qu'ran, joining a prayer group and studying Arabic.
The novel begins with an ugly incident on the plane as Allie and her parents are flying from their new home near Atlanta to Dallas for a family reunion for New Year's. A passenger overhears her father's phone call in Arabic with his mother and complains to the flight crew that he might be a terrorist. Allie is all smiles and Southern charm as she deftly handles the situation, but later has nightmares about it. It's not the first time: her awareness that her father is treated differently began when she was 7 years old when a cashier interrogated him in a grocery checkout line.
Courtney offers a fascinating portrait of Allie's baby steps toward rediscovering her faith heritage, a process that, through her new friends, reveals the varieties of the faith experience within Islam, the vigorous debates over tradition and a more critical understanding of the text, arguments for wearing the hijab. This all takes place against the backdrop of her efforts to navigate the social scene at her new school, her growing impatience with her classmates' ignorant comments about Muslims and her romance with kind, smart classmate Wells Henderson, who happens to be the son of an Islamophobic blowhard cable news personality.
Courtney also offers a lively portrait of a sprawling, loving, multiracial family. She dedicates her novel "For those between two worlds, defying easy classification. Your story is valid. You matter."
The striking, spare illustrations by Cree-Metis author-illustrator Julie Flett have a haunting beauty in this eloquent tale of a friendship across generations.
Katherena, her dog and her mother leave their home in the city by the sea and their big extended family to move to a remote house in the country where their only neighbor is an elderly woman named Agnes. Agnes gardens and makes things out of clay and encourages Katherena's love of drawing. Their friendship blooms against a backdrop of the changing seasons and the beauty of the natural world, and as Agnes nears the end of her life and is confined to bed, Katherena finds a beautiful way to express her love and gratitude. Flett's writing is pure poetry ("Agnes has grown weaker over the winter. Still, from her bed, we can hear the spring birds singing their songs. And the tickle of the branches against her window.") Her pastel and pencil illustrations are a wonder.
The "Mean Girls" theme never gets old, at least in middle-school novels, and the author of the best-selling "Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library" and his wife J.J. here offer an entertaining, inspiring romp set at exclusive private school delightfully named Chumley Prep and featuring a deliciously horrible mean girl, Ainsley Ainsworth.
Piper Milly, the kind, smart but unmusical daughter of a music teacher and a cello virtuoso, believes "some people are meant to shine. Others are better off blending in. Me? I'm a blender." Piper loves science and her friends at her public school, and is not too happy when her widowed father is hired as a music teacher at Chumley and informs her she will be attending Chumley. As Piper navigates her new school, a mysterious competition is announced, a contest Piper's nemesis is determined to win. The Grabensteins depict entertaining middle school scenarios, including the science fair, and their message, that everyone can find a way to shine and that kindness matters, is an important one.