At the start of “Proud” (Little Brown, ages 8 to 12) Ibtihaj Muhammad marvels how her life unfolded “because I picked up a sword at the age of thirteen.” For the rest of this engaging book, Muhammad describes how she held on to that sword, her Muslim beliefs and her family support system — all the way to the 2016 Olympics, where she was the first American to compete wearing a hijab. Muhammad’s commitment to the hijab and to Muslim modesty of dress initially led her to fencing and its full-coverage uniform, but it was the sport itself that captivated her. In Rio, Muhammad won bronze in the women’s saber team event. It was a happy if somewhat ironic turn of events considering that she and her teammates didn’t get along very well. Why they didn’t remains a bit of a mystery to Muhammad, who had enjoyed the camaraderie of her high school fencing team in New Jersey and her training center in New York City. Throughout “Proud,” Muhammad writes about both the anti-Muslim hostility she has experienced as well as its antidote — her faith and the warm support of her family. Muhammad’s ability to face down multiple challenges will doubtless be inspiring to young readers.
— Abby McGanney Nolan
“Best Frints at Skrool” (Roaring Brook, ages 4 to 7), by Antionette Portis, is spiced with tongue-in-cheek observations and otherworldly fun, as two friends navigate “skrool” on the planet of Boborp. At skrool, “bloox” get read — or eaten — and “frints” play under the neon yellow sky at recess. The two frints look a bit alike with their big tails (pink Omek’s has spiky scales), antennae (purple Yelfred’s are forked at their ends) and pointy teeth. But when Yelfred befriends Q-B, a grinning red skrool-mate who is mostly a square head, Omek’s antennae droop dejectedly. Sharing “yunch” is easier than sharing frints, it seems. A fine, messy fight clears up the question about friendship and alliances, and it’s clear that there is usually room for one more in a circle of frints. School on Boborp can be a pretty prickly place, yet it is also filled with the tenderness of connection and loyalty. Young Earthlings and their grown-up readers will certainly relate — and get a kick out of this extraterrestrial glimpse into human behavior.
— Kathie Meizner
Kelly Yang explores the dreams and challenges of a Chinese American immigrant family in her warm first novel, “Front Desk” (Scholastic, ages 8 to 12). Mia Tang’s hard-working parents believe their luck has turned when they go from living in their car to become managers of a California motel. Mia hopes to settle into fifth grade and wear clothes purchased at a store rather than Goodwill. But the motel’s unprincipled owner, Mr. Yao, soon bilks Mia’s family, and his son bullies Mia at school. With her parents overwhelmed by the constant cleaning and laundry, Mia takes over the front desk when she isn’t at school. How can her family ever feel free in a country where “everything was so expensive,” she wonders. Mia also observes the impact of poverty and racial prejudice on the motel’s few working-class residents and on fellow immigrants secretly sheltered by her parents. Mia takes a big risk and labors over letters and essays that she hopes will lead to better jobs and lives for those she cares about. The author draws upon her childhood experiences in the early 1990s to create a gritty but ultimately optimistic middle-grade novel that shows how, with kindness and resolve, “strangers from all corners of the world” might “find each other and reemerge as a new family.”