May is one of my favorite months, in no small part because it’s my birthday month and my anniversary month, but also because it’s finally, truly, warm outside. At least it is in Tennessee. It’s the perfect month to bring a stack of books and a picnic blanket outside for some outdoor reading, which considering I have a very active 4-year-old, would be wishful thinking on my part. Still, she’s a cuddle bug at night, and we get tons of reading done then.
May’s children’s book releases include books by popular authors like The Fan Brothers and Mac Barnett, as well as books by debut authors. Many of my picture book picks combine a range of diversity with super fun stories — from a wheelchair user putting on a beach play to a child attending her first pride parade with her moms. I had a hard time narrowing down my middle grade picks and ended up with quite a few stellar new fantasy books, including debut middle grades by popular young adult authors Dhonielle Clayton and Xiran Jay Zhao. These middle grade books are just as diverse and engaging as my picture book picks. There’s a book for every kind of reader, including one about a cat astronaut.
May Picture Book Releases
Amy Wu and the Warm Welcome by Kat Zhang & Charlene Chua (May 3; Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
In the third Amy Wu picture book, Amy meets a new student at her school, Lin. At first she’s confused. No matter how nice and welcoming she is to Lin, he won’t speak to her! However, when she sees Lin happily greet his little sister after school and hears him speak Chinese, Amy realizes she needs to find a better way to welcome him. With the help of her grandmother, she throws a dumpling party and invites Lin and his family. For the party, Amy makes a sign welcoming Lin using Chinese characters. However, when she shows the sign to Lin, she feels the same bashfulness around language that he felt with her. Thankfully, friendship transcends their initial awkwardness. This is such a sweet picture book, perfect for back-to-school reading.
Lizzy and the Cloud by The Fan Brothers (May 3; Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
The Fan Brothers always make the most gorgeous and imaginative children’s books, and Lizzy and the Cloud is no exception. When Lizzy goes to the park one day, she buys a pet cloud. Not a fancy one — no elephant or rabbit or parrot cloud for her — but rather a simple, plain cloud. She names the cloud Milo. Milo comes with instructions on how to take care of it: watering it regularly, watching out for rain, and giving it plenty of room to float. As Milo grows and grows, Lizzy faces the biggest challenge in cloud ownership — letting go. This story could be straight out of a child’s imagination. It’s beautifully illustrated in soft pastels, grays, and whites.
And J.J. Slept by Loretta Garbutt & Erika Rodriguez Medina (May 3; Kids Can Press)
And J.J. Slept is a super fun picture book about a mixed-race family welcoming an adopted infant into their already large family. When the social worker brings J.J. to his new family, four siblings and a dog eagerly await his arrival. Anyone with children will sympathize with how loud this household is with five children and a dog. There is constant, nonstop noise, yet J.J. sleeps through it all. Then one day, all the kids have other places they need to be, and for once, the house is quiet. Except for J.J. Without his siblings’ uproar to lull him to sleep, J.J. screams and screams and screams. When the kids finally come back home, J.J. promptly stops crying and goes to sleep. Clearly, he’s found the perfect home. I just love this story so much! The prose is vibrant, the illustrations super cute, and the diverse representation excellent.
The World Belonged to Us by Jacqueline Woodson & Leo Espinosa (May 10; Nancy Paulsen Books)
Jacqueline Woodson’s picture books, like The Day You Begin and The Year We Learned to Fly, are always beautiful in every way. The World Belonged to Us has a different feel than her previous picture books, though the prose is just as rhythmic, and the theme of finding joy is present in all of them. It’s the last day of school in Brooklyn, and as the children stream out of the classroom, their teachers tell them to have a good summer. These kids fully intend to follow their teachers’ instructions. They’re finally free, and as a group, they explore and play and talk and embrace their Brooklyn community and all the joy and camaraderie therein. The vibrant illustrations have a retro vibe, depicting a 1970’s Brooklyn. This is a must-read for the summer.
Ali and the Sea Stars by Ali Stroker & Gillian Reid (May 17; Harper Collins)
Broadway star and wheelchair user Ali Stroker’s picture book debut is so much fun, with themes of resilience, creativity, and the need for community. Stroker uses her background in theater as a backdrop, much like her middle grade debut, The Chance to Fly, which was released last year (and I loved it). In this picture book, a young Ali decides to put on a play at the beach. She casts herself as the lead in Peter Pan, with her family and friends playing the other parts. However, a sudden storm sends her plans awry. Instead of giving up on her play, she decides to take inspiration from the stormy beach. Paired with colorful illustrations, this book shows the kind of disabled joy I crave to see in more picture books.
The Rainbow Parade by Emily Nielson (May 31; Dial Books)
It’s Emily’s first time attending a Rainbow Pride parade with her moms. She loves how colorful and exciting it is, but when it’s time for the family portion of the parade, her moms want to join the parade. This makes Emily nervous. She doesn’t think she’s special enough to be in a parade. With her moms’ encouragement, all three join the parade and celebrate their family. Author and illustrator, Emily Nielson, bases this sweet story on her own childhood attending the San Fransico Pride parades with her moms. It’s such a lovely story, and Nielson’s equally lovely illustrations provide lots of things for kids to point out. This is one my daughter and I will definitely be reading together in June (and beyond).
May Middle Grade Releases
Shine On, Luz Véliz! by Rebecca Balcarcel (May 3; Chronicle Books)
When Luz seriously injures her knee playing soccer, she has to permanently quit playing. This is devastating — not just to her, but also to her coach father, from whom Luz now feels distant. However, after seeing a coding class, she becomes interested in coding. The teacher tells her she can join the coding club as long as she passes the prerequisites and attends a competition in nine weeks. With the help of her tech-whiz neighbor Mr. McClellan, she feels confident she can strengthen her coding skills. But then her father gives her a bombshell: she has a sister, his daughter, in Guatemala whose mother has died and is now coming to live with them, and they will be sharing rooms. Rebecca Balcárcel’s first novel, The Other Half of Happy, won and was nominated for several awards last year. Shine On, Luz Véliz! is just as good and is sure to make many awards lists too. It’s a rich, nuanced novel that combines humor with identity issues and really engages with the middle school mind frame.
Freddie vs. The Family Curse by Tracy Badua (May 3; Clarion Books)
Freddie Ruiz, otherwise known as Faceplant Freddie, is notorious for his bad luck. According to his great grandmother, Apong Rosing, their bad luck derives from a curse during WWII when she lived in the Philippines and her older brother Ramon died in the war. While searching for glue in the garage, Freddie uncovers a magical amulet with the spirit of his great uncle Ramon trapped within. Uncle Ramon tells him that in order to break the curse, Freddie must find the soldier Ramon stole from, Ingo Agustin. He’ll die if he fails to break the curse in 13 days. With the help of his cousin Sharkey, his great grandmother, and more than a little breakdancing (that’s right, breakdancing), Freddie sets out on a quest to end his family’s curse. This fast-paced, immensely engaging middle-grade debut combines humor, adventure, Filipino mythology, and history. It’s an absolute blast to read.
The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton (May 3; Henry Holt and Co. (BYR))
Speaking of must-read fantasy adventures, Dhonielle Clayton’s debut middle grade is utterly magical and perfect for kids who love magical schools. Eleven-year-old Ella is the first conjuror to be invited to the Arcanum Training Institute (ATI). ATI trains Marvellers, people with magical skills, in all sorts of magic from around the world. However, in the past, conjurors have been too distrusted to attend. Her mother would much rather she train closer to their Southern home at a conjuror school, but Ella’s father disagrees and believes attending ATI is an excellent opportunity for Ella. Ella agrees and hopes she can show all Marvellers that people with her skills deserve a spot at ATI. However, when trouble begins brewing and it looks like a Conjuror is at fault, rumors begin buzzing about Ella. Then, Ella’s teacher disappears. With the help of two magical friends, she sets out to find her mentor. I can’t wait to read more books in this series!
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao (May 10; Margaret K. McElderry Books)
I adored Xiran Jay Zhao’s young adult debut Iron Widow, so I had to check this one out when I heard about it, her first middle grade fantasy. The premise is just as inventive as Iron Widow. Zack and his mother fled China years ago when the government killed his father for supporting the Uighur Muslims. Zack thinks he lives a pretty normal life for a Chinese American immigrant until the first emperor of China informs him that Zack is his host in a battle to reseal the underworld. And how does the emperor communicate with Zack, since Zack only speaks English fluently? Through a new headset tech that Zach uses for video games. When Zack’s mother suddenly falls into a coma and the emperor claims evil spirits have stolen her soul, it’s up to Zack to save her and reseal the underworld. Honestly, this blurb barely cracks the surface of this inventive fantasy. Fantasy lovers of all ages will love this one.
The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza by Mac Barnett & Shawn Harris (May 10; Katherine Tegen Books)
This graphic novel is hilarious. Rats are eating the moon, and the most logical hero to send to save humanity is, of course, the rat’s natural enemy — a cat. Fully equipped with a spacesuit, the First Cat in Space rockets toward the moon accompanied by the Moon Queen and a stowaway robot, LOZ 4000, who clips toenails. Can the trio save the moon? And just as importantly, will the cat find some pizza to eat? This middle grade graphic novel is the first in a series. Kids who love silly graphic novels will adore this, and I fully intend to read it with my 4-year-old who loves anything with cats in it. It won’t be the first 300+ page graphic novel featuring a cat we’ve read together. Mac Barnett and Shawn Harris are both well-known figures in children’s publishing, and you can tell they had a lot of fun collaborating on this one.
Small Town Pride by Phil Stamper (May 31; HarperCollins)
13-year-old Jake is proud to be openly gay in his tiny town of Barton Springs, Ohio. In support, his father hangs a giant LGBTQ+ flag in their yard, which unexpectedly divides the town. While Jake has the full support of his family and of his best friend Jenna, Barton Springs’ mayor has a history of repression and bullying, and many in Barton Springs agree with her tactics and complain about the flag. Meanwhile, the mayor’s son, Brett, begins talking to Jake about the flag, but Jake isn’t sure what his agenda could be. When Jake reads about a small town holding a pride festival, he decides to try to have a pride festival in Barton Springs. Is there any hope of bringing pride to Barton Springs? This is a super sweet celebration of queer love and queer pride.