When you think of reading nonfiction in childhood, what is your first reaction? Do you imagine a dry, straightforward slog through information? If so, you might be one of many adults who assume that kids are not interested in reading informational books, even if you enjoy reading nonfiction titles yourself.
Children’s book author Melissa Stewart wants to counter this misconception by championing nonfiction books for children and young adults. Stewart frequently talks about the remarkable quality and variety of contemporary informational books published for young readers. She has outlined five distinct types of children’s nonfiction books: browsable, active, traditional, expository, and narrative. Contemporary children’s nonfiction authors can take many different approaches to making information engaging, such as using a guessing game format, displaying vibrant images to illustrate the concepts, or framing a story as a high-stakes competition, just to name a few! Recent research also indicates that young readers enjoy nonfiction books just as much or more than fiction books. To learn more about Melissa Stewart, the five types of nonfiction books, and research on children’s reading preferences, check out the resources linked at the end of this post. Give a book on this list to a young reader and see what they learn (and how much fun they have along the way)!
Illustrated by: Sam Brewster
Whose Bones? An Animal Guessing Game. 2020 (Board Book).
Set up as a guessing game with visual and narrative clues, this book invites the youngest readers to examine six animal skeletons and deduce to whom they belong. After introducing readers to the concepts of bones with illustrations of T-Rex and human skeletons, each subsequent page turn reveals a stark black-and-white image of a new animal skeleton and asks, “Who am I?” The answers are provided in vibrant, foldout reveals, each accompanied by read-aloud text that highlights the ways each animal’s bones and bodies are special. Don’t miss this creative team’s other book about skeletons for slightly older readers, called Book of Bones: 10 Record-Breaking Animals.
Barone, Rebecca E. F.
Race to the Bottom of the Earth: Surviving Antarctica. 2021 (Middle Grade Nonfiction).
This gripping narrative nonfiction book chronicles two sets of groundbreaking expeditions to the South Pole that occurred more than one hundred years apart. In 1910, Captain Robert Scott prepared his crew for a trip that no one had ever completed: a journey to the South Pole. He pledged to get there any way he could, even if it meant looking death in the eye. Shortly before he ventured south, another intrepid explorer, Roald Amundsen, set his sights on the same goal. Suddenly two teams were competing to be the first to make history, and what was to be an historic expedition had become a perilous race. In 2018, Captain Louis Rudd readied himself for a similarly grueling task: the first unaided, unsupported solo crossing of the Antarctic continent. But little did he know that athlete Colin O’Brady was training for the same trek, and he was determined to beat Louis to the finish line. This story is perfect for young readers who are fans of grand adventure tales or learning about historic human accomplishments. The book also includes plenty of black-and-white photos that highlight the stunning Antarctic landscape.
Brew-Hammond, Nana Ekua
Illustrated by: Daniel Minter
Blue: A History of the Color as Deep as the Sea and as Wide as the Sky. 2022 (Picture Book).
Discover a world of creativity in this fascinating picture book that showcases the history and cultural significance of the color blue. For centuries, blue powders and dyes were some of the most sought-after materials in the world. Ancient Afghan painters ground mass quantities of sapphire rocks to use for their paints, while snails were harvested in Eurasia for the tiny amounts of blue that their bodies would release. And then there was indigo, which was so valuable that American plantations grew it as a cash crop using the labor of enslaved Africans. It wasn’t until 1905, when Adolf von Baeyer created a chemical blue dye, that blue could be used for anything and everything: most notably in the popular form of blue denim. Brew-Hammond also explores the emotions associated with the color, like feeling blue (sad) or out-of-the-blue (unexpected). With stunning illustrations by Caldecott Honor artist Daniel Minter, this vibrant and intriguing picture book follows one color’s journey through time and across the world.
Q. S.535.6 B7582bl
Illustrated by: Rachelle Baker
Other contributors: Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds.
Stamped (for Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You. 2021 (Middle Grade Nonfiction).
RACE. Uh-oh. The R-word. But talking about race is one of the most important things to learn how to do. This chapter book adapts Jason Reynold’s young adult remix of Ibram Kendi’s foundational book on the history of racism, Stamped from the Beginning, to be accessible for upper elementary and middle grade readers. Kids will discover where racist ideas came from, identify how they impact America today, and meet those who have fought racism with antiracism. Along the way, kids will learn how to notice and stamp out racist thoughts in their own lives. Educator Cherry-Paul uses short, chronological chapters that each focus on a singular concept to keep readers engaged. The book further structures the reading experience with visuals and “Let’s Pause” moments to help kids retain key ideas and reflect on their own understandings. Unlike the preceding titles, this book includes information about important recent events during the years of 2016-2020, including the widespread Black Lives Matter movement.
Illustrated by: Eric Rohmann
Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera. 2020 (Picture Book).
Get up close and personal with Apis, one honeybee, as she embarks on her journey through life, complemented by richly detailed oil-on-paper illustrations. Beginning at birth, the honeybee emerges through the wax cap of her cell and seeks to protect and care for her hive. She cleans the nursery and feeds the larvae and the queen. But is she strong enough to fly? Not yet! She builds wax comb to store honey, and transfers pollen from other bees into the storage. The text builds suspense as readers turn page after page waiting to see if the honeybee is yet ready to fly. Apis accomplishes many tasks before beginning her life outdoors as an adventurer, seeking nectar to bring back to her hive. Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann describe the life cycle of the hard-working honeybee in this poetically written, thoroughly researched picture book, complete with an essay on environmental threats to honeybees.
Q. S.595.799 F6292ho
Animals by the Numbers: A Book of Infographics. 2016 (Picture Book).
How many species exist in the world? How much do all the insects around the globe collectively weigh? How far can animals travel? Steve Jenkins answers these questions and many more with numbers, images, innovation, and authoritative science in this visually stunning work of browsable nonfiction. Jenkins layers his signature cut-paper illustrations alongside infographics and a text that is teeming with fresh and unexpected zoological facts ready for readers to easily devour. The level of scientific research paired with Jenkins’ creativity and accessible information is unmatched and sure to engage fans of fact books and animal lovers.
Illustrated by Falynn Koch
Plagues and Pandemics (History Smashers). 2021 (Middle Grade Nonfiction).
Myths! Lies! Secrets! Uncover the forgotten facts about the history of pandemics, from the Black Death to COVID-19. True or False: During the Black Death in the 14th century, plague doctors wore creepy beaked masks filled with herbs. False! Those masks were from a plague outbreak centuries later, and most doctors never wore anything like that at all. With a mix of sidebars, illustrations, photos, and graphic panels, author Kate Messner delivers a comprehensive and accessible account of infectious diseases like the bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, polio, influenza, and COVID-19. Great for readers who enjoy reading the series: I Survived! and Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales.
All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team. 2020 (Middle Grade Nonfiction).
This enthralling account of the amazing Thai cave rescue perfectly blends suspense, science, and cultural insight. On June 23, 2018, twelve young players of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach entered a cave in northern Thailand seeking an afternoon’s adventure. When they turned to leave, rising floodwaters blocked their path out and the boys were trapped! Before long, news of the missing team spread, launching a seventeen-day rescue operation involving thousands of people from around the globe. As the world sat vigil, people began to wonder: how long can a group of ordinary kids survive in complete darkness, with no food or clean water? Newbery Honoree Christina Soontornvat combines information from original interviews with rescue workers, in-depth scientific research, and details about the region’s culture and religion to show how both the complex engineering operation above ground and the mental struggles of the thirteen young people below proved critical in the life-or-death mission.
Illustrated by: Sarah S. Brannen
Summertime Sleepers: Animals that Estivate. 2021 (Picture Book).
Everyone knows about animals that hibernate in the winter, but what about the creatures that sleep all summer long? These animals estivate: a prolonged sleep during hot or dry periods. Dual layers of text awaken readers to the reasons estivating animals become dormant, including warm weather spells that threaten food supplies or simply avoiding increased body temperatures. From the ladybug to the salamander, from the lungfish to the desert hedgehog, Melissa Stewart clearly describes twelve estivating animals and their habits, both when sleeping and awake. Brannen’s soft, elegant watercolor illustrations show two perspectives of each estivating animal, and the page composition includes a small black-and-white text box that resembles a guidebook to introduce basic facts about the creature. This clever nonfiction picture book would be a perfect edition for elementary science classroom biology units.
Q. S.571.786 St497su
Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown. 2021 (Young Adult Nonfiction).
This narrative nonfiction book is a spellbinding follow up to Sheinkin’s award-winning title Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, taking readers on a journey through the high-stakes conflict of the Cold War. As World War II ended, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two greatest world powers on extreme opposites of the political spectrum. The two nations began a neck-and-neck competition to build even more destructive bombs and conquer the Space Race. In their battle for dominance, spy planes flew above, armed submarines swam deep below, and undercover agents met in the dead of night. The precarious, decades-long Cold War showdown culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world’s narrow escape from a third world war. Backed up by pages and pages of research citations, Sheinkin immerses readers in the small moments of spy operations, political conversations, and perspectives of ordinary citizens in a way that makes history feel thrilling and important.
References / Resources
Publisher’s Weekly: “Soapbox: Children’s Nonfiction Has an Image Problem”
This piece by Melissa Stewart outlines the disconnect between adults’ perceptions of children’s nonfiction books and young people’s actual reading preferences. The article includes many references to peer-reviewed research about children’s reading habits, which shows that young readers have substantial interest in learning about the world through nonfiction books. Stewart concludes with action steps to increase the accessibility of nonfiction books for kids.
School Library Journal: “The Five Kinds of Nonfiction”
This article by Melissa Stewart in School Library Journal concisely describes the five types of nonfiction children’s books: browsable, active, traditional, expository, and narrative.
Scientific American: “Nonfiction is Cool and Our Kids Know It”
This opinion piece by science writer Amanda Baker argues that at present, we are in a “golden age” of children’s nonfiction books. Baker indicates that contemporary publications have highly appealing images or illustrations and innovative storytelling and writing styles. The article also cites compelling statistics about children’s reading preferences.
The Robert F. Sibert Informational Medal
Each year, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) awards the Robert F. Sibert Informational Medal to the most outstanding informational book for youth published in the United States in English during the preceding year. Make sure to click the link to the ALSC’s interactive Book & Media Awards shelf to find further exceptional nonfiction books among the past winning titles.