Nonfiction picture books that will teach children as they entertain

Savvy parents (and educators) know that reading interesting nonfiction books to children is a great way to get kids interested in topics that they might want to learn more about. Here are some fascinating books that will teach kids about sound, birds and fish, saguaro cactus, transportation, an architect, and two very important women.

“Sounds All Around: The Science of How Sound Works” by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Ellen Rooney is a perfect first book about sound. The illustrations are bright and welcoming from the warm red/pink endpapers to the color-filled pages. The text is perfect for young readers, too. Just enough information is imparted that will help young ones understand how sound works and how we hear things. Hughes doesn’t just limit the information to humans; we also learn about how elephants and whales can hear very low-pitched sounds, called infrasound. She also shares the information that there are very high-pitched sounds that we can’t hear but that dogs, bats, opossums and porpoises can hear. There’s even an activity at the end that kids can do at home. Visually, the book is very appealing. The sometimes-bright, sometimes-muted colors really work well to help the reader focus. For example, the page with a graphic on decibels, how that translates to sound (loud vs almost can’t be heard), and an example of each is on a peach background, but the page with the honeybee sounds is filled with brilliant colors of green and red grass with bright yellow flowers and a brown and white dog wearing a red bandanna. There’s a lot to absorb in this information-packed picture book that’s sure to become a favorite in the classroom. (Kids Can Press)

“A Garden to Save the Birds” is a fiction picture book that is filled with important information about how to protect the birds in our backyards. Sometimes, using a story to impart nonfiction information is a great way to make the process interesting and engaging. In this story, a boy and his sister are saddened when a bird hits their window. That bird recovers, but they investigate how they can ensure that doesn’t happen again. And along the way, they learn about other ways to protect birds and make our yards havens for birds to be safe and get nourishment. Important ideas are to provide brush piles for winter protection, leaving out pumpkins after Halloween for food, cutting down on light pollution, and not cutting down native flowers in the fall so that the seed heads can provide food for wildlife. Even leaving leaves on the ground over the winter helps to ensure that there are insects in the spring which overwinter in the leaves that collect in gardens. The author points out at the end that bird populations in the United States and Canada have declined by almost 30 percent. If enough kids read this and take action, maybe we can reverse that horrifying trend. There is also a section titled “Things You and Your Family Can Do.” This is an important book for classroom and school libraries. (Albert Whitman & Company)

The nonfiction book “Birds: Explore Their Extraordinary World” written by Miranda Krestovnikoff and illustrated by Angela Harding, is a picture book that, while not comprehensive, is packed with fascinating information about our feathered friends. Who knew that some birds have their juvenile offspring act as babysitters? (On page 42, we learn about the Australian superb fairy wren, one of the species that do this.) Or that crows are intelligent enough to drop hard-shelled nuts on a road and wait for passing cars to crack the shells. Then they retrieve the contents. We learn that we can tell the time of day an owl likes to hunt by the color of its eyes. From the contents page, we can choose to read about birds of prey, seabirds, freshwater birds, flightless birds, tropical birds, tree dwellers, and passerines (perching birds); and there are also chapters on feathers, beaks and eyes, nests, migration, birdsong, extreme cold, and urban birds. Kids (and adults) will find the information included to be presented in a manner that is conducive to wanting to learn more about these fascinating creatures. You will definitely think about this book when seeing flocks of birds at your feeder, in the wild, or at the park. The illustrations are worthy of framing. They are stylized and sophisticated, which will appeal to older readers of this book. (Bloomsbury Children’s Books)

In “Saguaro’s Gifts,” a nonfiction story told as a birthday celebration for a saguaro cactus “celebrating” its 100th birthday, we learn about all the creatures of the desert that rely on this stalwart presence, a cactus that only lives in the Sonoran desert in the southwest. Kurt Cyrus’s rhyming text make this a great read aloud, and Andy Atkins’s beautiful, eye-catching illustrations make this book as visually pleasing as it is pleasing to listen to the words. From the early-morning bat sipping the cactus flower’s nectar to the bobcat climbing the cactus to escape the javelina (I lived in Arizona for four years and didn’t know that!), we see the creatures of the desert gather round this venerable cactus. Owls, porcupines, tortoises, coyotes, rabbits, hummingbirds and butterflies all use the gifts the saguaro has to offer whether it be food, shelter, or just temporary protection. At the end is a page of Facts to Know about Saguaro. (Sleeping

“All the Fish in the World” is another incredibly lovely book by David Opie. From his colorful illustrations to the informational text, kids will be fascinated as we learn about fish through the mechanism of a mudskipper asking, “What makes a fish a fish?” Other fishes try to answer, but when they give fishy platitudes like, “They have scales, pairs of fins, and backbones. Fish live underwater; are cold-blooded and breathe through gills,” the mudskipper responds, “Not so fast. What about me?” We learn that while most fish have scales, not all do. And while most fish have paired fins, not all do. The way fish reproduce differs greatly as does the manner in which they view the watery world around them. And the mudskipper, that pesky, curious fish, claims to see better in air than in water. We also learn much from the other “narrator,” the steelhead trout. And at the end, Opie includes information about what makes the mudskipper and the steelhead trout so unusual and so special. Like his “All the Birds in the World,” this is a book that will not stay on the bookshelf for a long time as kids and adults read and reread it. A visit to his blog explains how he uses Photoshop to create these incredible images. (Peter Pauper Press)

The picture book “Transportation: From Then to Now” by Carol Lawrence and illustrated by Ran Zheng is a wonderful choice for older picture book readers. The information is presented in paragraph form, which requires some ability to comprehend and retain larger blocks of information, but the illustrations keep the content engaging, and it’s the perfect vehicle to start a study of transportation throughout history which might inspire some students to pick a particular type of transportation for further study. It’s comprehensive, beginning with foot travel, then boating (the first man-made type of transport) through our modern-day space travel. Children will learn about clipper ships and how they revolutionized ocean travel and about how the invention of steam locomotives, which happened during the First Industrial Revolution, similarly revolutionized travel on land. (Albert Whitman & Company)

Sometimes a book is based on true events, but presented in a fictional story. That’s the case with “Carmen and the House that Gaudí Built” by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Marianne Ferrer. As the author explains in the Author’s Note, the basis of the story, Casa Batlló, the house in the story, was renovated and redesigned by Antoni Gaudí for the Batllós family, including their five children, the youngest being the main character in this picture book, Carmen. As Hughes notes, “…the interactions in the story between Gaudi and Carmen and her family are imaginary, the descriptions of the architect’s ideas about design and beauty—although they seem fantastical—are based on facts.” The photograph of the house on the page facing the Author’s Note shows how fantastical and imaginative the result is. And children will love meeting Carmen, a child who loved nature and thus would love the home that Gaudí created. This is a wonderful vehicle to introduce children to a unique architect and to a child who is different in a very special way. (Owlkids Books)

Another biography about a woman who succeeded in her field is “Listening to the Stars: Jocelyn Bell Burnell Discovers Pulsars” by Jodie Parachini and illustrated by Alexandra Badiu. In this picture book biography, we read that Jocelyn loved to read as a child, and her favorite subject was astronomy. “She read everything she could find about stars and galaxies, planets and space.” Back then, her school in Northern Ireland taught girls what they thought was appropriate for their gender: cooking and sewing. But Jocelyn didn’t agree that physics was too complicated for girls, and she and two friends demanded to switch to the boys’ class. Surprisingly, they were allowed to do so, and Jocelyn was the top student. She continued to study math and science, and eventually she decided to use a radio telescope to listen to the stars and learn about them. She got up on ladders to create the grid needed to listen to the stars—wires stretched across a 4.5 acre field. After two years, the telescope was ready and Jocelyn heard something unusual. It took a lot of work, but she figured out that the sounds were coming from a neutron star, and she was the first to prove that when a star explodes, what is left behind spins faster and faster and sends radio waves out into the vacuum of space. Not only did Jocelyn continue to work while having a family, she became a teacher, a researcher, the head of a university department, and president of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics. Hers is an amazing story. (Albert Whitman & Company)

“Shaped By Her Hands: Potter Maria Martinez” by Anna Harber Freeman and Barbara Gonzales and illustrated by Aphelandra is the story of a potter from the Tewa Pueblo. We read that Maria learned how to make pots as a child, and she worked hard at it until she became an artist making lovely pottery. But what catapulted her to fame was when she was asked by an archaeologist to recreate a pot based on a black shard found at a nearby dig. She and her husband worked on it trying different techniques, and they finally were able to recreate the ancient pottery, but in discovering the technique that had been used, she also created an entirely new form of decorative pottery. She taught her friends and family how to make the pots and eventually traveled to demonstrate how to make them. Maria believed in sharing her knowledge with others. The illustrations are filled with warm umbers and clay colors that reflect the desert setting of the story and the heat needed to turn clay into ceramics. (Albert Whitman & Company)