I know from my decades of teaching elementary students that using nonfiction picture books is an amazing way to begin discussions of events and people, and to share information with students in an entertaining way that keeps them interested in learning (and reading). Here are some nonfiction children’s books for children of all ages from picture books through some middle grade books and even a young adult choice. All of them would be great picks for gifts for your children, their teachers, or even the school library. This is a long post, but read it through. You’ll be glad you did as there are some fabulous offerings here.
National Geographic Kids publishes incredible picture books that most children love to peruse. Two new releases will appeal to children no matter their interest. “National Geographic Kids World Atlas” is the sixth edition. A teacher could easily spend weeks on this book alone teaching nonfiction text features. The National Geographic Kids books are beautifully organized, even featuring a two-page spread on “How to Use This Atlas.” Spend some time on this page; point out the map key and explain that every map has one; show the color bars that relate to each continent. Cleverly, the headings of the pages correspond to the colors, so if the header on a page is green, that page is about North America while the pages with purple headers are about the continent of Africa. In addition to information about each continent, there are pages on “Earth in Space” providing cursory information about the planets in our solar system, including a definition of “solar system”; pages about “Earth in Motion” about volcanoes, the layers of the earth, and how the continents have moved. There are physical maps, climate maps, vegetation maps, maps about environmental hotspots, endangered species, natural disasters, world population, a political map, one showing world religions, economy, trade, water, food and energy. It’s quite comprehensive and all geared so that kids can understand the content! That alone is incredible, but there’s more: In the section titled, appropriately, “Back of the Book” (pages with a yellow heading) are pages featuring “Flags & Facts,” a glossary, Geo facts and figures (longest rivers, largest islands, etc.), metric conversions, and an index with place-names. Truly a fabulous, fascinating tome. (National Geographic Kids)
Another National Geographic Kids book that kids will love and learn from is “The Ultimate Book of African Animals: Your Guide to Animals that Roar, Race, and Totally Rule.” What sets this book apart from others about Africa and its wildlife is the authors: Dereck and Beverly Jourbert. Those who have traveled to Africa or read about the continent know that this married couple have dedicated their lives to photographing and living with the wildlife in Africa. They basically live in the wild in conditions most of us would barely tolerate for a weekend of camping. They risk their lives to document the lives of animals, and they have been invaluable workers in conservation efforts in Africa. And they wrote this book! The photos are theirs as well, and that makes this book one that has been literally written by the experts. In addition to the fascinating facts they share about the animals, there are stories about their work and anecdotes about how they got close to the animals they photographed. There are the usual nonfiction text features, but what makes this book special is the authenticity and veritas that the authors offer. From preschoolers to adults, all will find the images and facts thrilling and informative. (National Geographic Kids)
A completely different type of nonfiction book is “Hornswoggled: A Wacky Words Whodunit” by Josh Crute and Jenn Harney. While some might quibble about my including this with nonfiction books because it is a mystery as well, I believe that the mystery is simply a device by which the authors are teaching kids some prodigious examples of colorful vocabulary. When deer wakes up one morning, he finds that a horn is missing, and it’s been replaced with a tennis racket! He exclaims, “I’ve been hornswoggled!” An armadillo in the corner holds up a small sign that explains, “Hornswoggle: Means to trick.” Other animals find that they, too, have been “buffaloed,” and “skunked.” They complain about “poppycock” and codswallop” and one complains to the mayor that, “Some villainous varmint is stealing our stuff!” He responds with appropriately distinguished vocabulary. Kids will enjoy the mystery; adults will love sharing and explaining the complex vocabulary. It’s a win-win, that’s for rootin’ tootin’ sure. (Page Street Kids)
A very different type of picture book is “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water” by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, and illustrated by Nikkolas Smith. This picture book, which I think is appropriate for elementary school students, begins with an important scene. A teacher asks students to explore their roots and draw a flag that represents their ancestral land. The narrator explains that most of her classmates can do this, can draw flags that represent their ancestors and the countries they came from. But she only knows her past for three generations. Her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were born in the US, but everything before that is a mystery. And she feels ashamed, inferior to her peers, because of that lack of history. So her grandmother shares their story. She proudly tells the story of the “before,” the time when her family had “a home, a place, a land, a beginning,” instead of whips and chains. In the teacher’s guide, it says, “The first step in mitigating harm to children as you teach the hard and triggering history of the enslavement is confronting yourself.” And I must admit something—I wish I had had this book two years ago when I was attempting, in my own way, to teach diversity and the history of deprivation, by using two wonderful picture books, “Bread for Words” about Frederick Douglass and “The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read.” However at the end of the lesson, something happened that shocked me. A white student ran up to her friend, a black student, hugged her fiercely, and apologized. I did not expect that. I rushed in and assured her that her friend did not need pity or apologies, that she was fine, but I was stumped. I called the black student’s mother to talk about this and ask how I should proceed, how I could do this in a sensitive manner without that kind of reaction. What she told me to do is what this picture book does—instead of focusing on “d” words like denigration, denial, downtrodden, to focus on stories that show a rich culture, respect, achievements, and success. And while this book doesn’t sugarcoat anything, the focus of the story is about people who were determined to still know love and family, to work toward a better future. Who kept believing. And there is poetry: “Hope is a promise. Faith that a better day will come. Belief that things will not always be this way. Hope is refusal to give up, to die out.” Instead of using the word that may unfortunately have lost its horror — “slave” — this book uses the verb “enslaved,” which more truly captures the depravity of what was done. And for heaven’s sake, teachers who are reading this, stop giving out worthless, lame assignments like drawing flags of our ancestors. Let’s teach rich and meaningful history that will broaden the knowledge of all students. And using this book is a great way to begin. (Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Random House)
Reading picture book biographies to children is a sneaky method of teaching them history and facts about diverse people while broadening their horizons and entertaining them. One such entertaining picture book is “King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin” by Stephen Costanza. In this uniquely creative piece, the poetry of the narrative is equaled by the richness of the illustrations. The bright colors and onomatopoeia fill the text, and the drawings draw the eye, and I can imagine a teacher reading this story while the music of Joplin plays softly in the background. For an important part of the story is the music, the magical combination of gospel, work songs, and sounds Joplin heard around him. And while not much is known about the details of Joplin’s life, in the Author’s Note at the end, Costanza shares what factual information there is and how Joplin was rediscovered over half a century after he wrote the toe-tapping energetic rhythms that endure to this day. Play his music for the readers, especially the famous “Maple Leaf Rag,” with which piano students might be familiar. Make it a treat for the senses, visually, orally, and musically. (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)
“With Great Power: The Marvelous Stan Lee, an Unauthorized Biography” by Annie Hunter Eriksen with illustrations by Lee Gatlin starts with the story of Stanley Lieber, living in a tiny apartment in the Bronx, with the only window looking out at a brick wall. Stanley loved to read. Classics like Frankenstein or Shakespeare’s tales all transported Stanley out of the cramped rooms and into another world. At the age of sixteen, his family needed him to get a job to help with money. He managed to work as an errand boy at Timely Comics, and through a lucky break, started writing for them. But because he wanted to be a “real” writer, he didn’t want to put his real name on his comics. He chose Stan Lee as his pen name. And Stan Lee wrote comics for years and years, until he grew tired of perfect heroes and dared to create some imperfect heroes. In fact, he was ridiculed for his Spiderman creation until people loved it. Then his employers wanted it to be a series. Stan Lee was a leader in the development of an important genre, and he had a special knack for making characters people could relate to, with troubles and flaws just like those that afflicted the readers. The narrative and the illustrations make this a powerful picture book that showcases the incredible life and reach of Stanley Lieber’s life. Like many biographical picture books, this one will interest older elementary school kids through fifth grade. It definitely deserves a place on library bookshelves. (Page Street Publishing)
For more nonfiction books for middle grade readers, see: Fabulous nonfiction children’s books you need on your bookshelf: Part Two
Please note: This review is based on the final picture books provided by the publishers for review purposes.