Nonfiction books for middle grade readers are an important tool for teachers and librarians. Good nonfiction books serve multiple purposes: they provide factual information in an easier format than many websites or other informational sources; they can engage children by capturing their interest in topic that fascinate them; and they are books that don’t necessarily need to be read in one sitting. Nonfiction books can be picked up and read at one’s leisure because there’s no mystery to solve or plot to figure out. Many nonfiction books have colorful photos and graphics that further draw the eye and engage the reader. Others, like the memoirs included in this collection, read like fiction because of the first person narrative. See which books might interest the children in your life, or just pick your favorites for a teacher who might enjoy sharing them with students.
Some of the most powerful nonfiction books are memoirs about real people, people who have led extraordinary lives and whose values and actions might serve to inspire students and young people who read about their sacrifice or their labor to better the world. Here are three memoirs about people who are not household names, but who nevertheless led lives that are worth reading about because of what they experienced, the injustices they witnessed, and the actions they took to try to make the world a better place. The first memoir, by Kathlyn J. Kirkwood, “Ain’t Gonna Let NOBODY Turn Me ‘Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day” is as much the story of her childhood and the injustices she witnessed in Memphis, Tennessee, as it is about the making of a national holiday to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King. The images she portrays and the manner in which she lays out the discrimination and shameful treatment of sanitation workers depending on the color of their skin is beautifully told in verse. The white sanitation workers got good pay, job safety, and union recognition. The workers of color wanted the same. Kirkwood writes:
“The Negro Memphis sanitation workers
went on strike.
They were tired of being treated like boys
They did grueling work every day
with no place to eat,
no place to shower,
no sick days,
no vacation days,
no health care,
no pension plan,
for $1.70 an hour.
Some still needed welfare
just to live.”
The illustrations and photos of media and artifacts from that time serve to complement the narrative. The forward by acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson is also powerful as she explains why these types of memoirs are so important. Part of her forward serves to illustrate the importance of reading books such as these with the guidance of an adult—teacher, librarian or parent—who can help put their importance in perspective. I would read this book out loud to my students and then have them research the recent protests by BLM and the police response in order to see what, if any, differences there are. Are outside agitators still causing peaceful protests to devolve into riots and mayhem? In what light does the media portray the protestors? Has anything changed? Memoirs like this one must be part of every library collection and classroom bookshelf. This book will be released in January and is available for preorder. (Versify/HarperCollins)
“Signs of Survival: A Memoir of the Holocaust” shares the story of two sisters, Renee and Herta Myers, during the Holocaust. The title is important because everyone in the family, except for Renee, was deaf during a time when German laws forbade the Jews from attending school. So while Herta’s deaf parents had wanted to send her to the School for the Deaf that they had attended, they feared that it would be too dangerous. The family lived in what was then known as Czechoslovakia (but now are the Czech Republic and Slovakia). They lived in the segregated Jewish ghetto, but both girls roamed the city during the day because they weren’t in school. Renee narrates: “Nazis and other antisemites in Bratislava were beating up Jews every day, but strangely never me. I asked a teacher in our neighborhood, ‘Why do people who hate Jews beat up other Jews but not me?'” The reason is because she had blond hair. They thought she was German. When things got more dangerous, their parents found farmers who agreed to take in the girls for a hefty monthly sum. But a year later, the farmer’s son told the girls that their parents hadn’t paid in several months, and he took the girls to Bratislavia and left them alone in the streets. Children who had lived with his family for a year—just left them to fend for themselves in a city filled with Nazis. The sisters quickly realized that they were literally the last Jews in the city. Their story is filled with examples of their resilience and their bravery. They share the horrors they witnessed and experienced. This book is a perfect companion to Anne Frank’s Diary and other middle grade literature like “The Devil’s Arithmetic.” (Scholastic Press)
Coming out in January (and available for preorder) is the newest book in the “I, Witness” series which is a series of books about young people who are faced with difficult, often horrendous circumstances. These books are inspiring because they shine a light on kids who brave obstacles to do the right thing or help others. In “Courage: My Story of Persecution” by Freshta Tori Jan, we read about a girl who faced many of the same difficulties as Malala Yousafzai. Freshta was from Afghanistan and persecuted by the Taliban and others. We read about her life as she and her family faced inordinate hardship because they were Hazaras, a minority group in Afghanistan. Not only did the Taliban persecute them, other Afghans treated them with hatred because they were “different.” I would love to see this book read out loud and used for a class discussion about how such discrimination exists in many places, and how such discrimination is harmful to both those who are doing the discriminating but also, obviously, those being discriminated against. In how many countries does this happen? In Afghanistan, Hazaras were literally massacred—whole families and whole villages—and people just looked the other way. In the here and now. How is this possible? Why do we know so little about it? Books like this one will help make atrocities like these more transparent. This is an important series to keep in elementary school libraries and on classroom bookshelves. (Norton Young Readers)
Often parents or adults give children rules that they must follow like “don’t stay up late,” and “eat your broccoli,” and “brush your teeth.” But we don’t explain to kids why these rules are important, or we gloss over the facts because we’re not sure how to answer. In the pages of “The Ultimate Kids’ Guide to Being Super Healthy” by Dr. Nina L. Shapiro, lie the answers to their most pressing questions about those rules. The facts are related in kid-friendly terms with occasional illustrations but not so many as to make this a young kid’s book. It’s perfect for third grade children through middle school, although the older kids might not want to hear much of this information. Teenagers! The eight chapters cover subjects like nutrition exercise, sleep, medicine, vaccinations, stress, hygiene, and screen time. But they have engaging titles like “Why Can’t We Have Cookies for Dinner?” and “Do I Have to Wash My Hands and Brush My Teeth Again?” The narrative is also engaging and there is an index and glossary. This would be a great book to read as a family to enable everyone to have a common vocabulary when talking about the issues the book raises. Read a chapter a night. Go back and reread as needed. And don’t eat cookies for dinner. (Sky Pony Press)
Kids love the “I Survived” series by Lauren Tarshis. My students would devour the books in the series as soon as they could check them out of the library. So the two new books in the series, “I Survived: The Galveston Hurricane, 1900” and “I Survived: Courageous Creatures and the Humans Who Help Them,” will be huge hits with kids and the educators who love it when students read. While the “disaster” books are technically novels, they are told through the eyes of a survivor of each event. Tarshis extensively researches the disasters, and the information she includes is factual. Also, at the end of the hurricane story are pages of nonfiction text about the people, the hurricane, other hurricanes, and how to stay safe during a hurricane. The book about courageous creatures is a nonfiction book and includes information about four animal events in history. We read about Cher Ami, a bird that saved almost 200 American soldiers during WWI; a dolphin defender who saved two dolphins left to die by a cruel corporation; the rescue of 20,000 penguins after a tragic oil spill; and what happened to two cheetahs who lost their mother. Included are Author’s Notes and a section on how we can help. The illustrations, graphics, and maps help keep reader interest, and there are additional facts that students will love. For example, in the section about penguins, readers learn about the smallest penguin as well as the toughest, the loudest, and the biggest. Good third grade readers through middle school enjoy reading these adventurous, fact-filled books. (Scholastic Press)
Please note: This review is based on books provided by the publishers for review purposes.
For nonfiction picture books, read the companion to this round up: Fabulous nonfiction children’s books you need on your bookshelf: Part One