Nonfiction picture books to inform and entertain

Picture books aren’t just for little kids. Savvy educators and parents use picture books as a way to share information with kids as old as middle schoolers. Because picture books are fun, quick, and colorful. And like the picture books listed below, they can be filled with information. Reading a picture book about something like, say, mushrooms, just might lead to a curious child’s exploration into the world of fungi. Here are some great choices that might just pique inquisitive minds.

Mushroom Rain

“Mushroom Rain” is an intriguing and beautifully illustrated book by Laura K. Zimmerman and Jamie Green. Did you know that some mushrooms can smell like bubble gum, coconut, or maple syrup? Others smell like dead animals, burnt hair, or rotten cabbage. Some look like umbrellas or an octopus. Various animals munch on mushrooms, including turtles, mice, squirrels, and ants. The detailed and lovely illustrations will fascinate readers of all ages. And while the text is sparing in the body of this picture book, the last four pages are filled with lots and lots of more densely packed information about the bodies of mushrooms and where they grow. Because of this combination of simple but poetic text and detailed informational text, this would be a great addition for any library and home bookshelf. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Solitary Animals: Introverts of the Wild

Another book with fabulous illustrations and beautiful but spare text is “Solitary Animals: Introverts of the Wild” by Joshua David Stein and Dominique Ramsey. In this picture book we learn about animals that live in groups and animals that are solitary in nature. The contrast of light and dark in the illustrations really draws the eye, and Ramsey makes fabulous use of black and bold colors to catch our attention. One full page spread shows several giraffes in the act of drinking from blue water with the text, “A tower of giraffes bend their long necks down for a drink…” and the next double page spread is filled with white and dark brown striped zebras and the text, “And a dazzle of zebras, brilliant, brown and white, blink in the hot sun.” A clever teacher might encourage readers, both young and old, to investigate the habitats of the diverse animals shown in the pages of this book. I would love to see students making their own picture books about animals and research to find new examples of solitary animals. And since there is often more than one name for a group of animals, students could use alternate names for some of these same animals in their version of this book. It’s sure to become a class favorite. (Rise x Penguin Workshop)

Big as a Giant Snail by Jess Keating

A book that my very erudite five-year-old grandson enjoys is “Big as a Giant Snail: Discovering the World’s Most Gigantic Animals” by Jess Keating and illustrated by David DeGrand. It’s part of “The World of Weird Animals” series and includes such engaging nonfiction text features as photographs, borders with factual information about names and species for the animals, interesting facts about each animal, and clever cartoons. The layout is designed to maximize interest and make reading the very accessible shorter text passages enticing. A clever idea is to measure the diverse animals in terms of the length of a banana (about 6 inches). (This idea might lead to unintended consequences: My grandson now measures things in giants!) So let’s get the kids to do some math! How do you convert 11 bananas into feet if six inches is one-half a foot? Some of the animals are familiar, like blue whales and moose. Others are less well known, like the New Zealand kākāpō and the Goliath birdeater (a foot-long spider I hope never to meet in person). At the end of the book is a double page spread discussing the measuring tactics used and showing other measuring devices that might be more informative. For example, rather than using bananas for measuring a blue whale, showing that one is a bit longer than two school buses gives us a very good idea just how massive these ocean creatures are. There is also a glossary of useful words that can be found in the text in a bold font. Kids will love this book, and while some might read the whole thing in one sitting, others will return to it again and again to learn more about different animals. (Alfred A. Knopf)

Tiny Dino by Deborah Freedman

One of the most important tasks for educators is to teach children to think critically. To think outside the box. To wonder and question. To examine what they are told and use their reasoning skills to logically consider what people are saying. It’s those skills that will enable the next generation to determine what is true and what is patently false. An excellent way to help young readers gain those skills is to read to them. In “Tiny Dino,” author and illustrator Deborah Freedman will convince readers that birds are tiny dinosaurs. “Wait,” kids will cry, “dinosaurs are extinct!” This picture book has many opportunities for the knowledgable adult reader to ask the children about what is in the illustrations but is not explicitly discussed. On the endpapers, we see a large land dinosaur and an asteroid streaking through the sky. It’s coming closer on the next page. Why is that important? Some students might know about the ultimate extinction of the dinosaurs because an asteroid hit Earth. Others will learn that. Then we see a hummingbird declaring, “Did you know, did you know? I’m a DINOSAUR!” Via her simple text and her signature beautiful illustrations, which include detailed drawings and loose, beautiful watercolors, we learn that while birds might be small, and dinosaurs might have been gigantic, both had/have hollow bones. Like dinosaurs, birds have scales. And like birds, some dinosaurs had feathers. I look over at my Quaker parakeet’s claws and can easily imagine that they look just like dinosaur claws, only diminutive. And I find it quite interesting that the bird Freedman uses to create the conversation is a hummingbird. This tiny, incredibly beautiful bird is, in real life, far more fierce than we might imagine. (Educators: have your students research this!) The other animal featured is a crocodile, who, like turtles and tortoises, branched off the family tree from dinosaurs and birds. The combination of narrative and informational text and the detailed illustrations in white on top of the colorful watercolors make this a book that will be cherished and used over and over again both in schools and homes. (Viking Press)

Not a Cat: a Memoir

Sometimes, a nonfiction book isn’t all that straightforward. A memoir might not seem like a nonfiction book, especially one that’s narrated by a four-legged creature. But this memoir of a cat, “Not a Cat: A Memoir” as “told” to Winter Miller and illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff, is a nonfiction book that will delight young readers as they read about this very interesting cat’s antics. This fellow runs in pastures, walks on a leash, eats grass, takes rides in taxis, and even flies in airplanes! Is this creature that appears to be a cat really a dog? A horse? A cow? A rabbit? A bee? The clever text and quite clever illustrations (including books piled next to a bed with titles like “The Great Catsby” and “Love in the Time of Toxoplasmosis,” and detailed diverse humans) all combine to make this a book that kids will, like others on this list, want to read again and again. And just like people are very different, our dogs and cats are quite diverse as well in their likes and dislikes. Maybe the kids will want to write their own books about one of their dogs or cats? Or a dog or cat or rabbit or turtle or bird that they know. The possibilities are endless! (Tilbury House Publishers)

Rumble and Roar: Sound Around the World

“Rumble and Roar: Sound Around the World” by Sue Fliess and illustrated by Khoa Le is a fascinating nonfiction picture book. While the text is simple, and onomatopoeia abounds, there is a double page spread at the end that offers a fairly sophisticated and detailed explanation of “The Science of Sound.” It explains many of the scientific concepts found in the book, including “What is Sound?” “How Does the Heart Beat?” How Do Animals Use Sound to Communicate?” and “What Makes a Volcano Erupt?” In each section, there is a bubble with a fun fact. Whether the reader is a kindergartner learning about different sounds or a fifth grader studying onomatopoeia or the science of sound, this book will have myriad uses and deserves a place on the bookshelves. (Millbrook Press)

Only One by Deborah Hopkinson

“Only One” by prolific children’s author Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Chuck Groenink is a picture book with a message. An important message. The book almost defies a quick summary as it explains myriad concepts to young readers from the start of the universe (big bang) to the galaxies, to our own Milky Way galaxy, to our own sun and its planets. We learn about our atmosphere and about continents and the oceans and various environments—all in simple terms. Hopkinson discusses the diversity of plant life and animal life of all kinds, including insect life. And she writes about the diversity in humans as well. But no matter our differences, she reminds children, we share one planet, one home, one Earth. She invites readers to learn how to protect this very important place we call home. There is much educators and parents can do to share these concepts with children. Because the narration starts with huge concepts like the universe and narrows down, little by little, to the minute, like insects and plants, it’s a perfect tool for teaching organization and how stories can be considered on a continuum. There are also many different concepts for kids to consider. What concepts that are bigger than our Earth are covered in this text? What is the smallest thing in the book? And most of all, what is the author’s message? That should be the easiest for most readers, as Hopkinson is clear that we must protect and cherish our home. (Anne Schwartz Books)

A Penny’s Worth by Kimberly Wilson

“A Penny’s Worth” is a picture book by Kimberly Wilson and illustrated by Mark Hoffmann. Reading it made me realize that children these days don’t experience money in the same way that kids did just a decade ago. Most of us don’t carry spare change. We don’t keep quarters in our car cup holder for parking meters. Everything is done by credit card or through our cell phones. And even if we do use cash for purchases, we rarely use pennies or even consider them worthwhile to keep. But the main character, Penny, newly minted and sparkling copper, thinks that’s “non-cents!” As she goes through her day, she meets other coins and denominations. Big Bill says, “Howdy, Buckaroo.” And explains that it takes one hundred of Penny to do what he does. She meets Dime and Nickel, and they discuss penny candy and the value of things. She is learning that pennies aren’t good for much on their own. She’s getting pretty depressed about that when she finds out what pennies are still good for – and it might just be something priceless. The puns throughout the book are clever, and the double spread at the end with facts about pennies and other denominations will inform and entertain. This is a great way to introduce the subject of money or counting or just converting ones to tens (pennies to dimes). Parents can use the book as a preface to giving children their first piggy bank, and educators will find many, many ways to incorporate the information into lessons. (Page Street Kids)

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover picture books provided by the publishers for review purposes.