Nonfiction and Informational Reading
Materials for Youth 10: Nonfiction and Informational Reading from Annette Lamb on Vimeo.
To read the transcript of this video, go to the transcript page.
From autobiographical works to books about how to build a birdhouse, a wide range of nonfiction and informational materials are available for youth.
The Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal is awarded each year for the best informational book for youth. A few recent honorees are listed below:
- Parrots over Puerto Rico (2013) by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore
- Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard (2013) by Annette LeBlanc Cate
- Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (2012) Steve Sheinkin
- Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) by Phillip M. Hoose
- Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade (2011) by Melissa Sweet
- Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World's Strangest Parrot (2010) by Sy Montgomery
The National Council of Teachers of English gives the Orbis Pictus Award to the best nonfiction work for youth. A few recent honorees are listed below:
- A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin (2013) by Jen Bryant
- Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (2013) by Michelle Markel
- Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America's First Black Paratroopers
by Tanya Lee Stone
- Monsieur Marceau: Actor without Words (2012) by Leda Schubert
- Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard (2012) by Loree Griffin Burns
- Electric Ben: The Amazing Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2012) by Robert Byrd
My The Seminar in Literature for Youth: Nonfiction course provides an in-depth look at this topic. This course is highly recommended and will expand on the information found on this page.
In this section, we’ll explore these works of nonfiction as popular narratives and informational reading options for youth rather than simply tools for report writing and classroom assignments. Like the other aspects of this course, only books specifically designed for children and young adults were included. There are many wonderful adult books that can be selected for youth also.
During the summer, I spent endless days at the Urbandale Public Library. My mother encouraged this by giving me assignments to accomplish like "go find a recipe for...", "learn a magic trick you can show me", or "find out how to make a..." I'd jump on my bike and head to the nonfiction section of the public library where I would read about baking, magic, and crafts.
Besides your school work, did you ever hang out in the nonfiction section when you were going up? If so, what was your area of interest?
Increasingly, nonfiction works for youth like The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World (2012) by Mary Losure are using a narrative style to engage young readers.
Written for grades four and up, the book tells the true story of how two girls fooled journalists into thinking that they had photographed actual fairies living in the woods near the home. Through the use of poses and photo manipulation, they were able to convince people that fairies were real long before the use of Photoshop. They kept the secret of how the photos were made until the girls were very old women.
According to Lamb (2013), “because The Fairy Ring reads like a novel, it will have strong appeal particularly for some girls who aren't drawn to explanatory texts. Readers will easily get caught up in the "white lies" and issues of honesty.”
The Bomb: The Race to Build-And Steal-the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (2012) by Steve Sheinkin is an example of narrative nonfiction exploring the thrilling story of the international race to build the atomic bomb.
Autobiography and Biography
Many youth view "books about people" as something they only read when it's time to do a report. The goal is to identify people and stories that will engage children and young adults.
An autobiography tells the story of a person’s own life. Youth particularly enjoy reading about the childhoods of other people. Through My Eyes (1999) by Ruby Bridges describes her own courageous act at age six that ended school segregation in New Orleans in 1960.
Young people are particularly attracted to autobiographical works by authors they know. Gary Paulsen has written a number of autobiographical works that bridge his life and his fictional characters and settings.
Seek out autobiographies that will speak to today's youth. Brown Girl Dreaming (2014) by Jacqueline Woodson is an outstanding memoir written in verse. The book tracks the author's experiences growing up in both the South and the North during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Biography tells the story of a person’s life. Youth enjoy reading about the lives of others, particular those close to their age. You’ll find biographies in many categories including contemporary celebrities (i.e., actors, musicians, artist), political leaders and humanitarians, sports figures, scientists and explorers, villains, and other interesting people. David Adler has written dozens of picture book biographies. Jean Fritz is another example of an author who has written many biographies on historical figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Ben Franklin, and Patrick Henry.
Big Words Biographies (2004+ series) by Doreen Rappaport is an effective way to introduce young children to important historical figures through a combination of powerful images and words. Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (2001) by Doreen Rappaport is an award-winning example.
Russell Freedman is well-known for his nearly 50 biographies popular in the middle grade. In 1988 his book Abraham Lincoln: A Photobiography kickstarted a new approach for biographies aimed at youth. The book took a scrapbooking approach combining quality primary sources including photographs along with engaging narrative. Since then, books on The Wright Brothers (1991), Eleanor Roosevelt (1993), and Marian Anderson (2004) have been popular with youth.
Candace Fleming is also known for her scrapbooking approach to biographies. Her books are filled with photos and primary source documents.
Encourage youth to read biographies by associating them with other interests. For instance, after reading The Fault in Our Stars (2012) by John Green, suggest This Star Won’t Go Out (2014) by Esther Grace Earl. This collection of primary sources including artwork, photographs, letters, and journal entries tells the moving story of Esther Grace Earl who died of cancer in 2010. The introduction was written by author John Green. Check out Esther’s tumblr account that is still being maintained by her parents. Click the excerpt below center to read the beginning of John Green's introduction and below right to read a diary entry.
In addition to the use of engaging visuals, authors are also looking for ways to bring the stories of people alive. Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith (2009) by Deborah Heligman is a work of narrative nonfiction. Although the story of Charles Darwin and his deeply religious wife is written like a novel, it’s actually a biography. The book includes extensive notes to support the facts behind the story. Click below center for an excerpt from the book's Forward, then below right for an excerpt from the book.
Youth are always seeking out books that connect with their own personal lives, as well as, titles that help them better understand their peers. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out (2014) by Susan Kucklin may fit both categories. This work of nonfiction provides an honest look at the struggles of transgender teens.
Rosalyn Schanzer’s books bring historical figures and history to light through her engaging text and colorful illustrations. Using a graphic novel style, George vs George (2004) provides a unique look at two historical figures: George Washington and King George III.
While some authors create complete biographies based on a person’s entire life, others focus on particular events or periods in a person’s life. For instance The Story of Ruby Bridges (1995) by Robert Coles explore a child’s experiences enrolling in an all-white school during the times of desegregation.
Look for ways to get youth excited about biographies. For instance, an increasing number of quality graphic biographies are being publishing. A few are listed below:
- Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography (2010) by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón
- Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography (2006) by Andrew Helfer
- Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas (2013) by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks
Use collective biographies to let students sample short biographical pieces. Kathleen Krull is known for her Lives of (1993+ series) series that focus on explorers, scientists, musicians, athletes, presidents, and others.
Humanities, History and Social Studies Nonfiction
A growing number of history storybooks are being developed. For instance, Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story of the Underground Railroad (2007) by Ellen Levine is a wonderful example. Illustrated by Kadir Nelson, tells the dramatic story of a slave who mails himself to freedom. Amelia and Eleanor Go for a Ride (1999) by Pam Muñoz Ryan explores the relationship between aviator Amelia Earhart and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt
Jim Murphy (2010, June 15) feels strongly about the types of information that should be conveyed in works of nonfiction. He states,
“It’s not just that warfare is an important part of our history. Draw up a quick mental list of the wars we’ve been in and you have a country that has been surrounded and consumed by the build-up to, the fighting of, and the aftermath of brutal conflict. But rarely do we ever speak truthfully about war to young readers. And that’s how I came to be writing two books about war at the same time: A SAVAGE THUNDER: Antietam and the Bloody Road to Freedom and TRUCE: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting.
I began with a simple mission — to write books that were honest, informative and dramatically involving, and largely focused on the experiences and emotions of those who were actually in these conflicts. In other words, I wanted to avoid doing the sort of histories I grew up reading, what I call “my father’s history”: fact laden, formal texts that talked almost solely about important individuals making important decisions, discussed battles as if they were well-mannered chess matches, and, in effect, said that the politicians and commanding generals (for our side, of course) did what was best for the country and its soldiers.”
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Nonfiction
The Scientists in the Field series from Smithsonian is a wonderful series exploring a wide range of science topics. Focusing on the experiences of scientists working in their field, the stories are engaging. In addition, the each book incorporating photos, diagrams, and other visuals to bring science alive for readers.
If the Scientists in the Field books from the Smithsonian had been around when I was a child, I may have ended up as a scientist instead of a librarian. Each book is packed with wonderful narrative and engaging visuals that bring alive the work of scientists.
For many children, science is just a bunch of facts to memorize for exams. The key to bringing science alive is engaging hands-on activities along with developing a sense of adventure. Exploring the jungles of Africa, diving deep into the Pacific ocean, or discovering how to save a species, these books help youth see science through the eyes of real scientists in the field.
Seek out quality works of science that don’t talk down to children. Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life (2009) by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm is a collaboration between a children’s author and an MIT professor. The combination provides an engaging book for 8-10 year olds that gets the science right.
Nic Bishop is known for his fact-based books on creatures like Lizards (2010), Snakes (2012) (shown below) and Spiders (2007).
David Macaulay is known for his books focusing on visualizing engineering topics. In the 1970s, he because known for his books focusing on construction including Cathedral: The Story of its Construction (1973), City: A Story of Roman Planning and Construction (1974), and Castle (1977). Later, works like The New Way Things Work (1998) flew off library shelves. Recently, he has written books for beginning readers such as Toilet: How It Works (2013).
Seek out "how to" books on topics likely to appeal to young readers. For instance, books on computer software like Minecraft are popular. Daniel Lipkowitz has written a number of books about Lego including The LEGO Book (2009), The LEGO Ideas Book (2011), and the LEGO Play Book (2013).
I grew up with Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. LEGOs were just begin introduced when I was a child. However as an adult, I will admit that I love LEGOs! While some people like to build a puzzle on a cold winter's night, I get out my LEGOs! I've completed the "master builder academy" and have an entire winter village sitting on the top of a bookcase.
During the past several years, a new wave of LEGO books have been produced that highlight the products as well as provide endless ideas.
Are you a LEGO fan? If not, are you attracted to other types of "how to" books on topics like quilting, woodworking, or weaving?
Some books combine elements of fantasy with informational reading. The popular Magic Schoolbus series is an example. In books like The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks (1986) by Joanna Cole a group of children and their teacher go on adventures as they learn science concepts.
Read Zarnowski, Myra & Turkel, Susan (2013). How Nonfiction Reveals the Nature of Science, Children’s Literature in Education, 44, 295–310.
Increasingly, publishers are creating young adult versions of popular nonfiction works. The Warrior’s Heart: Becoming a Man of Passion and Courage (2012) by Eric Greitens is an example. Adapted from the adult work The Heart and the Fist (Houghton, 2011), this streamlined version is designed with the interested of young men in mind.
Dwight Jon Zimmerman is known for his adaptations. For instance, Jon Zimmerman's Saga of the Sioux is an adaptation of Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for middle school aged youth. Another example for younger students is the adaptation of Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded (2003) by Simon Winchester titled The Day the World Exploded: The Earthshaking Catastrophe at Krakatoa (2008). This highly illustrated book is highly abridged by Dwight Jon Zimmerman is designed for ages 10-14.
This approach has been taken recently with two adult books related to Abraham Lincoln. Chasing Lincoln's Killer (2009) is a young adult version of James L. Swanson's bestseller Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer (2007). Bloody Times: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Manhunt for Jefferson Davis (2010) is the adapted version of Swanson's Bloody Crimes: The Funeral of Abraham Lincoln and the Chase for Jefferson Davis (2010). In the same vein is Lincoln's Last Days: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever (2012) by Bill O'Reilly and Dwight Jon Zimmerman an abridged and adapted version of Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard.
Another history-related example is The Mayflower and the Pilgrims' New World (2009) by Nathaniel Philbrick adapted from Mayflower: A Story of Community, Courage, and the War (2007). The adapted version includes additional illustrations including maps, artwork, and archival photos.
Three versions of the book Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin are available including an adult version, young reader's edition, and a children's book. Focusing on fast-food production and marketing, Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want to Know about Fast Food (2007) is an adaptation of Fast Food Nation (2001) by Eric Schlosser.
Increasingly works of nonfiction are being produced in various formats such as ebooks, interactive books, and videos.
The Library of Congress has produced a series of Student Discovery Sets focusing on primary source documents. Topics in these ebooks include The Constitution, The Dust Bowl, The Harlem Renaissance, Immigration, Symbols of the United States, and Understanding the Cosmos. The image below is from the Immigration ebook.
Evaluation of Nonfiction
Accuracy is essential in works of nonfiction. Of course, authors can’t be totally objective, however they need to strive for factual information rather than opinions. It’s important that the author clearly distinguish between facts and opinions.
Beyond the facts, works of nonfiction need to be engaging for readers. Interesting anecdotes and first person accounts can bring a subject to life. Youth particularly enjoy unusual facts and trivial about topics. They also like alternative points of view and different ways to look at a topic.
The visual aspects of informational books is important to youth. They prefer books with visual appeal. Seek out works with illustrations including photographs, infographics, charts, diagrams and other ways to visually present ideas.
Lamb, Annette (2013). Seminar in Literature for Youth: Literary Nonfiction. Available: http://eduscapes.com/nonfiction/7.htm
Murphy, Jim. (2010). The Nonfiction Life. Available: http://www.jimmurphybooks.com/blog/?p=41
Stoodt, Barbara (1996). Children’s Literature. Macmillian Education.