The Best Non-Fiction Books for Kids
When they think about reading, many parents and readers think first and foremost of fiction: story books, novels, and (occasionally) poetry. Nonfiction, in contrast, is often seen as secondary—great for when you want to look something up, but less useful for entertainment, pleasure, or reading aptitude.
However, nonfiction is critically important to child readers for a number of reasons. In the first place, most of the reading that occurs in real life is nonfiction: from recipe books to news articles and work reports, being able to understand and analyze factual information is a crucial skill. The same is true of college learning: the ability to critically read and understand research studies and academic sources is crucial to college success.
Most importantly, however, nonfiction is fun.
Finding a Factual Balance
Kids love facts and knowledge; it’s one reason that parents of toddlers come to dread the question ”why?” from their children and why “did you know?” is a favorite phrase of seven- and eight-year-olds the world over. Nonfiction offers children a medium through which they can come to understand the world and make sense of what they see around them. For this reason, striking a balance between fiction and nonfiction is essential to creating strong, independent readers.
Choosing Great Non-Fiction
With so much nonfiction available (and with ongoing national debates about the nature of truth and the prevalence of “fake news”), knowing how to evaluate and select nonfiction texts is important. While it may seem that facts are just facts, the selection and presentation of information goes a long way to distinguishing a quality children’s nonfiction text from a dubious one.
According to children’s nonfiction expert Joe Sutliff Saunders, the most important aspect of nonfiction for children is that it leaves space for readers to ask questions of their own. Experts on the Reading Recovery website agree, arguing that children’s “own, authentic questions engage them with the text and lead to deeper thinking and greater understanding.” Choose texts that present knowledge as unfinished exploration, rather than black-and-white, cut-and-dry facts.
Books that offer interaction are also a good choice, as are books that offer resources for further research and citation for where their information comes from. Finally, make sure that you are choosing books that are inclusive and diverse, use language with accuracy and precision, and avoid explicit bias.
There are a number of tried and tested publishers of non-fiction texts for children who are worth keeping on your radar. Dorling Kindersley, a division of Penguin Random House, is well known for superbly produced reference books. Characterized by rich illustrations and encyclopedia-style snippets of text, these books provide hours of pleasurable browsing. National Geographic is another prolific producer, offering information books on subjects as wide-ranging as dinosaurs, soccer, and volcanoes.
Smithsonian Kids publishes nonfiction on a range of history subjects, including archeology, anthropology, and ancient history. Their 100 Curious… series offers fascinating facts and images drawn from the museum’s collections. The First Words series from Lonely Planet Kids is a range of board books for foreign language learning; Lonely Planet Kids also offers a range of atlases and exploration-focused books. Finally, it is worth remembering the many smaller, independent children’s publishers offering nonfiction on every subject under the sun.
Non-Fiction Genres and Forms
Nonfiction is a wide-ranging sector and encompasses more than just books of facts like encyclopedias. Biographies and autobiographies often offer stories comparable to fiction in their compelling narrative style and drama. History and contemporary history books can be found covering issues such as civil rights, the development of architecture, and the evolution of bathrooms. Books are also available in science and technology, nature, geography, history and culture, and even math.
Of course, nonfiction for children is not limited to traditional paper books. A wide range of audiobooks and podcasts are also available for children, as well as magazines from Smithsonian, National Geographic, Discover, and Time. There are also excellent graphic non-fiction texts, from Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis to Lauren Redniss’s Oak Flat. The Graphic Guides series from Icon Books makes complex topics like epigenetics, relativity, and logic visually accessible to teens, with eBook features also allowing study practices like highlighting and adding notes to text.
Recent Noteworthy Publications
A great way to discover the best new nonfiction publications is to keep an eye on the children’s nonfiction awards, including the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) Award, the Orbitus Pictus Award from the NCTE, and the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. These awards recognize and promote the best nonfiction being published for children and young adults, judging on grounds including artistic merit, accuracy, and significance.
Rex Ogle’s Free Lunch won the YALSA 2020 award; this moving autobiography offers a first-hand perspective on poverty in the US. The 2020 Boston Globe Horn Book Nonfiction Awards was won by Ashley Bryan’s Infinite Hope, a memoir that combines a searching exploration of racism with a fascinating archive of real-life photographs, letters, and other memorabilia. Barry Wittenstein’s A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech that Inspired a Nation won the 2020 Orbitus Pictus Award, offering not only an historical account of Luther’s famous speech, but also an in-depth look at the speech-writing process.
5 Non-Fiction Booklists to Get You Started
This article, The Best Non-Fiction Books for Kids, was written by Dr. Jen Harrison.
More of the Best Non-Fiction Books For Kids
Weird But True New York City: 300 Bizarre Facts About The Big Apple is a fun book of factoids that can lead to many interesting conversations.
The Wright Engineers: Inventing the Airplane is an insightful and educational book written to appeal to any middle-grade (or above) reader.
The Kitchen Pantry Scientist: Biology for Kids is fun, engaging, and well-organized to balance fact learning with experimental discovery.
Exploring the Elements is colorful, comprehensive, and accessible, breaking complex chemical concepts down into simple ideas easy for young readers to grasp.
Evocative of a cross between a DK history book and a Where’s Waldo activity book, Ancient World Magnified is packed full of fascinating details.
Filled with heartbreakingly detailed memories, Boy from Buchenwald invites readers to vicariously experience Waisman’s own process of healing and moving on.
In this episode, I talk with Jeanne Walker Harvey, the author of the stunning picture book biography Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas.
The time for boring history lessons is at an end! In the Quick Histories series from Quarto Publishing, discover thousands of years of history.
Get Real and Get In: How to Get into the College of Your Dreams by Being Your Authentic Self is a combination of advice and motivation.
Join us on this virtual book tour for Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas by Jeanne Walker Harvey—perfect for Women’s History and Black History.