Nevada Sharp has a Master of Library and Information Science degree. She has been a children's librarian for 25 years.
What Is Narrative Nonfiction?
To describe the category of nonfiction books that goes by the name of “narrative nonfiction,” we can say that the authors use many of the elements of storytelling to convey factual information. They use the structure of a story (beginning, middle, and end) to narrate some sort of journey or experience, teaching children interesting facts and principles along the way.
The most common sort of narrative nonfiction is a biography, the story of a person’s life. In the following books, children will learn about the accomplishments of a variety of people who have dealt with a disability along the way. They’ll meet paralympic athletes, activists, dancers, race car drivers, veterans, scientists, equestrians, and railway workers.
1. Fastest Woman on Earth: The Story of Tatyana McFadden by Francesca Cavallo
Ages 5-9, Format: picture book biography; Subjects: Paralympic Games, wheelchair racing, spina bifida, adoption, women athletes, disabilities; Pages: 44
“Once upon a time,” begins this book about wheelchair racing athlete Tatyana McFadden, “a very poor woman left a baby on the doorstep of the big gray building in Russia.” From the pictures in Fastest Woman on Earth, we can see the Tatyana lives in an orphanage, and we learn that because she has spina bifida. Because her legs don’t work well, she learned to walk on her hands and developed exceptional upper body strength.
When she was a bit older, she was adopted by two American women who also gave her a wheelchair. The book emphasizes that Tatyana was encouraged to do things her own way, and when she was 15 she began racing her wheelchair in the Paralympics. She won silver and bronze medals in Athens and has gone on to set several records, earning the title “The Fastest Woman on Earth.” At the Winter Olympics in Russia, she picked up cross-country skiing, winning a silver medal. For that competition, her birth mother was able to come and see her compete.
Back matter has more information about Tatyana and a picture of her. This book is the first in a planned series about paralympic athletes.
2. All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans With Disabilities Changed Everything by Annette Bay Pimentel
Ages 5-10; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: perseverance, cerebral palsy, people with disabilities , Americans With Disabilities Act, civil rights; Pages: 32
Most children take for granted that buildings and other public places now have things like wheelchair ramps, cutaway curbs and Braille signs. It’s worth pointing out to them that it used to be so much more difficult, if not impossible, for people with disabilities to navigate places like theaters or courthouses. They often lacked elevators, or had door handles that were hard to grip. And the signage couldn’t be read by people with vision limitations.
Not all buildings are completely accessible even today, but the improvements we do have came about because of the work of dedicated activists who fought for change.
All the Way to the Top tells the story of an eight-year-old girl named Jennifer Keelan, who was born with cerebral palsy, and participated alongside adults in demonstrations with the goal of convincing Congress to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the EEOC, this act, passed in 1990, “protects access and opportunity for people with disabilities across community life, including employment.”
Young Jennifer kept running into obstacles with getting around in her school because she was in a wheelchair. She soon became the youngest member of a group of activists who wanted to open up communities to people with disabilities.
The phrase “all the way to the top” describes how she persisted in climbing to the top of the steps of the US Capitol in a demonstration called the “Capitol Crawl.” Activists wanted to dramatize how difficult it was for people with disabilities to make their way around buildings, so they crawled up the many steps to the main floor of the Capitol. We see how long it took her to crawl to the top and how much fortitude she showed along the way.
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3. Brayden Speaks Up: How One Boy Inspired the Nation by Brayden Harrington
Ages 5-8; Format: picture book non-fiction; Subjects: stuttering, self-esteem, perseverance, public speaking; Pages: 40
One of the more heartwarming stories of the 2021 presidential inauguration was that of Brayden Harrington, a boy who has challenges with stuttering, what he calls “bumpy speech.” He tells his own story in Brayden Speaks Up.
When Brayden met Joe Biden, he was surprised to learn that Biden had also been challenged by stuttering as a child. Biden talked with Brayden for quite some time, giving him tips about how to deal with stuttering. Later Brayden gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention, and then again at the inauguration. The illustrations are charming and upbeat, and the back matter includes a personal note from Brayden, and tips for children, parents and teachers about stuttering.
4. Alicia Alonso Dances On by Rose Viña
Alicia Alonso Dances On tells a story about the resilience and perseverance we need when our dreams look like they are derailed.
At first, it looked as though Cuban-born Alicia Alonso was well on her way to becoming a star ballerina after leaving her home in Havana to train at the American Ballet Theater in New York City. But then she was struck with an eye condition that damaged her sight, even though she underwent surgery which left her bedridden for a year.
The book details her arduous road back into dancing shape and also the modifications she had to make because she was partially blind. Nonetheless, she became a prima ballerina and starred in many roles.
Later in life, she returned to Cuba to mentor others.
5. Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah by Laurie Ann Thompson
Ages 6-9; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: cyclists, Ghana, Africans, perseverance; Pages: 40
Emmanuel’s Dream tells readers a the story of a Ghanian boy who overcame attitudes toward disabled persons to make his own way in the world and become an activist for equal rights. Author Laurie Ann Thompson uses simple, straight forward yet evocative prose to draw children in to a story they will find relatable.
She tells us that Emanuel was born with “two bright eyes,” “two healthy lungs,” and “two tiny fists,” but “only one strong leg kicked.” Many people in the community thought he was useless, or even cursed, but his mother believed in him and “told him he could have anything, but he would have to get in for himself.”
He learned to crawl, to hop, to do chores, and how to shine shoes to make some money. When he became too heavy for his mother to carry to school, he hopped on one leg two miles each way to get to school. (While reading this story, I’ve had the children hop on 1 foot for 5 minutes and then told them to imagine doing that for 2 hours. It really brings home how determined this boy was.)
Fortunately, he was able to get a pair of crutches and was even able to play soccer with the other children. He also figured out how to ride a bicycle.
When he was only 13, his mother became ill, and he sneaked out of the house and travel to a big city in order to make money for the family. He served drinks and shined shoes and sent money home.
Sadly, his mother’s health took a turn for the worse, and before she died, she told him, “Be respectful, take care of your family, don’t ever beg. And don’t give up.” Emanuel realized “her last words he been a gift. He would honor them by showing everyone that being disabled does not mean being unable.”
He procured a bicycle from a foundation in San Diego, California and biked around Ghana to demonstrate that people with disabilities are capable. In the author’s note, she tells us that Ghana passed a Persons with Disability Act which extends the same rights to people with physical disabilities as are given to the rest of the country’s citizens. Emmanuel was instrumental in getting the act passed.
The illustrations have a folk art feel and help children picture Emmanuel’s home and his surroundings.
6. The Fastest Girl on Earth: Meet Kitty O’Neil, Daredevil Driver by Dean Robbins
Ages 6-9; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: women, stunt performers, auto racing drivers, deafness; Pages: 40
The Fastest Girl on Earth is a book for children who like a lot of action. Turn the cover, and from the very beginning we see a countdown: Ten… nine… eight… rendered both with letters and with drawings that convey the sign language symbols for each number. I like to read this to a group of children because shows them that women, and also deaf people, can have an active, daring life.
It’s the true story of Kitty O’Neil, a woman who loved to run, swim, dive, and jump when she was a girl. Author Dean Robbins mentions that she lost her hearing to a fever when she was a child, but doesn’t dwell on it, because the focus is rightly on Kitty’s accomplishments.
“Kitty grew up to be a daredevil,” he tells us. As an adult, she became a stunt woman for the movies, and we see an illustration of her jumping out of the plane while the cameras roll. We learn that she set speed records for waterskiing and boat racing, but what she really wanted was to be the fastest driver in the world.
Towards that aim, she used a rocket-powered car called the Motivator, and after much practice, she did her speed run, clocking 618 miles per hour. That feat earned her the title of the fastest woman on earth. After that, she becsme a hero and “everywhere she went, fans cheered. Kitty could not hear their cheering, but she could feel it in her bones.”
The illustrations jump off the page, giving readers a real sense of how actively and exuberantly Kitty O’Neil lives her life. The back matter is full of interesting facts about things like Kitty’s rocket-powered car and the numerous sports in which she was a top athlete including dune buggy racing, hang gliding, ice skating, karate, mountain biking, snowmobiling, and trampoline jumping.
7. Stephen Hawking (Little People, Big Dreams) By Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara
Ages 6-9; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: scientists, physicists, black holes, resilience, ALS; Pages: 32
Stephen Hawking introduces children to the renowned physicist and briefly explains his contributions to the study of black holes. It would be an excellent book to read to children before a unit on scientists or on astronomy.
The first two page spread shows a young Stephen looking out of his window at the black night dotted with stars and a crescent moon. We learn that he was born in England during a “great world war” and that he would “look up at the stars and wonder what else was out there.”
Turn the page, and we see him at the dinner table with his parents and three siblings, all of them engaged in reading books as they eat. As the book progresses, we learn that while Stephen was not at the very top of his class, he was curious and engaged in and made it to the top universities like Cambridge an Oxford.
Then, while he was in college, he started having trouble with dropping things and tripping. Author Sanchez Vegara tells readers that Stephen found out he was suffering from “a rare disease that was paralyzing his body” and that doctors told him that he likely only had two more years to live. “Stephen felt like the whole universe was falling down around him,” she tells us. But, “instead of looking down at his feet, Steven decided to look up at the stars. Maybe he couldn’t control his body, but in order to study the universe, all he needed was his mind.”
He didn’t let his condition stop him, and we learn that he continued with having a family—a wife and three children—and he often gave the kids rides on his wheelchair.
Then the book turns its attention towards his scientific career and his study of black holes. I always like it when I learn something new from a children’s book. I had always thought that light couldn’t escape from a black hole, and this account indeed states that scientists used to think that was true until Stephen proved that “there was a tiny light escaping from them. It was named ‘Hawking radiation.’”
We learn that even though Stephen’s disease had progressed and he was no longer able to talk, he “found a new [voice] with a robotic drawl,” referring to his computer-assisted system for talking. Using this system he wrote the best-selling book that helps people understand the universe, A Brief History of Time.
Author Sanchez Vegara highlights his continued spirit of adventure by telling us that he took a zero gravity ride with the astronauts to celebrate his 65th birthday. She concludes by saying, “By becoming the most brilliant scientist of today, little Stephen made an amazing discovery: ‘However difficult life may seem, there is always something that you can do and succeed at.’”
The illustrations are upbeat and charming, and though this is a very brief recounting of his life, it succeeds at giving a good sense of Hawking’s positivity and determination.
8. Tuesday Takes Me There: The Healing Journey of a Veteran and His Service Dog by Luis Carlos Montalvan
Ages 6-9; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: service dogs, veterans, New York City, PTSD; Pages: 48
Tuesday Takes Me There recounts a busy day in the life of veteran Luis Carlos Montalvan and his service dog, a golden retriever named Tuesday. By using photographs and text, it shows the man and his dog visiting several iconic sites in New York City and Washington, DC as they travel on their way to a public library to read books to the children.
This is a book that can be used in so many ways. It can serve as a gentle introduction to veterans, wars and PTSD, as we see the dog providing comfort and stability to a man who has trouble dealing with crowds. It can introduce very young children to different kinds of transportation, as the two of them travel on the ferry boat, in a car, a train, a horse drawn carriage, a bicycle cab, a bus, the subway, and a helicopter. It also shows us many of the sites that are famous in New York City and Washington, DC: the Statue of Liberty, the Freedom Tower, the LOVE sculpture, Central Park, Penn and Union Stations, the Capitol building, the Washington Monument, the Air and Space Museum, Arlington Cemetery, and the Jefferson Memorial.
The whole day is told from the dog’s point of view. He explains that Luis fought in the Iraq War and that he and “saw and felt a lot of pain. That caused a condition called PTSD. It was hard for Luis to live a normal life with PTSD, so he was matched with me: Tuesday. I'm a service dog.” He tells us that Luis is better than he used to be, but he still has a hard time with strange places and crowds. Outside of Madison Square Garden, we see Tuesday at work in the crowd. He tells us, “Now Luis really needs me. His PTSD makes him nervous around strangers, so when we are on a busy street, I stay in front to clear the way.”
As they travel, Tuesday also briefly identifies each sight that is pictured, and short sidebars give more information about things like the Statue of Liberty and the Air and Space Museum. Tuesday also has quite a bit of fun along the way, riding the merry go round, or trying on a space helmet at the museum.
It warms my librarian’s heart to see their final destination, a library where Luis read the book about Tuesday to the children while Tuesday cuddles on his lap.
All in all, it’s a heartwarming story of a veteran, the bond with his service dog, and their outreach to kids across the nation.
9. Jubilee: The First Therapy Horse and an Olympic Dream by KT Johnston
It’s becoming apparent that the most important thing we can teach our children is resilience, and a good place to start is with stories like that of dressage champion Lis Hartel in the book Jubilee.
Author Johnston introduces us to Hartel, a girl who “couldn’t imagine life without horses. Horses were playmates.” When she was 13, the girl began competing in dressage.
Hartel and her horse became national champions in 1943 and 1944, and “It seemed nothing could stop them. But,” Johnston tells us, “later that year, something did stop them. And it looked like Lis might never ride again.”
When she was a young mother, Hartel was struck with polio and because of the resulting paralysis, the doctor told her that she would not be able to ride horses again. But she was determined, and in illustrator Annabelle Ortiz’ simple, yet evocative illustrations, we see her first practicing just to lift her arms off the blanket, and then pushing herself around in a small cart.
She worked and worked until she was able to have her husband put her on a young horse by the name of Jubilee, a horse that wasn’t really built for dressage—but together, they were able to succeed. Much of the pleasure of the book is in finding out how Hartel made everything work until she and Jubilee could compete on the highest levels.
You will see from the title that the two of them made it to the Olympics, and that Hartel discovered what many people have discovered from then on – that working with horses is therapeutic both physically and emotionally. It’s a book that will resonate with animal lovers and any child who is facing challenges in life.
10. Railway Jack: The True Story of an Amazing Baboon by KT Johnston
Ages 8-12; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: primates, friendship, animal helpers, disabilities, problem-solving; Pages: 40
People with disabilities have always been creative and resourceful when figuring out how to accomplish what they want to do. They have formed partnerships with animals, especially dogs that help those with challenges like sight or hearing. Railway Jack recounts the true story of a man who enlisted the help of a loyal and clever baboon.
This extraordinary story starts with a fellow named Jim Wide who lived in South Africa in the late 1800s. He was a railway inspector, but it looked like he was not going to be able to continue his livelihood because of an accident that caused him to lose both legs below the knee. He had built himself two wooden legs, but he still found it hard to do his job, even though he had built himself a handcart for getting around.
One day, Jim saw a man who had a baboon named Jack that was helping him with his oxen. Realizing how helpful an animal like that could be, Jim made a deal to acquire the baboon. He soon learned that Jack could do quite a few useful things for him, like sweeping and pumping water.
Jack also helped him get around. He would load Jim’s cart on to the railroad tracks, and then push him along the rails and until they arrived at the railyard. Illustrator César Samaniego does a nice job of showing the friendship and joy between the two as they ride down hills together on that cart. Author K. T. Johnston tells us, “He [Jack] was so helpful that Jim came to think of Jack not merely as his assistant, but also as his best friend. It was clear Jack felt the same way. He would sit with his arm around Jim’s neck and stroke Jim’s hand, chattering endlessly.”
Eventually, Jim even got the idea of teaching Jack how to work the switches that guided the trains. He taught him how to interpret the whistles that each engineer blew to indicate which track they wanted to be on.Jack was able to perform this task without fail.
One day, Jack even had to prove his prowess to the train company. It turns out that a woman on a passenger train had looked out and seen a baboon running the switches. After she complained to the management, the company bosses came out to test Jack and see if he actually could perform the task. I’ll refrain from giving away the whole story here, but will say that the whole experience ends happily both for Jack and for Jim.
It’s a charming tale that is sure to amuse and interest children— and, more importantly— demonstrate to them how all kinds of people have creatively solved their problems. In the back matter, the author provides readers with a wealth of resources about baboons, service animals, and other books on the topic. Teachers and group leaders will find lots of ideas that can lead to lessons on subjects such as disabilities, problem-solving, primates, friendship, animal helpers, or railroads.
© 2022 Nevada Sharp