Adele has been a youth services librarian in public libraries for 20 years.
What Is Narrative Nonfiction?
Most of us are familiar with what is called “expository nonfiction.” These are the texts that explain the "Bill of Rights" or describe the planets of the solar system.
But what exactly is narrative nonfiction? Simply put, it’s a text that gets factual information across in a form that uses many of the elements of storytelling. An author of narrative nonfiction will typically introduce an actual character (perhaps a baseball player or a baby polar bear at the zoo) and narrate some sort of experience or journey that character has taken, all the while teaching kids a thing or two about history or zoology along the way.
By using a narrative structure (first this happened, then that, and that, and that), writers can relate nonfiction material using many of the techniques of the storyteller: characterization, dramatic tensions, foreshadowing, etc.
Narrative nonfiction provides kids with information in a format that is interesting to them.
Update: More Lists With Narrative Nonfiction Books
After falling in love with narrative nonfiction books while writing this article, I kept reading and making lists of all the new books I could find. You can find all the lists if you search the interenet for "Adele Jeunnette Hubpages. You will find links to all the articles I have written. Keep scrolling down; I've written quite a few articles on quite a few topics!
1. The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons by Natascha Biebow
Ages 6-10; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: inventions, arty, creativity, crayons; Pages: 48
It would be fun to introduce The Crayon Man by showing children the kinds of implements children used for drawing implements before the invention of Crayola crayons: chalk, bits of colored clay. They would see quite soon that it is pretty hard to get a colorful, detailed picture with these kinds of materials.
It seems like Crayola crayons have always existed, but they actually had to be invented. In picture book format, author Natascha Biebow tells the true story of the inventor, Edwin Binney.
Crayons did exist before Binney came along, but they were made from colored clay which only made fat lines, broke easily, and were too expensive for most people to afford. And—oh yes— some of them were poisonous, a pretty big drawback when it came to using them with children.
Binney’s wife, a schoolteacher, told him that children needed some sort of drawing tools that were better, cheaper, and preferably not poisonous. So he got to work melting paraffin (you can show the children a piece of it so they have an idea what paraffin is like) on the stove and adding powdered colors to them.
After much tinkering, he developed non-toxic colors and designed a stick that would be easy for children to hold. Binney took his creations to the World’s Fair and they caught on right away.
Read More From Wehavekids
Readers will be interested to learn that the company solicited children’s ideas for naming certain shades: “tropical rain forest,” “tickle me pink,” and, my favorite, “macaroni and cheese.” For a fun follow-up activity, take some shades of crayons and have children come up with new names for them.
Steve Salerno’s illustrations are bright, lively, and—of course—colorful. The back matter of the book has a section that shows how crayons are made today, more information about Edwin Binney, and a selected bibliography.
2. The Marvelous Thing That Came From a Spring
Ages 5-8; Format: picture book nonfiction;Subjects: toys, inventions, creativity; Pages: 40
It would be great fun to bring in a Slinky and have it walk down an incline as a way of introducing The Marvelous Thing That Came From a Spring to children.
The Slinky was a toy that took the U.S. by storm in 1945, but, like many other inventions, it started as somewhat of an accident.
Back in 1943, Richard James had been assigned to invent something that would keep the Navy's fragile equipment from vibrating in rough seas. He was working with springs, and one day, when he knocked a torsion spring off a shelf, it seemed to "walk" instead of fall. He took it home to his son who was able to walk the spring down from the top of the stairs. Richard and his wife Betty decided it would make a great toy.
Anyone who's been in the business world knows it's not as simple as having a good idea. The author, Gilbert Ford, does a nice job of showing the next steps in the process. Betty searched the dictionary trying to find just the right name for their new toy. (Can you see a companion activity for the kids? Developing toys and then looking for just the right name?)
Richard went to the bank to get a loan to have 400 Slinkys made. Then, Richard went on the road to try to sell his idea, but toy sellers were skeptical. Finally, he persuaded the manager at the Gimbels department store to let him demonstrate it during the holiday season. The Slinky walked down the ramp and the store sold out of all 400 units that night.
When the postwar boom happened, the toy's popularity skyrocketed. Ford lets us know a little more about how Richard and Betty managed the business. Richard invented a machine that could manufacture their toy much faster, and Betty kept the phones and paperwork humming. The author's note at the end includes some more interesting tidbits. For example, it was launched into space on Discovery and has inspired a magician.
I love Ford's illustrations — a blend of paper cut-outs and actual objects that portray the period and the tone perfectly.
3. The Elephant’s New Shoe: A True Rescue Story by Laurel Neme
The Elephant’s New Shoe introduces children to animal conservation and tells the heartwarming tale of a baby elephant, injured terribly by a snare, and the people who worked to save him and help him walk again. The story starts with animal rescuer Nick Marx finding the wounded elephant and working to gain his trust, feeding him and inching closer until he was able to cuddle up and sleep with him the following night.
He succeeds finally in transporting the baby elephant to a rescue center where they were able to care for his wound, but the young animal also needed companionship, and some way to replace his severed foot. They solved the first problem by bringing in another elephant. For the second, it took them several tries, but they finally were able to devise a prosthetic foot for him.
The back matter includes more facts about elephants along with photos of the now teen-aged elephant walking around on his manufactured foot.
4. Nacho’s Nachos: The Story Behind the World’s Favorite Snack by Sandra Nickel
Most kids are familiar with nachos, but I’ll bet they don’t know that the snacks are actually named after someone, a fellow who worked at a restaurant on the Texas/Mexico border in 1940. InNacho’s Nachos, author Sandra Nickel follows through on her absolutely inspired idea to find out where nachos came from.
Turns out, they were devised by a fellow named Ignacio Anaya, who went by the common nickname “Nacho.” Nickel tells us briefly how he was born in northern Mexico, orphaned when he was young, and lived with his foster mother who made delicious quesadillas. Fast-forward to when Nacho is 23, working in a restaurant, and has a “special talent for making diners happy.” He was so good that the owner of the Club Victoria in Eagle Pass, Texas made sure to hire the young man for his restaurant.
One day, a local woman known for her outstanding cooking came in to the restaurant with her friends and asked Nacho to whip up some new kind of snack for them. We see Nacho in the empty kitchen – no cooks or owners around –trying to figure out what in the world he could make.
The rest is history. He took some freshly fried corn tortillas in a bowl, and— remembering his foster mother’s quesadillas— Nacho topped them with grated cheese and pickled jalapeno pepper. The woman and her friends loved the dish, and soon “Nacho’s Special” was on the menu of Club Victoria. People from miles around traveled to the restaurant to try the snack, and though children may not notice unless we point them out, customers included President Lyndon Johnson and actors John Wayne and Cantinflas.
Nacho’s dish soon made it all around the world, and of course in time they became simply known as “nachos.”
Illustrator Oliver Dominquez creates lively full-page art that conveys the atmosphere of the 40’s on the Texas border. The book includes a recipe for nachos, and an afterword that includes a picture of Nacho and his family.
5. Tani’s New Home: a Refugee Finds Hope & Kindness in America by Tanitoluwa Adewumi
Ages 5-9; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: refugees, chess players, perseverance, determination, Nigerian Americans; Pages: 32
When I saw the subtitle for Tani’s New Home, I knew that I had to put it on this list. In a time when it seems like all we hear about is people’s nastiness towards each other, it’s nice to read about a refugee finding hope and kindness in America. Add the fact that Tani Adewumi wrote this account of his life himself, and we can feel proud that America still has within itself to be a place of opportunity for an immigrant family.
Tani tells us his life story in the third person, how he felt secure in his Nigerian neighborhood until Boko Haram, a terrorist group, started to make life dangerous for his family. (He has taken pains not to make things too frightening for children, simply saying “Boko Haram hurt people who disagreed with them.”)
The family fled. Tani tells us how his older brother made him feel safe as they traveled by teaching him to play chess by using a chessboard and pieces made from paper. He talks of flying in a plane to their new home in America, and how it was hard to stay in unfamiliar rooms and to eat “gooey stuff called cheese” on everything. At first he was not a fan of all the cheeseburgers, cheese pizza, and macaroni and cheese.
But then he found out about the chess club at school , and was able to join because the fee was waived for his family who lived in a shelter. At first, he didn’t do well in competitions, but he remembered the coach’s words, “The people who do the best in chess are the ones who work the hardest.” A year later, he won the chess championship for the state.
New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof wrote about Tani’s story, and it’s worth reading his account. Notably, Tani’s family received more than $250,000 from a GoFundMe campaign, and the family has used much of that money to start a foundation that helps homeless people and refugees.
6. Sincerely, Emerson: A Girl, Her Letter, and the Helpers All Around Us by Emerson Weber
Ages 5-9; Format: nonfiction picture book ; Subjects: gratitude, thank-you notes, kindness, mail carriers, service industry workers, letter writing; Pages: 32
Sincerely, Emerson is perfect inspiration for a unit on writing letters and/or on gratitude, and would be especially good to read to a group of children around Thanksgiving. In telling her own story, young Emerson Weber tells us how much she loved to write letters to others and how one day she started thinking about the postal carrier who delivered her letters to family and friends all over. So, she wrote a letter thanking him for all that he did.
Next week, he brought her two boxes full of letters from mail carriers all over the country who were happy to be noticed and thanked. After she had answered many of the letters, she got to thinking about all the people who are out there working to keep the world going: grocery store clerks, trash collectors, farmers, nurses, bus drivers. The book ends saying, “Emerson wish that everyone she knew would take a moment to notice each one of them, and thank them… maybe even think each other… sincerely.
In an afterword, Emerson tells us she knows the story is “100% true” because it really did happen to her. The story was apparently picked up by the media, because she got to be on television, and she even received a letter from her favorite singer, Taylor Swift. She says, “All of that made me super happy of course, but it also made me think. Why was my saying thank you such a big deal? Isn’t saying thank you, and meaning it, something we should all be doing all the time? I think so – so I’m going to keep doing it! And I hope you will, too.”
It’s a short, charmingly illustrated book that can help spread the gratitude and kindness we want to foster in our children.
7. Let Liberty Rise! How American Schoolchildren Helped Save the Statue of Liberty by Chana Stiefel
Ages 5-8; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: New York, Statue of Liberty, newspapers, money-raising campaigns, working together, mobilizing community; Pages: 40
Let Liberty Rise tells how the schoolchildren of America banded together to make history and contribute to one of our nation’s richest symbols. It’s a good book to read to a group of children if you are planning to start any kind of cooperative project with them.
As the book begins, we learn that the country of France decided to give the people in the United States a huge and impressive statute that celebrated liberty. The good people of France got together and collected the money needed to build the statue itself, and the United States agreed to raise the money to construct a pedestal that would hold her weight and also be a fitting addition to the statue.
But, the people of the US did not do so well at raising the money. Even when the statue had been cast and sent to us in pieces to assemble, we didn’t have the money to build a place to put it. The rich folks of the United States couldn’t be bothered to donate to the cause. That’s a bit embarrassing, don’t you think?
Enter Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant who realized the importance of the Statue of Liberty. He decided to start a fundraising campaign himself. “Let us not wait for the millionaires to get the money. [Lady Liberty] is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America. It is the gift of the whole people of friends to the whole people of America.” And in a stroke of genius, he said that his newspaper, The World would print the name of every one who donated to the fund, no matter how small the donation was.
Young children loved the idea that they could get their name in paper. Soon, all the small change that they had gathered started pouring in. “Schoolchildren everywhere emptied their piggy banks. In the first week, The World raised more than $2,000!” Here, the book gives us little illustrations and mini-stories. One girl sent in 60 cents. “I wish I could make it $60,000,” she wrote, “but drops make an ocean.”
The children from one family, who were taking French lessons, sent in a dollar. Another group of 14 saved up the money they were going to spend on candy to help with the fund.
Finally, all the donations added up to $100,000. It turns out that 120,000 people had donated the money, so it was indeed from thousands and thousands of small donors.
Next, we get to see the statute assembled – the image of giant toes swinging past construction workers is priceless—and then we see the dedication ceremony.
The illustrations are absolutely wonderful. They give a sense of how enormous the statue is, and also charmingly depict all the children who contributed to the campaign. It’s especially good for reading to a group, and I really liked the two-page spread that shows Lady Liberty and the pedestal in all her glory with fireworks going off behind her.
The back matter includes a timeline, more facts about the Statue of Liberty, a bibliography and suggested websites, and several photos of the statue and Joseph Pulitzer.
8. Thank You Doctor Salk! The Scientist Who Beat Polio and Healed the World by Dean Robbins
Ages 6-10; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: vaccines, polio, scientists, virologists; Pages: 40
Thank You Doctor Salk! has all the ingredients you need to introduce children to the concept of vaccines, and the people who develop them. It’s a brief picture book that will only take about 10 minutes to read; the language is simple but evocative; and the large illustrations provide both poignancy and liveliness, depending on what the story needs.
The book starts when Salk is a young boy living in the city. As he watches his neighbors pass by, he sees that some are on crutches or in wheelchairs because they contracted polio. In these pages, it does mention that some of the victims even died, but does not dwell on it.
Children may recognize the situations described in the next page when people kept away from bakeries and banks, pools and parks to avoid catching the virus. “People prayed for a cure, but who could stop this terrible epidemic?” We look on the next page, and see Jonas as a young boy, standing resolute with curly hair, glasses, a suit and tie, and knee bridges. “Jonas knew who,” the book tells us. “He would stop it!”
Over the next few pages we see Jonas going to school and training to be a scientist all through elementary school, high school, college, and medical school. Then we see him experimenting to try to find the right mixture for a vaccine for “polio, the sneakiest virus of all.”
The story takes us through the support he received while working in the vaccine (including the establishment of the March of Dimes) and the process of testing it once he had a viable candidate. We see children being vaccinated in schools, and afterwards receiving lollipops, pins, and a special card that names them a “Polio Pioneer.”
It is nice to see the street scene of jubilation once it was determined that the vaccine definitely worked in a large population. We see children waving and shouting from their apartments. “Cars honked! Bells rang! The adults danced! Children jumped for joy!” And we learn that Doctor Salk did not sell his vaccine, but instead gave it away for free for all the people.
The end matter includes an author’s note giving more detail about Doctor Salk’s accomplishment, information on how the vaccine fights the virus, the vaccine timeline, and a list of additional resources.
There may not be that many people left anymore who have suffered the crippling effects of polio, but I still have an aunt who has to wear a brace on one leg because she contracted polio as a child, and the leg didn’t grow normally after that. She had to spend eight or nine months in the city hospital, 200 miles away from her family when she was only seven years old. It is hard to imagine how terrible it was to have your child struck out of the blue with such a terrible illness. Unfortunately, it is sometimes also hard for us to remember how much fear, illness, and suffering vaccines have prevented in our lives, advances for which we should forever be grateful.
9.The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box: The Story of Videogame Inventor Ralph Baer by Marcie Wessels
Ages 5-9; Format: picture book biography ;Subjects: inventors, engineers, creativity, video games, perseverance, discrimination, Jews in World War II; Pages: 48
It seems unlikely that an idea like video games would start with a little Jewish boy living in Cologne Germany, but in The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box, we learn the story. At the start, we have a boy named Ralph Baer playing with things like hoops, scooters, hockey sticks, and bicycles. However, Germany was no place for his family at the time, and they emigrated to the United States. He was an inquisitive boy who likes to build and tinker, and when he was in the Army he figured out how to put together a radio for the guys in the barracks.
After the war, he came back and learned all about how to build televisions. He had an idea that people could maybe play games on their televisions, but no one seemed very interested in the idea in 1951, and he went on to build things for NASA, including a radio transmitter in a video camera that Neil Armstrong took to the moon.
Around 1956, he brought back his idea of a console that would hook into a television so that people could play games. I had to smile when I read the sentence, “Ralph showed his Brown Box to cable and TV companies everywhere, but no one thought playing games on a television set was a good idea.
As we know, he persevered, and in 1972 the Magnavox Odyssey was offered for sale. It would be worth showing children a video of the game Pong which was based on one of the games offered through the Odyssey. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4VRgY3tkh0
The sunny illustrations capture the time, and back matter includes and offers no with more information, additional readings, and a selected bibliography.
10. A True Wonder: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything by Kirsten W Larson
Ages 6-10; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: women superheroes, women’s movement, comic book characters, women superheroes; Pages: 40
In the process of telling the story of the Wonder Woman character, A True Wonder also gives a good introduction to the history of the women’s movement in the mid-20th century.
At the beginning of the book, author Kirsten Larson tells us, “When Wonder Woman arrived in America, she wasn’t the superhero most people had in mind. After all, she was a woman. But that was the point. She had an important mission: To change minds about what women could do. And to change the world.”
From there, the book shows how – in an industry dominated by white men – the idea of the superhero called Wonder Woman was tried as a radical new experiment and caught on with the children. From here, the author highlights the story of women who were involved in developing Wonder Woman’s story at a time when few women worked in the comic book business. Since many men went overseas to fight during World War II, these women stepped in. Retired tennis pro Alice Marble became an associate editor and wrote feature stories highlighting the accomplishments of actual women in history, and 19-year-old Joye Hummel wrote stories for more than 45 issues along with her editing work.
But then the war ended, superhero stories fell out of favor, and Wonder Woman became a diminished version of herself. In the 1970s, however, the women’s movement reemerged and the editors of Ms. magazine brought her back and even featured her on their first cover. We see how she soon had her own TV show, and just recently has had her own movies, directed by Patty Jenkins who became the first woman to direct a superhero movie and has become the highest-paid woman director in Hollywood.
The illustrations in the book are paintings that are reminiscent of comic book style, full of color and action. Illustrator Katy Wu includes several insets that almost look like trading cards and highlight important people in the story like Joye Hummel, Gloria Steinem, Lynda Carter and Patti Jenkins.
The back matter includes the authors’ journey towards making the book, more information about the women who worked on Wonder Woman, and selected readings.
11. The Bug Girl (a True Story) by Sophia Spencer
Ages 5-8, Format: picture book biography; Subjects: insects, entomologists, science, girls, bullying, self-image; Pages: 44
We read so many books to children about accomplished people to provide inspiration, and I’m betting The Bug Girl might be one of the most relatable books children will come across. It shows children that their science interests are worth pursuing, even if the other children in grade school think they are weird.
The author, Sophie Spencer, who was in the fourth grade when she wrote and published this book, describes how interested she became in insects after visiting a butterfly conservatory. She became a young bug aficionado and regaled all the children in kindergarten with all the cool facts she had learned about insects. But when she took a grasshopper to first grade expecting that her classmates would be as fascinated as she was, they instead crowded around and made fun of her. After that, she says she didn’t talk about bugs anymore, but they didn’t seem to forget that she was the weird bug girl.
Her mother, seeing how sad she was, decided to write to a group of entomologists to see if one of them would be her daughter’s “bug pal.” Soon she had entomologists all around the world writing in to tell Sophie how much they themselves loved bugs.
“All these people love bugs,” Sophia said to her mother. “They do,” her mother said back. Sophia said, “And they’re not weird.” “Nope,” said mom. “They’re curious just like you.” Sophia closes by telling us that she has quite a few interests these days: gymnastics, crime travel books, swimming, and technology. But, when somebody asked her to describe herself, she says, “The Bug Girl.”
Kera Scoet’s sunny watercolor paintings illustrate the story perfectly, and Sophia includes lots of “Supercool Bug Facts” in the back matter of the book.
12. 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 inBrayden 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.
13. Sharice’s Big Voice: A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman by Sharice Davids
Ages 7-11; Format: picture book biography; Subjects: Native Americans, women politicians, perseverance, listening, martial arts; Pages: 40
Sharice’s Big Voice describes Sharice Davids’ path to becoming one of the first Native American Congresswomen, but it also serves as a story about the importance of listening, role models, and perseverance.
Davids describes how she watched her mom talk with others in the community and says, “I saw how a good conversation can make people happy. You start as strangers, but then you share ideas and learn about each other.” She emphasizes how much of her campaign she spent listening to her prospective constituents to hear about the challenges they faced. She also describes her martial arts training and how it taught her to continue to work hard to achieve a goal.
The thing I like best about this book is its conversational style, and the way she includes humorous little tidbits which makes her story relatable to children. She tells us, “When I was young, I liked to talk. A lot. (I still do!)” She tells us that when she learned about the Nation she belonged to, she found out that they called themselves “People of the Big Voice” which she notes fit her quite well.
She talks about how she loved watching Bruce Lee movies and how she doesn’t like onions on her pizza. She also talks about how she often felt like an outsider, how she traveled around the world with her mother who was in the military, and how she was able to go to a special law school program for Native Americans.
She tells us, “Growing up, I never would have guessed my path would lead to Congress. I didn’t know I would be one of the first Native American woman in Congress, and the first lesbian representative from Kansas. Everyone’s path is different, and wherever yours takes you, maybe the lessons I learned can help.”
The illustrations are vibrant and have a folk art style to them. They capture the action, whether it is Sharice practicing martial arts kicks or celebrating her election win.
14. All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for the Americans With Disabilities Act Changed Everything by Annette Bay Pimentel
Ages 5-10; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: people with disabilities, perseverance, cerebral palsy, civil rights Americans With Disabilities Act; Pages: 32
Children may take for granted the ways in which buildings and other elements of our lives have been designed to be accessible to people of all abilities, but such design was not always the case. All the Way to the Top tells the story of Jennifer Keelan, a young girl born with cerebral palsy, who demonstrated along with the adults in favor of the Americans With Disabilities Act in the early 1990s. The phrase “all the way to the top” refers to her participation in a “Capitol Crawl” in which activists crawled up the capitol steps to demonstrate how difficult it was for people with disabilities to access all kinds of buildings.
The text is brief and direct and emphasizes Keelan’s energy. “She was always on the GO.”
15. 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
The children you know are likely familiar with the idea of a service dog, but have they ever heard of a service baboon? Railway Jack tells the true story of a baboon that learned to help a disabled railway worker, but more than that, it’s the touching story of a resilient, persistent, and creative man and his bond with a loyal and clever primate companion. In the end matter, author KT Johnston provides a wealth of extra resources that can lead to lessons on primates, friendship, animal helpers, disabilities, problem-solving, railroads, or any number of topics.
This story is extraordinary. It starts in the late 1800’s with a South African fellow named Jim Wide, who could have had his railroad career cut short when an accident caused him to lose both of his legs below the knee. He had figured out how to build a handcart to help him do a different job at the railyard, but it was still difficult with the two wooden legs he had fashioned.
One day, Jim saw a man with a baboon, named Jack, that helped him lead his oxen. Realizing how helpful such an animal could be, he made a deal to acquire him. At first, Jim wondered if the baboon would just be more trouble, but he was happy to find that that Jack was able to do so many useful things like sweep and pump water.
He could also load Jim’s cart onto the tracks and push him to work. It’s charming to see the illustration of the two of them riding down hills together, having a great time. The author 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.”
Jack even learned how to throw the switches for the trains that came, learning how the engineer blew the whistle to indicate which track he wanted. Jack is called upon to prove his prowess when one of the passengers on the train was understandably not too happy to see a baboon running the switches and complained to management The company bosses soon came to test Jack to see if he could actually do the job. I won’t give away all the story here, but will say it ends happily for both Jim and Jack.
All in all it is a charming story that will interest and amuse children—as well as grownups. In the end matter, Johnston provides more information on Jim and Jack including several photos, which I loved seeing. She includes additional information about baboons, a history of service animals, a glossary, discussion questions, internet resources, other books about remarkable animals, and a bibliography.
The story is in picture book format with large illustrations and 2 to 4 paragraphs on the page. César Samaniego’s illustrations convey a smudgy, coal-suffused world, appropriate to the railyard, conveying the emotions and action of the story.
16. The Titanic (History Smashers) by Kate Messner
Ages 8-12; Format: chapter book nonfiction; Subjects: steamships, shipwrecks, early 20th century, technology; Pages: 224
The Titanic is part of the “History Smashers” series of books which go into quite a bit of depth and use the hook of “smashing” certain myths about well-known historical incidents.
The story of the Titanic has fascinated adults and children alike, and author Kate Messner’s writing style keeps the narrative flowing while packing in all sorts of interesting information, much of which will be surprising to even dedicated Titanic buffs. It turns out that all sorts of Titanic lore turns out not to be quite true: the boat wasn’t exactly advertised as unsinkable, the ship had more lifeboats than the law required, and the ship wouldn’t have sunk if they hadn’t tried to turn to avoid the iceberg.
The text is broken up in several ways so that children won’t be daunted by the amount of words on the page, important in a book that has a fairly high reading level of AR 6.9.Readers will find numerous drawings, charts, sidebars, and action panels drawn to resemble comics.
Back matter includes a compendium of rumors and their answers, a timeline, suggested books and websites, bibliography, and an index.
17. Unspeakable: the Tulsa Race Massacre by Carole Boston Weatherford
Ages 8-12; Format: picture book nonfiction; Subjects: racism, African-Americans, US History, Tulsa Race Riot; Pages: 32
Unspeakable tells the story of a prosperous African American settlement in Tulsa, Oklahoma that was destroyed in 1921 by a white mob. Until recently, this dark chapter in American history was little-known. It seems that the people who perpetrated this massacre realized it was shameful and didn’t want to speak of it, and the victims didn’t want to talk of it for fear of it happening again.
Now, 100 years later, we increasingly hear from people who want to bury things like this once again. They argue that if we tell children about cruel things their ancestors did in the past, the children will feel bad about themselves. But there is a way to cover history like this so that children learn why and how unjust things happen without placing undue burdens on children. And I think this book accomplishes that task well.
It’s a rough story, but an important one to introduce to children, and I suspect that is why this book won more children’s book awards than any other when it was published in 2022. The events of that day illustrate how racial animosity has served to systematically erase gains made by the African-American community.
Weatherford uses spare, yet evocative text to describe how African-Americans built a flourishing community in a place called Greenwood outside Tulsa, with around 10,000 people living in the area. She tells how there were so many Black businesses that the area became known as “Black Wall Street.” She tells how there were restaurants, grocery stores, furriers, a pool hall, a bus system, and an auto shop – nearly 200 businesses in all. There were also community institutions such as libraries, hospital, post office, and the school system.
The rich illustrations portray the warmth of the community and the dignity of the people, with individuals pictured each with their own character so that you feel as though you have seen and met them before.
Then, Weatherford tells us, “But in 1921, not everyone in Tulsa was pleased with the signs of Black wealth – undeniable proof that African-Americans could achieve just as much, if not more than, whites. All it took was one elevator ride, one seventeen-year-old white elevator operator accusing a 19-year old Black shoeshine man of assault for simmering hatred to boil over.”
As far as I can tell, what exactly happened in the elevator has been lost to history, though we do find out through the author’s note that the young man in question was released from custody without any charges. But after the white-owned newspaper encouraged whites to “nab” the man, 30 black men rushed to the jail to prevent the young man from being attacked. Things spiraled out of control, and the white mob descended on Greenwood “looting and burning homes and businesses that Blacks had saved and sacrificed to build.” When it was all over, up to 300 Black people were killed and hundreds of businesses were burned to the ground.
The book ends with the picture of people gathered at Tulsa’s Reconciliation Park which reminds us of “the responsibility we all have to reject hatred and violence and to instead choose hope.”
I think Unspeakable recounts this story as gently as is possible without losing the point of the narrative. Though the illustrations show people running from their homes and being held at gunpoint, illustrator Floyd Cooper refrains from scenes of overly graphic violence. The emphasis of the book is much more on showing the thriving community and on people coming together in the present.
18. Her Epic Adventure: 25 Daring Women Who Inspire a Life Less Ordinary by Julia de Laurentiis Johnston
Ages 8-12; Format: nonfiction compendium; Subjects: women adventurers, aviators, astronauts, mountain climbers, polar explorers, writers, swimmers, surfers, sailors; Pages: 64
In Her Epic Adventure author Julia de Laurentiis Johnston gives us lively two-page spreads about remarkable and adventurous women, with just a few paragraphs of text and lots of illustrations by illustrator Salini Perea. For instance, in the first segment on aviator Bessie Coleman, we see a half page illustration of her standing in front of a plane with the speech bubble, “I refused to take NO for an answer.” We see small illustrations of her pilot ID card and people watching a stunt plane show along with a sidebar that illustrates “Tricks of a Trick Pilot.”
Johnston chooses a diverse group of women who have had during adventures in the sky, on mountain peaks, on land, and water. We learn about women like Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space; Kalpana Chawla, an Indian-American woman who flew on the space shuttle Columbia; Arunima Sinha, an Indian woman who summited Everest with a prosthetic leg; In-Youn Ahn, a South Korean woman who became the first Asian woman to become an island in the Arctic station leader; Zora Neale Hurston who traveled the jungles of the Caribbean and wrote about the cultures there; Diana Nyad, long-distance swimmer who completed the swim from Havana to Cuba at the age of 64; and Laura Dekker from New Zealand who sailed solo around the world when she was 15. This is a good browsing book with lots of illustrations, short chunks of information, and lots of sidebars that tell us more about each topic.
19. Growing up Gorilla: How a Zoo Baby Brought Her Family Together by Clare Hodgson Meeker
Ages 9-12; Format: large-format photographic nonfiction; Subjects: gorilla development, raising young animals, mother and child, bonding, families; Pages: 48
To introduce this book, Growing up Gorilla, about the bonding between a baby gorilla and her mother, try showing this video of the two of them. I predict you’ll her lots of “aww, how cute.” Some children will be surprised to find out that mothers have to learn how to take care of their babies, that it’s not a matter of pure instinct. Such was the case for Nadiri, a female gorilla at Woodland Park zoo in Seattle. She didn’t seem to know what to do when her own daughter was born. In fact, she almost seemed afraid to touch her.
The book details all the ways in which the zookeepers worked to get Nadiri comfortable with her new baby, a process that happened gradually and in fits and starts until the baby, named Nola, was finally able to join a gorilla family, protected by her mother.
The book features lots of high quality – and adorable – photos of Nola and her mother, and also gives a good idea of the philosophy and tasks of modern zookeepers. I especially appreciated the sidebars explaining things like how baby apes learn to accept the bottle, how gorillas use smell, a chart comparing guerrilla and human development, and an illustration of the bone structures of gorillas and humans. Though the book has quite a bit of high-level text, it is laid out in an engaging way for children. Back matter includes a glossary and list of sources as well as suggestions for more reading, websites, and several videos of the baby gorilla.
20. The Poison Eaters: Fighting Danger and Fraud in Our Food and Drugs by Gail Jarrow
Ages 10-13; Format: chaptered nonfiction; Subjects: food safety, public health, early 20th century, business: Pages: 160
Here is an important book that gives shows children how good public policy can change lives. The Poison Eaters is a book about the fight for making our food safer, which might seem a bit of a yawner, but in author Gail Jarrow's hands, it's a story that draws you in and fascinates you because you can't really believe things used to be this bad.
She starts with a description of a typical dinner scene for a family near the beginning of the 20th century when many people had switched to getting their food from a grocery store rather than a farm. But so many food companies were using tricks to sell people substandard--and even dangerous--food. Here is Jarrow's description: "The sausage sizzling in the pan... came from a filthy factory a thousand miles away. It was made from a pulverized mass of meat scraps swept off the floor—along with the rat feces—and mixed with borax to keep it from rotting."
We also find out that the milk was laced with formaldehyde, that the "baking eggs" had been deodorized so that you couldn’t tell they were rotting, and the supposed strawberry jam was full of cheap sugar, leftover apple pieces, a dangerous red dye and a preservative that was dangerous to eat. To top it off, the "soothing syrup" that the mother gave the baby had highly-addictive morphine in it. At the time, people had no idea what was in the food they ate because food and medicine producers were not required to list the ingredients in their products.
By the time we are finished reading the first chapter, we are starting to wonder how anyone made it out of the this time period alive.
The majority of this engaging account, though, is a good guy scientist tale, a recounting of the career of Harvey Wiley, a chemist who did testing for the government. As a scientist, he was appropriately suspicious of many of the substances that were added to food and set about to test them to see if they were harmful. He devised an experiment to have a number of healthy young men eat food with borax in it to see if it impacted them, a group that was dubbed "The Poison-Eaters." His experiment attracted the attention of the press and led citizens—especially women's groups— to push for a pure-food law requiring manufacturers to list the ingredients in their products and to stop putting harmful chemicals into them.
I believe books like this are important for children to read to show them how hard people have to work to effect important changes when people's health and lives are at stake. It took decades and decades of struggle for concerned citizens to get Congress to act because the food and drug manufacturers always pushed back, concerned that these laws would hurt their profits. It's a story that gets told told time and time again. Someone has to do the important work of holding companies accountable because they so oftenseem to value the bottom line over their customers' welfare.
I need to note that some of the instances she recounts are quite disturbing: the radium poisoning that caused bones to crumble, the eyelash dye that blinded users, the thalidomide that caused deformities in babies. I’d think you would want to make sure that readers can handle the topic and provide them support and a way to talk about what they've learned.
Throughout the book, there are plenty of graphs, photos, and sidebars to give readers a good grasp of the information. The back matter includes a glossary, an author's note, timeline, source notes, a bibliography and an index.
More Narrative Nonfiction
The following books have earlier publication dates, but are still examples of excellent narrative nonfiction. They appeared in previous versions of this article. I've included photos and review for the most outstanding titles.
21. Animal BFFs
AR 4.8. 155 pages. Published in 2016.
The tone and writing in this book remind me of those nature shows that Disney used to do. It is lighthearted with a little bit of anthropomorphizing along the way.
Animal Bff’s consists of several short stories of unlikely animal pairings. The stories are around six to eight pages long with one to two paragraphs on each page.
Much of the space is taken up with large and adorable photographs of the animals playing with each other or their toys.This will be attractive to reluctant readers because the text is broken into smaller chunks.
22. Pedal Power: How One Community Became the Bicycle Capital of the World
AR 3.4. 36 pages. Published in 2017.
In the Amsterdam of the 1970’s, protesters encouraged innovations like bike routes, traffic bumps to slow down cars, and laws that gave bikes the right of way. Many of these ideas have been adopted by cities around the world, which leads to a cleaner, healthier environment.
23. She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton
Ages 4-8. 32 pages. Published in 2017.
Chelsea Clinton uses the “She Persisted” slogan here to introduce brief sketches of 13 influential American women who persisted in their field of endeavor.
24. Ada's Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay
Ada’s Violin is a book that touches my heart, perhaps because I can identify a little with children who love music but don’t have a way of getting instruments of their own.
The story follows a girl, Ada Rios, who “grew up in a town made of trash.” Enter Favio Chavez, a man who hit on the idea of making instruments from the trash around them.
25. One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia
AR 2.9, ages 6-9. 36 pages. Published in 2015.
One Plastic Bag combines learning about Africa, recycling, and women's cooperatives.
The story is about Isatou Ceesay, who notices the trash piling up in her town in Gambia and wishes that something could be done to clean them up. When she sees a friend crocheting, she realizes that she can crochet the bags into purses to sell at the market.
26. Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla
AR 3.7, ages 3-82. 40 pages. Published in 2014.
Applegate wrote the touching Newbery-winning novel The One and Only Ivan.
In this non-fiction picture book, Ivan, she tells about the life of the gorilla who inspired her book.
Ivan was captured in the Congo in 1962 and taken to the B&I Circus store in 1962. At first, he lived in the home of a family who opened the pet store (he especially liked fried chicken and swinging from curtains), but when he grew too big, he was moved to an enclosure that was only 14X14 feet.
In the 1990s, people began to agitate for moving him to a better home, and, in 1994, he joined the gorillas at Zoo Atlanta.
Applegate’s text is spare and evocative, and Karas’ illustrations aptly capture the emotions of the story.
27. Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh
If you have children who were Winnie-the-Pooh fans when they were little (or still are!), Winnie is the narrative nonfiction book for them.
The book tells the story of the original Winnie, a bear who accompanied Canadian veterinary surgeon Harry Colebourne to military training in England during World War I.
The book has delightful illustrations reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting, and they show the little bear, named after the city of Winnipeg, searching for biscuits in Henry’s pockets, sleeping under his bunk, and attempting to climb the tent pole.
When Henry had to go to the battlefield in France, he decided that Winnie should stay in the new bear habitat at the London Zoo.
Winnie was so gentle that the zoo allowed children to ride him and feed him. One little boy was so entranced that he talked about Winnie all the way home. That boy went by the name of Christopher Robin Milne. When he snuggled with his teddy that night, he insisted that the stuffed bear needed to be renamed. And thus was born the books about the hundred-acre wood.
The story is in picture-book format with one or two paragraphs per page.
28. The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America's Hero
AR 4.0. Grades K-3. 32 pages. Published in 2014.
The Streak is a concise and tightly focused narrative that centers on Joe DiMaggio’s streak of hits in 56 consecutive games during the summer of 1941, right before the US entered WWII.
29. Kali's Story: An Orphaned Polar Bear Rescue
AR 4.2. Grades K-3. 32 pages. Published in 2014.
Kali’s Story is notable for its numerous high-quality photos that show the stages of Kali’s life from the time he was rescued (and his adventures at the Alaska Zoo) to the moment he was placed at the zoo in Buffalo, New York.
30. Kate Warne: Pinkerton Detective
AR 4.5. 52 pages. Published in 2017.
Right from the start, we like the bold and determined Kate, who convinced Pinkerton that a woman could go where male agents couldn’t. The next day, he hired her and put her on the Adams Express case. It was a major case, and Warne played a leading role in capturing the guilty man. Pinkerton was so impressed with her performance that he started a women’s division and put Warne in charge of it.
31. Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
AR 5.1. Grades K-3. 40 pages. Published in 2014.
This book makes the struggle for school desegregation relatable to children and tells the story of an important case that set the stage for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling which struck down the concept of “separate but equal” schooling.
32. The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever
AR 4.8. Grades K-3. 32 pages. Published in 2013.
This book tells the story of how she went from scientifically-minded young girl to the “Mother of Balboa Park,” the lush city center that hosted the Panama-California Exposition in 1915.
33. Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman by Marc Tyler Nobleman
Superman is such a mainstay in our culture that it’s hard to imagine what a unique and appealing character he was when he first appeared.
Using the picture-book format, Boys of Steel tells the story of a couple of nerdy boys who grew up during the Depression. hey imagined a superhero (an alien being) who could do amazing things in an ordinary world.The types of stories that captured these boys’ attention involved men who lived in different times and places (Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers).
The story of writer Jerry Sigel is especially poignant. His father died of heart failure while his clothing store was being robbed. No wonder young Jerry dreamed of a man with super powers who could chase away the bad guys.
Comic book fans will enjoy the large-format retro artwork.
The afterword tells the story of Siegel and artist Joe Shuster’s legal battles to get credit for their work and a share in their profits. Being young and sensing that they were lucky to even have anyone interested in their story, the boys sold the rights to Superman for $150.
Fortunately, the courts have restored credit to them, and they seem to be on a path to allow the boys' estates a portion of the profit from the franchise.
34. Long May She Wave
Grades K-3. 40 pages. Published in 2017.
I have been to the National Museum of American History in Washington D. C. and have seen the giant flag that is on display there — the flag that flew over Fort McHenry and was the inspiration for our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was nice to read a little bit about the women and girls who made this famous flag.
35. Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade by Melissa Sweet
AR 5.4. Grades K-3. 36 pages. Published in 2011.
This book is a loving and whimsical overview of Tony Sarg’s idea to use giant helium balloons as a form of “reverse marionette” for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — a parade that was so popular,