A Review of the 37 Best Narrative Nonfiction Books for Kids
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.
Narrative Nonfiction for Kids in Primary School (Grades K-3)
- Animal BFFs
- The Marvelous Thing That Came From a Spring
- Pedal Power: How One Community Became the Bicycle Capital of the World
- She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton
- Ada's Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay
- One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia
- Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla
- Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh
- The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America's Hero
- Kali's Story: An Orphaned Polar Bear Rescue
- Kate Warne: Pinkerton Detective
- Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
- The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever
- Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman
- Long May She Wave
- Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade
- Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team
- Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship
- The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto
- Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World
- Leo the Snow Leopard
- The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks
1. 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.
- 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. Animal BFFs
- 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.
- Even though the reading level comes in at an AR level of 4.8, it uses fairly short sentences and is simpler to read than a comparable fiction chapter book.
- Most of the animals meet in zoos or other restricted spaces. We have all kinds of combinations of animals: a giraffe and a goat, a dog and some dolphins, a fawn and a rabbit (named Bambi and Ben respectively), and a kitten and a turtle, among others.
- Each segment tells the story of how the animals got together, how they interacted, and ways in which they’ve helped each other.
- Along the way, we find out a little bit of scientific information about the animals and their behavior, but the emphasis is mostly on the relationships and — let’s face it — the cuteness factor.
2. The Marvelous Thing That Came From a Spring
Grades K-3. 40 pages. Published in 2016.
- It would be great fun to bring in a Slinky and have it walk down an incline as a way of introducing to children. The Marvelous Thing That Came From a Spring
- 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.
- We also find out a little about what happened to Richard and Betty. He went to do missionary work in Bolivia, and she took over the business, which was nearly bankrupt by that time, and built it again into a thriving concern.
- I love Ford's illustrations — a blend of paper cut-outs and actual objects that portray the period and the tone perfectly.
- This picture-book account of the "marvelous thing that came from a spring" will be one that children will love choosing for their narrative nonfiction assignment.
3. Pedal Power: How One Community Became the Bicycle Capital of the World
AR 3.4. 36 pages. Published in 2017.
- One of my relatives is a bicycling enthusiast. At a recent family reunion, he extolled the Netherlands and its government for making the country so bike friendly. I gave him so he can learn how a woman named Maartje Rutten and her friends brought those policies into being. Pedal Power
- The story starts in Amsterdam, a city known as the "bicycle capital of the world." Back in the 1970s, it was following the path of most other large cities in the world by becoming more and more clogged with cars. It became more difficult and dangerous for people on bicycles.
- Maartje and her friends started protests throughout the country. At first they were lighthearted. The people carried signs and had parties in the middle of the road. But, then, a newspaper reporter's daughter was killed by a car while she was biking to school, and the reporter noted that many of the 500 children killed on the roads had been riding bikes.
- The protests took on a more serious tone, and the 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.
- The author notes that you can still find Maartje racing around Amsterdam on her bike.
- It's a feel-good story that children who like to ride bikes can connect with. The illustrations are also whimsical and energetic.
4. She Persisted by Chelsea Clinton
Ages 4-8. 32 pages. Published in 2017.
- I include She Persisted even though I know it could be perceived as being a little politically charged. The phrase "she persisted" was, of course, taken up as a rallying cry for women's advocates when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shut down Elizabeth Warren in her speech to Congress.
- Enter Chelsea Clinton who uses the slogan here to introduce brief sketches of 13 influential American women who persisted in their field of endeavor. One can hardly argue with the choice of women: Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Clara Lemlich, Nellie Bly, Virginia Apgar, Maria Tallchief, Claudette Colvin, Ruby Bridges, Margaret Chase Smith, Sally Ride, Florence Griffith Joyner, Oprah Winfrey, and Sonia Sotomayor.
- Clinton devotes a 2-page spread to each woman with a short paragraph about her contribution to the world and a quote from the woman herself.
- The information is quite brief, and I found myself wishing I could learn more details about each woman. However, I think this picture-book format is meant to introduce girls to these women in the hopes that they will seek out more information on the ones whose stories they find interesting.
- It would also be an excellent book for elementary school teachers to use before a biography assignment in order to give their children an idea of some of the people they could read about.
- The real strength of the book is the large, tender illustrations. They give us a palpable sense of each woman and her work.
5. Ada's Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay
- 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. Ada's Violin
- The story follows a girl, Ada Rios, who “grew up in a town made of trash.” The people of the town eke out a living by searching the landfill and scavenging items to sell. In her "Author’s Note," Hood tells us that the people there work 14-hour days, and most of them live on less than two dollars per day.
- Enter Favio Chavez, an environmental engineer who went to teach the people safer practices for working in the garbage. When he saw the children who worked there alongside their parents, he decided to offer music lessons. Ada, along with nine other children, were among the first to attend the class, but Chavez only had three guitars and two violins (not enough for the children to take home and practice). And even if they each had an instrument, it wouldn’t be safe to carry around something that was worth more than their houses.
- So Chavez hit on the idea of making instruments from the trash around them. He and some of the fellows in the neighborhood fiddled around with materials until they had workable instruments.
- I love the author’s use of language: “They transformed oil drums into cellos, water pipes into flutes, and packing crates into guitars!”
- After lots of practice, the children had an orchestra that traveled around the world to play.
- I can see music teachers, as well as classroom teachers, finding a place for this in their lessons.
- It would also lend itself well to a unit on designing instruments from found objects.
- The "Author’s Note" contains a wealth of additional information as well as a list of websites and videos, including a 60 Minutes piece and footage of their performance opening with the band Metallica.
- The collage illustrations give a real sense of life in the town and help readers see what the instruments were like.
6. 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.
- Soon, many women join in to make purses and make money for their families and their town.
- The "Author's Note" fills in more of the details and tells us that the whole town is doing better because of the recycling project.
- There are one or two paragraphs per page, and the large and colorful illustrations blend paint and photographs.
7. 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, , she tells about the life of the gorilla who inspired her book. Ivan
- 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.
8. Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh
Grades K-3. 32 pages. Published in 2015.
- If you have children who were Winnie-the-Pooh fans when they were little (or still are!), is the narrative nonfiction book for them. Winnie
- 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.
9. The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America's Hero
AR 4.0. Grades K-3. 32 pages. Published in 2014.
- 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 . The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America's Hero
- The author credits Joe's streak for creating a spirit of unity because the country joined together to cheer for this immigrant kid who grew up working on the San Francisco Wharf. This spirit of unity benefitted the US once it entered the war.
- From the "Author’s Note," we learn that hitting a ball from a pitcher in the pros is considered “the single hardest activity in sports.”
- Statisticians have calculated that a streak like this could only happen every 746 to 18,519 years. In short, DiMaggio did what was practically impossible.
- Kids who like baseball will enjoy learning about this unusual and inspiring event. The story is told in picture-book format, with large illustrations that have a somewhat impressionistic style.
10. Kali's Story: An Orphaned Polar Bear Rescue
AR 4.2. Grades K-3. 32 pages. Published in 2014.
- 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. Kali's Story: An Orphaned Polar Bear Rescue
- There is nothing quite so cute as a baby polar bear, and children get to see little Kali drinking from his bottle, playing with his stuffed animal, and taking naps in the snow.
- The text is very brief — only a line or two on many of the pages.
- There is quite a bit of information about polar bears in the back, which is useful for a short report on polar bears.
11. Kate Warne: Pinkerton Detective
AR 4.5. 52 pages. Published in 2017.
- One of the things I learned from was that detectives were thought to be shady, unreliable characters until Allan Pinkerton started his agency in 1850 and built a reputation for honesty. Kate Warne: Pinkerton Detective
- It being the 1850s, he, of course, thought only men were suited for the job until a woman by the name of Kate Warne showed up.
- At first, Pinkerton thought she was there as a client. When she said she was there to apply for a job, he told her that he didn’t need a washerwoman or a cook. “That’s fortunate,” Kate said, “since I’m not interested in those positions.”
- Right from the start, we like the bold and determined Kate, who was raised by her father, a printer.
- As a child, she had always loved reading books. She believed she could write the story of her own life, so she answered the ad for a detective when she saw it in the newspaper.
- She convinced Pinkerton that a woman could go where male agents couldn’t, and the next day, he hired her and put her on the Adams Express case. It was an exciting case involving a money pouch robbery, sleight of hand, and $40,000. Warne went undercover and befriended the woman who was the wife of the suspected robber. She was able to gain the woman’s confidence and find out where the money was hidden.
- 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.
- In the "Author’s Note," we find that Moss filled in some of the details from her own imagination. No one knew what the protagonist's real name was or whether she was a widow. Moss portrays her as young woman named Kate Carter who said that she was a widow to give her a better chance of being hired.
- This is an interesting book and a story well told.
- I love how the artwork is done in colors that match the time period.
- The illustrations are not overrun with detail, but they give a real sense of Warne’s personality and the high points of the story.
- It’s in a picture-book format with two or three paragraphs per page.
- It would be a great read-aloud for an elementary school class. The big pictures are easy to see, and it’s an adventure-filled detective story as well as an account of the career of a brave woman.
12. Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
AR 5.1. Grades K-3. 40 pages. Published in 2014.
- Right before Sylvia Mendez entered third grade in 1944, her aunt took her and her two brothers to register at the local school.
- She was told that the children would have to enroll in the local “Mexican school,” even though they were American citizens and could speak English fluently.
- The school they were sent to consisted of a shed in a cow pasture and substandard teachers. Unlike the “regular school,” it didn’t have wide, clean halls or playground equipment.
- 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.
- includes large illustrations and two to three short paragraphs per page. Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
13. 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.
- Kate Sessions started out as a teacher when she arrived in San Diego in 1883, but she soon turned to horticulture. She searched for a variety of drought-resistant plants and encouraged the locals to plant trees.
- 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.
- Jill McElmurry’s full-page illustrations are charming, and the short blocks of text will entice young or reluctant readers.
14. Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman
AR 5.8. Grades K-3. 32 pages. Published in 2008.
- 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, tells the story of a couple of nerdy boys who grew up during the Depression. They imagined a superhero (an alien being) who could do amazing things in an ordinary world. Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman
- 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.
15. 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. The book mostly focuses on 13-year-old Caroline Pickersgill who worked in her mother’s business and helped sew the enormous flag.
- For a year, the “flag whipped in the wind.” But then came the battle of 1812, the burning of Washington D.C., and the battle at Fort McHenry. While describing this last battle, the author works in several lines from the song: “gallantly streaming,” “rocket’s red glare,” and so on. I thought it seemed a little forced, but on the other hand, children will probably delight in being able to identify the familiar phrases.
- The story is told in a picture-book format, and the illustrations give a good sense of the times, all while being bright and vibrant.
- It’s a short book with small blocks of text and very large pictures.
- The "Author’s Note" gives more information about how Caroline Pickersgill started her business when it was unusual for women to do so.
16. Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade
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, it became an annual tradition.
- The picture-book format supports Sweet’s delightful watercolor/collage illustrations, and children who have seen the parade (on TV or in person) will love getting an inside view of one of its most iconic traditions.
17. Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team
AR 4.4. Grades K-3. 40 pages. Published in 2012.
- “According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, from the 1860s until the 1940s, there were twenty-nine baseball teams made up entirely of brothers,” author Audrey Vernick tells us in her note at the back of the book.
- It was a time when families were big and baseball was the game of choice.
- Vernick tells the story of a team of 12 brothers that played longer than any other. They were called the Acerra boys of Long Branch, New Jersey. They played in the 1930s and 40s.
- Children will enjoy learning family details, like the fact that the children had to sleep two to a bed and sat three across in the bathroom.
- Steve Salerno’s illustrations also have a charming retro feel.
18. Owen & Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship
AR 5.4. Grade PreS-3. 40 pages. Published in 2006.
- This photo essay tells the story of a baby hippo (Owen) who was displaced by the 2004 tsunami and the giant tortoise (Mzee) who formed a bond with him in a Kenyan nature preserve.
- The format is generally one or two paragraphs on a page with large photos on the facing page.
19. The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto
AR 2.5. Grades K-3. 48 pages. Published in 1989.
- This inspiring story is one of the simplest and shortest books on this list.
- It is about the sled dog who led the team that delivered diphtheria medicine to Nome when the train couldn’t get through.
- It is an easy-reader format (Step Into Reading, Level 3).
- Give this book to a child who loves dogs, adventure, or both.
20. Knut: How One Little Polar Bear Captivated the World
AR 5.4. Grades K-3. 24 pages. Published in 2007.
- Is there anything more adorable than a baby polar bear? This book follows the story of a polar bear cub born in a Berlin zoo and hand-raised by the chief bear keeper, Thomas Dorflein.
- The zoo staff obviously loved taking photos of him, and lots of large, high-quality photos populate this book.
- Hatkoff includes quite a bit of information about polar bears and their habitat within the narrative, and she supplements the back of the book with more information about their appearance, diet, habits, and habitat.
- She also includes a section on the shrinking sea ice in the Arctic.
21. Leo the Snow Leopard
AR 7.2. Grades Preschool-3. 40 pages. Published in 2010.
- This book traces the journey of an orphaned baby snow leopard from the time he was found by a Pakistani goat herder to his time at the Bronx Zoo (a worldwide leader in breeding and keeping snow leopards).
- The picture-book format allows for lots of large pictures, and the text is in a large font with plenty of space between the lines.
- Children will enjoy the adventurous aspects of the story, especially the long trip over narrow and treacherous roads that maneuver around a rockslide.
- They will also be intrigued to learn that the travelers stayed in a hotel with air conditioning so that Leo wouldn’t become overheated.
- They will also learn from Leo's experiences. He had to learn through hard experience when another snow leopard at the zoo was angry at him.
22. The Camping Trip That Changed America: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Our National Parks
AR 5.0. Grades 1-3. 32 pages. Published in 2013.
- describes the trip that president Teddy Roosevelt took with John Muir. It was an outing that arguably inspired the president to push laws to save the wilderness. The Camping Trip That Changed America
- Gerstein’s colorful illustrations serve to convey the grandeur of the California landscape. I was especially impressed with the double-page spread that shows Muir and Roosevelt among the redwoods.
- It’s a picture-book format that has only one or two paragraphs per page.
- Because there is no official record of the two men's conversations, Rosenstock wrote an imagined dialogue and tried to stay true to the spirit of the letters between the two men and contemporary newspaper accounts.
Narrative Nonfiction for Kids in Grades 2-6
- Crow Smarts
- Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War
- National Geographic Kids Animal Stories: Heartwarming True Tales From the Animal Kingdom
- Margaret and the Moon
- Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France
- Those Rebels, John & Tom
- I Survived: Five Epic Disasters
- Mumbet's Declaration of Independence
- Handle With Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey
- The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors
- He Has Shot the President!: The Day John Wilkes Booth Killed President Lincoln
- Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles
- The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked, and Found
- Motor Girls: How Women Took the Wheel and Drove Boldly Into the Twentieth Century
- Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I's Bravest Dog
- We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
1. Crow Smarts
AR 6.2. 74 pages. Published in 2016.
- In her book, , Pamela S. Turner follows Gavin Hunt in his fascinating research into crow intelligence. Crow Smarts
- She describes how the crows interact and the tests that Hunt devises to see if they can solve certain problems.
- She begins by describing an interaction between an adult bird and its offspring, an adolescent crow she calls Little Feather. The older crow is essentially teaching the younger crow to use tools to fish out the grubs that live in the logs that cover the island of New Caledonia, off the coast of Australia.
- Her writing is lively and engaging, and she uses lots of examples to make the subject relatable to children. When Little Feather is looking around for a stem to use as a hook, she describes the collection of sticks, twigs, and stems that cover the forest floor as a “crow Home Depot.” When that same crow is crying for food, she says, “Yes, it’s Little Feather, acting as if he hasn’t eaten since the last ice age, instead of only two minutes ago.”
- The most fascinating part are her descriptions of how researchers devise new tests and puzzles to figure out if the crows really can come up with novel solutions to new puzzles. Spoiler alert: The answer is that, yes, in most cases, they can. Sometimes, they can even outperform five and six-year-old children who are given similar tests.
- Coming in at 63 pages, this book is a pretty substantial read, but it doesn’t drag. Turner includes just enough information to cover her subject well, and she includes interesting sidebars about topics like the island of New Caledonia, misconceptions about crows, and the “nature vs. nurture” debate.
- The photography is excellent — clear, large, and brightly-colored. They are well-chosen and give readers a sense of the crows, the puzzles they solve, and the surroundings of New Caledonia.
- At the end of the book, Turner answers “Ask the Author” questions and recommends more books to read as well as her website, which includes more videos of crows. The book also has a selected bibliography and an index.
- Before reading this book, you can talk about people’s ideas about birds — pretty feathers, pretty songs, not too smart. After all, that’s where the insult “bird brain” cames from.
- Then you could show the viral video of a crow in Russia who learned to use a mayonnaise lid to slide down a snowy roof. Some people have dubbed it “crowboarding.” Obviously, it’s not an innate skill, but it does take intelligence to figure out how to do it.
2. Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War
Grades 4-7. 80 pages. Published in 2017.
- Soldier Song offers a look into several issues of the Civil War through the lens of the music that was played in the soldiers' camps.
- The story takes place at the battle of Fredricksburg when the Union army, stinging from defeat, retreated to the other side of the river.
- Levy describes the songs that men in each of the camps would have played: “Dixie” for the Southerners and “Yankee Doodle” for the Northerners. (The illustrator, Gilbert Ford, does include the musical notation for the songs, in case you want to play them, so the students can hear what they sound like. You can also look for the songs on YouTube to give you an idea of how the music from that era sounded.)
- As it grew close to Christmas, the camps could hear each other’s music wafting across the river. And, then, one of the soldiers began playing a tune that was near and dear to the hearts of the men from both sides: “Home Sweet Home.”
- Both sides joined in, and the men stood, transfixed, until the song was done. Frank Mixson, a 16-year-old Confederate soldier, recounted that when the song finished, the men cheered and tossed their hats for at least half an hour. “I do believe that had we not had the river between us that the two armies would have gone together and settled the war right there and then.”
- Quite often, the author includes primary sources — the words of the men themselves— in her text.
- She also gets across the atmosphere of the battle camps and the grief and longing of the men who were often fighting friends or family members on the other side.
- The illustrations have the look of woodcuts and add to the ambiance of the story.
- The book has all kinds of nonfiction extras, including a synopsis of the Battle of Fredricksburg, the musical notation for “Home Sweet Home,” a list of websites that include recordings of the songs mentioned, a timeline of the Civil War, and a selected bibliography.
3. National Geographic Kids Animal Stories: Heartwarming True Tales From the Animal Kingdom
Grades 3-8. 160 pages. Published in 2014.
- This book, National Geographic Kids Animal Stories, contains 19 short vignettes about notable animals, including several animals that kids have probably heard of, such as Balto and Smokey Bear.
- Within these pages, they will also find true accounts of elephants who danced ballet, a chimp who lived with a human family, and a daring WWI carrier pigeon hero.
- This would be a good book for children who need a short piece to read because each story is only six to ten pages in picture-book format.
4. Margaret and the Moon
Ages 4-8. 40 pages. Published in 2017.
- Sometimes I wonder why it's taken so long for us to hear stories about the women who were instrumental to the American space program. For years, we’ve heard all about the male astronauts, and we’ve seen photos of the mission control men with their buzz cuts and headsets.
- Fortunately, with movies like Hidden Figures and books like Margaret and the Moon, the stories of mathematically-inclined women are being told.
- This book begins with the line, “Margaret Hamilton loved to solve problems. She came up with ideas no one had ever thought of before.” On the next few pages, we see her working out algebra problems and puzzling over why girls didn’t play baseball or grow up to be doctors or scientists.
- Her solution was to join the baseball team and study hard in her school subjects. She especially liked math. Inspired by her poet-philosopher father, she learned about space, the planets, and the mathematical relationships between them.
- When she discovered computers, she knew she had found her calling and soon learned to write code to do complicated things like track airplanes through the clouds or predict the weather.
- According to this book, she was the one who coined the term “software engineer” and applied it to herself.
- After she went to work for NASA, she became director of software programming to Project Apollo. The book emphasizes that she was responsible for anticipating problems and compensating for them in her code. For example, when the Apollo 11 lunar lander approached the moon, an alarm buzzed. The computer was overloaded with tasks and in danger of freezing. I love how the story is told at this point. “The control room panicked. The moon landing was in danger. Everyone looked at Margaret. Had she prepared for this problem?” We see several worried-looking men and Margaret with a sheaf of computer paper. The answer to the question is of course! The Eagle landed, Neil Armstrong stepped out, and the world celebrated.
- The illustrations feature bold colors and cartoon-style drawings.
- It is picture-book style with just a few sentences per page, so it is a quick read.
- This would be a good book to read to a group of children before they try their own coding activities.
4. Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France
AR 5.0. Grades 2-5. 48 pages. Published in 2015.
- is a great book for introducing any number of things: the scientific method, the power of suggestion, or the life and times of Benjamin Franklin. Mesmerized
- The story takes place in 1776, the year Ben Franklin was in France to get support for the Revolutionary War. He was popular with the court in Paris because of his homespun charm and his reputation as a scientist.
- Also popular in France was a fellow called Dr. Mesmer, a man who claimed that he had found a powerful invisible force that he could control with his wand. With it, he could make a plain glass of water taste like strawberries to one man and like vinegar to another. He told people he could heal them, and many people rushed to his office and proclaimed themselves healed.
- He has all the markings of a flim-flam man to us today, but these were heady and unusual times for humanity. We were discovering all kinds of things that we couldn’t see, hear, taste, smell, or feel. Unbeknownst to us, there were forces that did things — electricity, helium, etc.
- Much of the populace was convinced by Dr. Mesmer, but the other doctors in town didn’t like him cutting in on their business, so they went to the king and asked him to do something about the man.
- The king decided to pass the problem on to Benjamin Franklin. The man was renowned as a scientist, so surely he could get to the bottom of the matter.
- Franklin agreed to take a look at Dr. Mesmer’s presentation to see if he could figure out what was going on. The method he used was an early form of the scientific method, and the book makes sure that the readers understand the different parts of the process.
- There are sidebars that explain and illustrate the steps from hypothesis to conclusion, and the text reinforces how Franklin’s process reflects the scientific method.
- Franklin hypothesized that it was actually the power of suggestion that caused all of Dr. Mesmer’s amazing things to happen, and he tested his hypothesis by blindfolding the subjects and observing them to see if they still responded the same way.
- It turns out that when they couldn’t see the “magical” doctor, they had no reaction to the things he did with his wand.
- Franklin concluded that it was indeed the power of suggestion that had caused seemingly miraculous things to happen. Because of this, Dr. Mesmer’s career ended.
- The book pointed out that Dr. Mesmer powerfully illustrated the placebo effect. Plus, he had a cool word “mesmerized” named after him.
- The author and illustrator have combined their talents to make a lively book with loads of colorful illustrations and text that uses font and layout creatively.
- One clever touch is the endpapers, which have circles in an optical illusion to make readers feel like they are being “mesmerized” from the very start.
- It’s a fun and quite informative book that will drive home the usefulness of the scientific method as well as provide food for thought when it comes to the power of suggestion.
5. Those Rebels, John & Tom
Grades 2-6. AR 6.3. 48 pages. Published in 2012.
- Kids often think that early American history is snooze-inducing. They take one look at the stiff men with their strange wigs and think they must have been the stuffiest people ever to populate the planet. It’s a tough task to get children to see how radical— revolutionary, in fact — the founding fathers were.
- Those Rebels, John & Tom does an admirable job of relating the contributions of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in a lively fashion that helps kids relate to the two “rebels” and understand the part they played in American history.
- You can tell from the first sentence that Kerley isn’t going to rely on old-fashioned stilted diction to tell her story. She begins, “The true story of how one gentleman —short and stout — and another — tall and lean — formed a surprising alliance, committed treason, and helped launch a new nation.”
- Kids will love learning that John Adams was a rebel who skipped school to shoot marbles or fly kites. He was an active child who loved swimming, wrestling, and even boxing.
- Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, was the kind of kid who would skip recess to immerse himself in Greek grammar. He liked dancing, playing the violin, and, most of all, reading. In fact, he made it a mission to read every single book in his father’s library.
- So there you have them. John was an active, talkative, and, by his own admission, sometimes obnoxious man. And Tom was a shy and quiet fellow who preferred writing to talking.
- Together they united against the unfairness of King George, who levied taxes on almost everything, and in Kerley’s words, used America as a “big fat piggy bank to be turned upside down and shaken for coins.”
- John was the short fellow who “battled hour after hour through heated debate,” and Tom was the tall lanky fellow who “slumped down in his chair and never uttered three sentences together."
- The story takes us through the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Not only is it a lesson in American history, but it is also a lesson on how two disparate personalities can work together to accomplish something great.
- The book has lots of imaginative, colorful, and whimsical illustrations that highlight the meaning of the text. With only two or three paragraphs per page, the book won’t overwhelm its readers.
- In the end, we have a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable introduction to the development of the Declaration of Independence.
6. I Survived: Five Epic Disasters
AR 6.3. Grades 2-5. 143 pages. Published in 2014.
- Tarshis’ historical fiction about some of the world’s biggest disasters has taken beginning chapter book readers by storm, and now she has come out with a narrative nonfiction collection of true stories that will rivet these young readers.
- In you will find stories of children who survived well-known disasters like the Titanic, but also disasters that she learned about through her readers, such as the Henryville Tornado of 2012 and the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. (Yes, a wave of molasses 25 feet high roared through Boston.) I Survived Five Epic Disasters
- It’s a fascinating read for children and is written in chapter-book format.
7. Mumbet's Declaration of Independence
AR 3.4. Grades 2-4. 32 pages. Published in 2014.
- There are quite a few books about slaves gaining their freedom, but the twist to this one is that the woman named Mumbet lived in pre-Revolutionary America.
- When she heard about the Massachusetts Declaration of Independence, she contacted a lawyer who successfully argued that keeping her a slave was unconstitutional.
- The judge and jury declared her free, and, two years later, a judge declared all slavery unconstitutional in Massachusetts.
- Woefle uses spare but striking writing to tell the story, and Alix Delinois’ bright illustrations fill the pages of this large-format book, giving it vibrancy and life.
8. Handle With Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey
AR 4.9. Grades 2-5. 34 pages. Published in 2014.
- With more and more butterfly pavilions popping up, quite a few children have seen the stunning blue morpho butterfly.
- This book shows readers the process of how these butterflies are raised and how they are transported from a butterfly farm in Costa Rica to the Museum of Science in Boston.
- The large colorful photos show the stages of caterpillar development to pupa, and then on to hatching in Boston.
- The back matter includes more information about a butterfly's life cycle, a glossary, and sources of more information.
9. The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors
AR 6.0. Grades 3-6. 44 pages. Published in 2009.
- This book recounts the engaging story of Bob and Joe Switzer who invented paints that glow — both in the dark and in the sunlight.
- The text is broken up into short chunks — usually one to three paragraphs per page, and the large illustrations are done in a charming retro 50s style.
- At first, the brothers’ paints were novelties that were used in magic acts and department store displays. But when World War II broke out, people realized that the paints could save lives. They could use them to signal airplanes, to make lifeboats and buoys more visible, and to guide planes that were doing night-time landings.
- This book will appeal to kids that like science and things that are cool.
10. He Has Shot the President!: The Day John Wilkes Booth Killed President Lincoln
AR 5.8. Grade 3-6. 64 pages. Published in 2014.
- No matter how well I know a subject, I always learn a little bit more from Don Brown’s books. In this recounting of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent manhunt, I learned that John Wilkes Booth stowed a board in Lincoln’s box, which he used to jam the door to keep out Lincoln’s valet, Charles Forbes.
- I also found out that by the time Lincoln’s body reached his home in Springfield, one in four Americans had viewed the body and paid their respects.
- The book is formatted as a large chapter book with no more than two short paragraphs per page.
- Brown’s muted watercolors illustrate the text. The content in necessarily grim with lots of illustrations showing men with knives and guns.
- The story ends up with the killing of Booth and the hanging of his conspirators.
- Despite the violent depictions, it is not bloody or gratuitous.
- This book is for a child who is interested in history and is not disturbed by the violent aspects of the story.
11. Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles
AR 5.3. Grades 4-7. 40 pages. Published in 2015.
- Amazingly enough, many kids still recognize Beatles tunes, and Fab Four Friends tells the story each of the boys in the band as they were growing up in war-torn Liverpool.
- The author, Susannah Reich, starts with John Lennon, a boy who was sent to live with his aunt and uncle after his parents split up. His aunt and uncle were loving. Uncle George would read young John nursery rhymes and say, “Give me squeaker,” (meaning a noisy kiss on the cheek). But his mother was the one who really understood his love for music. When he was a teen, he’d wear his drainpipes (tight, skinny jeans) and play in his band, The Quarrymen.
- After a few pages, we move onto Paul, a boy who’d lost his mum and turned to music to fill the void. Paul’s dad was a music lover and pointed out harmony and instruments when the two of them listened to music. After meeting John, Paul joined The Quarrymen and a legendary pair was formed.
- George was a friend of Paul, and he was a kid whose mischievous grin and big ears belied how serious he was about learning the guitar. “George was out to conquer it,” said one of his friends.
- The story then moves to the Hamburg concerts where the band found a drummer named Ringo Starr. Ringo was a good-natured boy who took a long hospitalization in stride. Playing in the hospital band inspired his love for the drums.
- What really impressed me in this book was the artwork. There were a lot of full-page pictures capturing the youth and energy, but also the wistfulness of the boys in the band.
- This book only takes us up to the point when the Beatles became a smash. In the "Author’s Note," Reich says that she wanted to show how four ordinary boys found music to be a life-saving force in their lives.
- She’s done a nice job of finding memorable details and quotes for each of the four boys. She also did an excellent job of bringing them down to earth and making them relatable to children.
12. The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked, and Found
Grades 4-8. 170 pages. Published in 2017.
- This 170-page book is for an older kid who likes a little history thrown in with a tale of adventure.
- It has become somewhat of a cliché that children like all things pirate. Perhaps in an earlier time, kids pretended to be swashbucklers, but I don’t think I’ve seen any youngster dressed up like a pirate for about 30 years. It seems they all want to be superheroes or princesses, and the movies and TV made for kids certainly push them that way.
- And, to tell the truth, I thought all the romantic notions about pirates had done a disservice to history. Pirates, after all, were a bunch of seagoing thieves.
- But , an account of one of the most infamous pirate ships and crews in history, does make for a rousing good story in Martin Sandler’s hands. If anyone could make seafaring history from the 17th century into a good story, it would be this author, who has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has won several Emmy Awards. The Whydah
- The book gives us a concise and fascinating recounting of the story of Sam Bellamy, a man who started out by trying to recover treasure on some sunken Spanish galleons — perhaps to enrich himself enough to win over the parents of a young woman he wanted to marry. But his endeavor failed because the Spanish had already been to the wreckage site and recovered most of the goods that had been bound for their country.
- Bellamy and his crew were disappointed that they hadn’t found easy money and resolved, instead, to take up a life of pirating.
- Sandler recounts their successes and their eventual capturing of one of the biggest prizes: the slave ship Whydah, which had an enormous hold and was fast, to boot.
- The story is also interspersed with all kinds of surprising things about pirate life.
- For starters, pirate bands were democracies. Everyone voted for the leaders.
- They also had carefully spelled out rules about how many shares of confiscated goods each man should get.
- Another surprising fact was that they rarely had to fight their victims. Most sailors calculated that they weren’t getting paid enough to risk death or torture at the hands of a pirate crew, and they surrendered without a fight.
- The tale of the demise of The Whydah is especially gripping. It is a story of greed, betrayal, and a perfect storm (literally). For centuries, the wreck of the treasure-laden ship lay off the coast of Cape Cod until a man named Barry Clifford put together a team of divers and marine archeologists to find the remains of the ship.
- Sanders tells their story as an adventure all on its own. It was interesting to learn that they discovered tons of artifacts that provide insights into pirate life and into history at large.
- A few years back, I went to an exhibition about The Whydah at our local science museum. I wish I’d been able to read this book before I went. It would have given quite a bit of context to the things I was seeing.
- At any rate, if you have a child who is a history and adventure buff, he/she would love this finely-crafted piece of narrative nonfiction.
13. Motor Girls: How Women Took the Wheel and Drove Boldly Into the Twentieth Century
- Motor Girls provides a fast-paced and intriguing history of women who took up driving when it was thought to be improper for women to do.
- Children in the target age group will likely be surprised that most people back then didn't think women were suited to drive motor cars.
- One of my favorite stories in the book is about a man who thought women would be no good at driving because they didn't play baseball. He believed (rightly) that a driver needed to be able to think of two or more things at once. He believed (wrongly) that women couldn't multi-task. His reasoning was that men played baseball and learned to keep track of several bases at once, and women just didn't have that capability (even though women prepared several dishes at once, all while taking care of at least one child.)
- The science has borne out, of course, that women are better at multi-tasking than men, and they can indeed drive cars just as well.
14. Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I's Bravest Dog
AR 7.4. Grades 5-8. 71 pages. Published in 2014.
- In Stubby the War Dog, award-winning author Ann Bausum tells the engaging story of Stubby, a dog who turned up at an American World War I training camp and managed to stow away with the men on the ship that sailed to the war in Europe.
- This large-format book is published by National Geographic, so it's not surprise that it includes lots of photos and an attractive layout.
- Bausum packs quite a few words into this book, but the writing is so lively that children will feel like they are reading a chapter book.
- Any dog lover will enjoy reading about how Stubby helped the troops. Stubby not only enhanced morale, but he also gave advance warning of gas attacks and found wounded Allied soldiers on the battlefield. He even captured a German soldier by knocking him down and holding him until others came to help.
- This is an uplifting story that teaches children quite a bit about World War I along the way.
15. We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
AR 5.9. Grades 4-8. 88 pages. Published in 2008.
- To tell the story of the Negro baseball leagues, Nelson creates a narrator with a folksy, colorful voice who tells the histories of ballplayers through nine “innings," taking the reader form the 1860s to the account of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barriers and on into the 1960s.
- We don’t learn the identity of the narrator, but he sounds like a grandfather telling his children about what happened back in the day.
- The text fills each page of this large-format book. It has considerably more words than most other books on this list, but the style is personable and engaging.
- The real standout feature are Nelson’s paintings. Over 40 of his shining and dignified artworks grace the book, and they depict the men who played, the action of the game, and the atmosphere of the times — from the railroad station to the “Bronzeville Inn: Cabins for Colored” sign.
- This book has won a whole host of awards, which reflects the love and time Nelson lavished on this book.
Why Narrative Nonfiction for Kids?
When I was in elementary school, the teachers emphasized reading fiction books, and I ate it all up, starting with the exploits of Dick and Jane and moving on to novels like Johnny Tremain and Charlotte’s Web.
On the other hand, when my husband was a boy, he disdained the lady who wanted him to read about a mouse riding a motorcycle and instead chose to read nonfiction books about Hannibal crossing the Alps with his elephants or an informational book called Fish Do the Strangest Things.
Back then, the teachers prized my kind of reading and tolerated my husband’s nonfiction. Today, the tables are turned.
The new Common Core State Standards for our nation’s schools emphasizes reading nonfiction — especially narrative nonfiction — in order to develop a student’s skills in understanding and analyzing informative texts.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Adele Jeunette