Adele has been a youth services librarian in public libraries for 20 years.
Entice Kids With Great Nonfiction Books
With the Common Core, nonfiction books play an even bigger role in children’s education.
The nice thing about the best nonfiction books is that they almost booktalk themselves. They have great pictures and interesting little factoids that you can pull out to catch the kids’ interest. Here are some of my favorites that I’ve done over the years.
Books Covered in This Guide
- I Survived: True Stories by Lauren Tarshis
- Optical Illusions (DK Book)
- 125 True Stories of Amazing Pets (National Geographic Kids)
- A Little Book of Sloth by Lucy Cooke
- Totally Human: Why We Look and Act the Way We Do by Cynthia Pratt Nicolson
- Get the Scoop on Animal Poop! By Dawn Cusick
- A Black Hole is Not a Hole by Carolyn DeCristofano
- Doggy Whys by Lila Prap
- If: A Mind-Bending New Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers by David J. Smith
- The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming
- The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown
- Animal Stories: Heartwarming True Tales from the Animal Kingdom by Jane Yolen
I Survived: True Stories by Lauren Tarshis
AR Reading Level: 6.3; Interest Level: 2nd-5th Grade; Nonfiction
The "I Survived" books are crazy popular right now. This book has several short sections on various disasters--a nice segue from fiction to non-fiction.
For a visual aid, you could put a small jar of molasses in your bag or basket. When you get to the part of the molasses flood, invite a child to come and pull it out of a bag. Pour some into a paper cup and ask the child to describe it to the class: color, consistency, smell. Then ask, "What would you do if a wave of molasses 3 stories high was coming at you?
You might have read some of the books in the “I Survived” series. Those books are fiction, even though they tell stories about actual disasters that have happened.
Well, this book has the true stories of some of those disasters.
You’ve probably heard about some of them—like the Titanic. Or The Japanese Tsunami.
But, have you heard of The Children’s Blizzard of 1888? Or the Henryville Tornado of 2012?
And I’ll bet you’ve never heard of the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.
Have you seen molasses before? It’s brown and sticky and sweet. We use it in gingerbread. Well, imagine an enormous tank that held over 2 million gallons of molasses sitting near the city of Boston.
And imagine that one day that tank of molasses explodes. And imagine a wave of molasses twenty-five feet high coming at you. That’s as tall as a three-story building!
If you like reading about disasters, you’ll want to read about these. And the good thing is, someone survived them all.
Optical Illusions (a DK Book)
This book illustrates all sorts of fascinating illusions, some with movable parts. It’s a good idea to have a copy with you so that you can show the children a few select pages. A book like this is a great introduction for the kids to the science of seeing.
Okay, everybody, I want you to do this:
- Hold your index finger in front of your nose.
- Look at your finger with both eyes.
- Now, close one eye and look at your finger.
- Okay, close the other eye and look at your finger.
Did you notice how your finger seems to jump back and forth when you switch eyes? That's an optical illusion. Each eye sees your finger from a different perspective & it makes it look like it's moving around when it isn't.
This book is chock-full of fascinating optical illusions.
You can see:
- crooked lines that are actually straight,
- pictures that seem to rotate,
- upside-down Mona Lisa's, and all kinds of fun stuff.
125 True Stories of Amazing Pets (National Geographic Kids)
This book ties into a subject very familiar to most children—the family pet. You’ll want to have a copy in hand when you booktalk so that you can show them some of the more attention-grabbing pictures. If you want to increase the participation level of the class, have a bag with several stuffed animals—or even beanie babies—that could be family pets and call on a few children to come and pull them out of a bag. If you have a giraffe animal, figurine, or puppet, so much the better.
How many of you have a pet dog?
How many have a pet cat?
How many have a pet giraffe? Believe it or not, there is a family in South Africa who had a pet giraffe. No matter how tall she got, she loved to come inside the house, even when it was a tight squeeze to get in. And she loved to wear hats and scarves. (Imagine how long a scarf a giraffe would need.)
Just like it says, this book is full of amazing true stories about pets.
You can learn about:
- A dog that likes to recycle
- A giant rabbit that's as tall as you are (no kidding, he's 4 feet 4 inches)
- A horse that takes a brush in his mouth and paints pictures
- A dog that fetches tissues when its owner sneezes
--And that's just the first few pages! If you love animals and wacky stories about them, this is the book for you.
A Little Book of Sloth by Lucy Cooke
This book is sure to elicit lots of “awwws” from the kids who are into cute pictures. The photographer did a great job of capturing these little critters at the best moments. The pages aren’t numbered, so I’ve tried to describe the photos mentioned as best I could so you could find them.
These cute little guys are called sloths. Have you heard of them?
They are animals known for being slow. Really slow. Like, they can only go 15 feet in a minute. (You can show the kids approximately how long 15 feet is, then travel along that line as they all count to 60.) They are so slow that moss grows on them. Really.
Some people think they look like Muppets. Other people look like a cross between a Wookie and a pig.
They have to have somebody to hug to keep them warm. (Show picture of Mateo with Mr. Moo.)
People put them in buckets. (Show picture of sloths in bucket.) It’s a faster way for them to travel than if they tried to get somewhere on their own.
Sloths are slow. And they sometimes fall asleep in their food. But they’re cute as can be. And they’re fascinating.
This is a book well worth taking a look.
Totally Human: Why We Look and Act the Way We Do by Cynthia Pratt Nicolson
AR Reading Level 6.0; Interest Level 3rd-6th Grades; Nonfiction
This book is about something all kids are familiar with: themselves! If you want to add a visual/participatory element to this booktalk, put the following items into a bag or box: a picture of a person with the hiccups (or even a medical diagram of how the hiccups work), a small bag of potato chips, and a feather. Invite three children to come up and pull an item from the bag. Ask each of the three questions as they pull them out.
Are you the kind of person that wonders about things that don’t seem to have an answer?
Do you ever wonder why:
You get hiccups?
You can’t eat just one potato chip?
Why you are ticklish?
This book has all kinds of answers—and they’re not the ones you’d expect.
- Hiccuping has something to do with tadpoles.
- Eating potato chips has something to do with cavemen.
- Tickling has something to do with apes in families.
“How’s that?” you say. All the answers are in this book.
Get the Scoop on Animal Poop! by Dawn Cusick
AR Reading Level: 6.4; Interest Level: 3rd-6th Grades; Nonfiction
This book is for the kids who perk up their ears when they hear a grownup say the word “poop.” Ever since the Captain Underpants fiction series became popular, publishers have awakened to the idea that some children get a thrill out of reading about slimy, squishy, and positively disgusting—yet fascinating—topics. As you can see, this book works quite a bit of interesting science into the study of poop.
There are some people who are interested in poop.
There are some people who are not.
The people who are interested might surprise you. They are scientists that know that animal poop answers questions.
What kinds of questions?
Have you ever wondered why birds have white poop? P. 15)
Have you ever heard of zombie ants? (p. 20)
Do you know which insects have honeydew for poop? (p. 22)
How do bees keep from getting poop in the honey? (p. 45)
OK, I think I’ve said the word “poop” enough times for one day. I’ll stop.
If you want to read a surprisingly fascinating book, read Get the Scoop on Animal Poop! (Oops, I said it one more time.)
A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn DeCristofano
AR Reading Level 6.1; Interest Level 4th & 5th Grades ; Nonfiction
Black holes have long been a fascinating nonfiction topic, and this book is especially good. It has a conversational tone that will pull children in and get them learning all kinds of new things about these powerful, yet still mysterious phenomena.
Here’s a book for you if you like science. Especially if you like space.
Get ready to S-T-R-E-T-C-H your mind!
What is a black hole?
Where do they come from?
How were they discovered?
Can we visit one?
What would happen if you got caught in one?
This book will tell you.
Believe it or not, this book manages to be interesting—and sometimes funny—about black holes.
Doggy Whys by Lila Prap
Interest Level: 1st-4th Grade; Nonfiction
I always try to have a book that’s a little easier to read for the struggling readers in the group. This book has a great question and answer format. I include one of the sections here, but you might want to read others if the children are into learning about dogs.
If you like learning about dogs, you might like reading this little book called Doggy Whys.
It answers questions that you might have about why dogs are the way they are.
For instance, here is a little quiz from the book:
Why do some dogs have short legs?
- It hurts less when they fall
- They forgot how to grow
- They’re scared of heights
Well, if you read the book you will find out that the answer is not A, B, or C.
There are two reasons that dogs like dachshunds or bulldogs have short legs:
- People like the way they walked
- Dogs with short legs can squeeze and underground tunnels and chase out the animals hiding there
It's a great book of fun facts, and it has some cool drawings too.
If: A Mind-Bending New Way of Looking at Big Ideas and Numbers by David J. Smith
Interest Level: 2nd-5th Grades; Nonfiction
I love these books that help you visualize things that are difficult to picture. If you take a baseball, beach ball, and ping-pong ball with you, they’d make great visual aids.
Sometimes it’s hard to get our heads around big numbers. Like you probably know that Saturn is bigger than Earth. But how much bigger?
This book compares things to something you already know so that you can get a sense of the size of it.
For instance, pretend that the Earth is the size of a baseball. Do you know how big Saturn is compared to that? It’s as big as a beach ball.
And Mercury? It’s the size of a ping-pong ball.
This book is a cool way to picture big things.
The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming
AR Reading Level: 7.0; Interest Level: Grades 4-7; Nonfiction
Fleming does a wonderful job of bringing Barnum to life. For the interactive part, bring a copy of the song “Entry of the Gladiators.” (I put it on my phone and turn the volume way up so they can hear.) Invite a child up in front with you & play a few seconds of the music. Ask the child if it reminds them of anything. If they don’t know it’s circus music, throw the question out to the whole class.
How many of you have ever flipped through The Guinness Book of World Records? How about one of the Ripley's Believe It Or Not! books?
If you have, you may be one of those people who is fascinated by weird things. --Or, you might say tremendous, stupendous things.
If you like those things, you just might like reading about one of the first guys to collect all manner of strange things make a show out of them. His name was PT Barnum. He lived a long time ago in the 1800's, and the book about him is called The Great and Only Barnum: the Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum.
P.T. Barnum loved show business. And he loved a good joke. He also liked collecting weird, amazing things. So, he opened a museum. But it wasn't like the museums we have now.
Here are some of the things you could find in his museum:
- An entire stuffed elephant
- A mermaid skeleton
- A woman with a beard
- A man who was only 27 inches tall
- A woman who was almost 8 feet tall
- An electric eel
- A puppet show
- Lions, tigers, ostriches, a rhinoceros and a pair of prairie dogs
But then, something happened to his museum (you'll have to read the book to find out what), and he went into the circus business. How many of you have been to the circus? If you have, it was probably the "Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus." The "Barnum" in the name stands for P.T. Barnum, "The Greatest Showman on Earth."
This book is fast to read, it's fun, and it has really crazy pictures in it that you have to see to believe.
The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown
AR Reading Level: 5.1; Interest Level: Grades 4-7; Nonfiction
I have long been interested in the Dust Bowl—probably because my family used to drive through “the belly of the dust bowl” around Dalhart, Texas to visit my uncle. I start out by holding up a piece of paper with one small dot the size of a period on it and say, “Can you see this? It’s pretty small, isn’t it? You know how many pieces of dust can fit into this little period? Five!"
A speck of dust is small—so small that five of them will fit in the period at the end of a sentence. But what if you have billions and billions of them boiling up into a black cloud that covers your house, your block, everything you can see all around? You have what we call The Dust Bowl.
You might have heard of the Dust Bowl. It happened back in the 1930’s in Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, lots of places.
The land on the Southern Plains had been all plowed up, and hardly any rain fell for 10 years. When the wind blew—and it blew a lot, dust blew into enormous storms.
How much dust? Some of the storms were 200 miles wide and as high as the clouds.
The dust was so thick, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face—even in daylight.
That dust moving around made static electricity so strong, you couldn’t touch anything, or you’d get a shock that would hurt, and just about knock you over.
This is a book in graphic novel form that makes you feel what it was like to live in what some people call “the worst hard times.”
It’s short, and has lots of pictures. You’ll never look at dust the same way again.
Animal Stories: Heartwarming True Tales from the Animal Kingdom by Jane Yolen
Interest Level 2-4; Nonfiction
Jane Yolen has long been a master storyteller, and this book will appeal to children who like to learn about animals. For this book, it is fun to play a matching game with the children. I bring a chimpanzee puppet and have one child stand on one side of the room with it. (Alternately, you could print out a picture of a chimpanzee.) Then I choose another child to stand on the other side of the room. Then, I choose children to pull slips out of a bag. They are to read the slip aloud to the class and then decide whether to stand with the “chimp,” or with the human. There are five slips and they say 1. “Says ooh—ooh, ah-ah.” 2. “They swing from tree to tree.” 3. “They have tea parties.” 4. “They chew gum.” 5. “They look through catalog.”
Usually there’s some giggling when the child with #1 goes to the “human” side. Then I tell them, actually, chimps have done all these things, and lead into the story of Washoe.
You have probably heard of Keiko, the killer whale that was in the Free Willy movie. Did you know she wasn’t free when that movie was made? She did get her freedom, thanks to people who watched the movie.
And you’ve probably heard of Smokey Bear, the little bear cub that was found after a forest fire. You’ve probably heard his tag line “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
But, have you heard of Washoe the chimp that learned sign language? She grew up with a human family and liked to have tea parties, chew gum and look through catalogs, especially shoe catalogs.
And have you heard of Cher Ami, the homing pigeon that saved 194 soldiers in World War I?
If you like animals, you’ve got to read this book of true stories about some amazing animals.
Zoe Seldome on September 24, 2019:
That's great, thank you!!
Rachel Horon on September 21, 2015:
This is a terrific list of books with the booktalk that is ready to go and makes it easy. Thanks for the great information!