Adele has been a youth services librarian in public libraries for 20 years.
What Is Narrative Nonfiction?
Narrative nonfiction is way of writing that conveys factual information using a format that uses many of the techniques of storytelling. An author of narrative nonfiction will typically introduce an actual character (the following books have scientists, toymakers, and even a baboon!) and narrate some sort of experience or journey, all the while teaching kids pertinent concepts about topics like science or zoology along the way.
By using a narrative structure (beginning, middle, and end), writers can discuss a true event using many of the techniques which storytellers use: characterization, dramatic tensions, foreshadowing, etc.
Narrative nonfiction is a type of writing that provides kids with information in a story format that is interesting to them.
A Note About Reading Levels
When a reading level is available, I have included it before the review of the book. One of the leveling systems is called Accelerated Reader, which gives a number that roughly corresponds to the grade level of the book, though you will find that children will be able to read at a variety of levels, especially if they are interested in a topic. (Please don’t keep a 3rd-grader from reading something with a 5.0 reading level if the child is interested in the topic!) Nonfiction usually scores at a higher level than fiction, but remember that the text is usually broken up into smaller chunks, which makes it less daunting for readers.
When I wasn’t able to find the AR Reading Level, I looked for another readability formula called Lexile.
If there is no readability number, it’s because that information is not currently available.
Books Reviewed in This Article
- From an Idea to Lego: The Building Bricks Behind the World’s Largest Toy Company by Lowey Bundy Sichol
- 125 Animals That Changed the World by Brenna Maloney
- Railway Jack: The True Story of an Amazing Baboon by KT Johnston
- Elizabeth Started All the Trouble by Doreen Rappaport
- Captain Sully's River Landing: The Hudson Hero of Flight 1549 by Steven Otfinoski
- When Sue Found Sue by Toni Buzzeo
- Guitar Genius by Kim Tomsic
- The Only Woman in the Photo: Frances Perkins and Her New Deal for America by Kathleen Krull
- When Bill Gates Memorized an Encyclopedia by Mark Weakland
- Caught! Nabbing History's Most Wanted by Georgia A. Bragg
- Eclipse Chaser by Ilima Loomis
- The House That Cleaned Itself: The True Story of Frances Gabe’s (Mostly) Marvelous Invention by Laura Dershewitz and Susan Romberg
- Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children by Jonah Winter
- Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
- The Poison Eaters: Fighting Danger and Fraud in Our Food and Drugs by Gail Jarrow
- Soldier for Equality: Jose de la Luz Saenz and the Great War by Duncan Tonatiuh
- Karl’s New Beak: 3-D Printing Builds a Bird a Better Life by Lela Nargi
- Close Calls: How Eleven US Presidents Escaped from the Brink of Death by Michael P Spradlin
From an Idea to Lego: The Building Bricks Behind the World’s Largest Toy Company by Lowey Bundy Sichol
Grades 3-6, 128 pages
From an Idea to Lego is part of a series that reminds me of the Magic Tree House Fact Tracker books. They look like short chapter books with fairly large print and lots of black and white illustrations, and they tell the story of a factual occurrence, in this case, the history of the LEGO toy company. As of publication, I haven’t been able to find a reading level for this book, but the same series has one on the Disney Company that has an AR reading level of 7.0. It stands to reason this one may be similar, making it a perfect book for a child who is ready to step into a little more challenging reading but would feel more comfortable reading a book like this that splits the text into manageable chunks.
LEGOSs have been around for several decades, and it may seem to children they have always existed, but I’m betting they’ll be intrigued by this book that relates the history in an engaging way.
The story starts back in the early 1900’s with a young Danish carpenter, Ole Kirk Christiansen. He had built a shop that made furniture and such, but suffered a number of hardships: fire, the Great Depression, the death of his wife. At some point, he hit on the idea of making wooden toys, which did well, and in 1934, he came up with a brand name that combined the Danish words leg and godt (which mean “play well” in English) to come up with LEGO.
Christiansen needed one more innovation to pave the way for his most successful toy: plastic. When he came across a machine that would mold plastic, he knew it would make his toys less expensive and easier to clean. Here’s a surprise: he didn’t come up with the idea of interlocking bricks himself. The plastic molding machine he bought came with a sample of self-locking bricks. He liked the bricks and had his team modify them to a toy they could manufacture and sell. One of the big insights the company had with this toy was that they should be a system and that every brick they sold should fit evey other one, no matter when it was bought.
From there, kids will no doubt enjoy reading about the innovations in LEGO toys: the themes like Town, Castle, and Space; the minifigures; the architectural and robotic kits. They may also be surprised to learnthat LEGO was on the ropes in the 1990’s when it lost focus and started to emphasize video games. They managed to re-focus, re-connect with their fans, and now they are the biggest toy company in the world.
Read More From Owlcation
The book is sprinkled with “fun facts” features (ex: the biggest LEGO model that was ever built was a Star Wars spaceship that took 17,000 hours to build) and has short sections that discuss things such as brands and other business concepts. The back matter includes a timeline, and explanation of how LEGO bricks are made, source notes, and additional book and web resources. This 17-minute video, on the LEGO story is especially well done. (Warning – it does talk about the deaths of the founder and his wife.)
125 Animals That Changed the World by Brenna Maloney
Grades 3-6, 112 pages
Far all the kids who are animal lovers, this provides fascinating stories about a variety of our furry friends. 125 Animals That Changed the World, has all the things we expect from a book published by National Geographic: lively writing, eye-catching design, and—of course—clear, colorful photos. This is a book for older readers who still like the text broken into manageable chunks. Each of the animals gets a picture and a paragraph or two that tells their story.
Some of the tales are about animals you would expect: Washoe, the chimp who learned sign language; Laika, the first dog in space; Seabiscuit, the scrappy champion racing horse. But, we also have some more obscure world-changing animals like “The Goats That Discovered Coffee” and “Caspar the Communicating Cat.”
One of my favorites is a tiny creature known as a tardigrade, or a water bear. We are told, “You can boil them, bake them, deep-freeze them, crush them, dehydrate them, or even blast them into space. It doesn’t matter. Tardigrades will survive whatever you throw at them!” They are so small you have to look at them with a microscope to see what they look like. When these tiny animals are stressed from things like lack of water or food, they can roll up into a ball and sleep for decades, reviving when they come in contact with water.
They may, in fact, be living on the moon right now. An Israeli lunar lander crash-landed on the moon and spilled tardigrades all over the place. Eventually, someone will probably go back there and see if those little water bears can survive conditions on the moon.
This book will appeal to the children who like to dip into short pieces for interesting stories, and will appeal to the same crowd who likes world record books and “believe-it-or-not” books.
Railway Jack: The True Story of an Amazing Baboon by KT Johnston
Grades 3-6, 40 pages
The children you interact with are probably familiar with the idea of a service dog, but have they ever heard of a service baboon? Railway Jack is about a baboon that learned to help a disabled railway worker, but more than that it’s a touching story of a resilient, persistent, and creative man and a loyal and clever primate companion. At the end of the book, author KT Johnston provides a wealth of extra resources that can provide the structure for a lesson on primates, friendship, animal helpers, disabilities, problem-solving, railroads, or any number of topics.
The story is extraordinary. It starts with a South African fellow named Jim Wide, who looked like he might have his railroad career cut short when an accident caused him to lose both of his legs below the knee. He figured out how to build a handcart that helped him do a different job at the railyard, but it was still difficult for him to do with the two wooden legs he had fashioned.
One day, Jim saw a man who had a baboon with him to help lead his oxen. Realizing how helpful such an animal could be, he made a deal to get the baboon on. At first, he wondered if the baboon, named Jack, would just be more trouble, but he was happy to find that the two of them bonded well and that Jack was able to do things like sweep and pump water.
It turns out, Jack could learn to do a great deal more. He could load Jim’s cart on the tracks and push him to work. It’s charming to see the two of them riding down hills together, having a great time. Johnston tells us “He [Jack] was so helpful that Jim came to think of Jack not merely as his assistant, but also as his best friend. It was clear Jack felt the same way. He would sit with his arm around Jim’s neck and stroke Jim’s hand, chattering endlessly.”
Jack even learned how to throw the switches for the trains that came, learning from the number of whistle blows which track the engineer wanted. One of the passengers on the train was understandably not too happy to see a baboon running the switches, and complained to management. Here we have the showdown of the story, with the company bosses testing Jack to see if he could actually do the job. I won’t give away all the ending here, but will say it ends happily for both Jim and Jack.
This is a charming story with all kinds of funny details that will interest and amuse children—as well as grownups. After the story, Johnston provides more information on what happened to Jim and Jack and includes several photos, which I loved seeing. She also includes 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 presented in a picture book format with large illustrations and 2 to 4 paragraphs on the pages with text. César Samaniego’s illustrations have a smudgy, coal-suffused feel to them, appropriate to the railyard and effectively conveying the emotions and action of the story.
Elizabeth Started All the Trouble by Doreen Rappaport
AR Reading Level 5.0, Grades 3-5, 40 pages
I went looking around for children’s books on women’s suffrage since we are so close to the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment which recognized women’s right to vote. Elizabeth Started All the Trouble is one of the best brief overviews I've found of the women’s suffrage movement. It’s just 40 pages long and in picture book form. It would make a nice read-aloud for a group to introduce the topic.
Despite its title, the book doesn’t focus solely on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but instead provides a narrative on the movement, starting with Abigail Adams who 235 years ago encouraged her husband to remember women’s rights in the new country they were forging. “She warned John [Adams] that if women were not remembered, they would start their own revolution. John laughed at her. It took much longer than Abigail wanted for that revolution to begin. But it finally started, seventy-two years later.”
Turn the page, and there we see Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott traveling to London for an abolitionist meeting. But, the women were not allowed to be delegates. In fact, they were expected to sit behind a curtain and listen to the men speak. “Elizabeth and Lucretia were shocked. How could men who were against slavery deny women their rights just because they were women? They had to do something about this.”
It took 8 years, but they finally were able to put together a 2-day convention. To their surprise, 300 women came. They came up with their own declaration, complete with Stanton’s assertion that women should have the right to vote. That was a bridge too far for most of the delegates. Even Elizabeth’s husband left town when he learned what she wanted. Author Doreen Rappaport tells us. “That’s when the big trouble started. It had taken seventy-two years, but just like Abigail had predicted, Elizabeth’s declaration started a revolution.”
Ministers, newspaper reporters, and lawmakers (“all men, of course” Rappaport tells us) laughed and spoke out against her ideas. But, those ideas turned out to have legs and soon a thousand women were coming to the next conference, one of them being Sojourner Truth.
From there we are introduced to people like Susan B. Anthony and Mary Lyon, who started a women’s college. Even Amelia Bloomer makes an appearance, designing more comfortable clothes for women. We see how long and hard the suffragists worked, through the Civil War and beyond. Think of it—Susan B. Anthony made more than 75 speeches a year for forty five years.
The next part of the story warms my heart because I’m from one of those big square states out west. “Then hooray for Wyoming!” says the text. That was the first place in which women won the right to vote, followed by Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and a whole bunch of other states out west.
The struggle wasn’t over, though. Women who decided to picket the White House were attacked by mobs, arrested, sent to prison and beaten. The illustrations turn somber here, but the descriptions aren’t so graphic that they’ll disturb most young children. After a full year of protesting, President Wilson finally said he would support a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. The last page shows women from all time periods with equal rights signs. Rappaport notes that there are still unfair laws to change. “And we’re still working on it,” she concludes.
The illustrations by Matt Faulkner capture the essence of this book remarkably well. They are strong and lively, portraying the sometimes raucous activity along with the dignity of all the women involved. I like the creative ways he portrays moments, such as when he shows these self-important men looming over and scolding women who seem to be half their size. The back matter includes a list and short description of “The Trailblazers” along with short description of important dates
Captain Sully's River Landing: The Hudson Hero of Flight 1549 by Steven Otfinoski
AR Reading Level 5.3, Grades 4-6, 112 pages
At first glance Captain Sully's River Landing looks like a staid nonfiction book, but once you start reading it, you realize that the plotting and pacing are much like the "I Survived" historical fiction books that are so popular. I imagine this book will be as appealing to children who like that series. (To be clear, the book is still straight narrative nonfiction; there aren't invented characters or dialogue like you would see in historical fiction.)
I remember hearing about this flight that had to landed in the Hudson River, but I hadn't realized how quite how dangerous the situation was until I read this book.
We start with a chapter that sets the scene, talking a little about the historical conditions in the US back in 2009 and the weather in New York, which was prompting many people to fly to midwinter vacations. One of those flights was Sully's flight out of LaGuardia. "Normally a routine flight," author Steven Otfinoski tells us, "on this day it would be anything but ordinary."
Otfinoski then uses a number of 1-to-2 page chapters to tell us the rest of the story, each from the point of view of one of the people who was involved in the crash. We start with an 85-year-old woman who was taking the flight; then we go to the cockpit where Captain Sullenberger is preparing for the flight; then to a woman who is traveling with her 9-month-old baby.
About 20 pages in, we get to the accident, when a flock of geese are taken into both jet engines, causing them to fail. We cut to the reactions of the passengers and then back to the cockpit as Sullenberger is trying to figure out what to do. The technique heightens the suspense and make the story a page-turner as we learn that the captains determines the only option is to land in the river. Dangerous, yes, but less dangerous than the alternatives.
Almost everyone on board is surprised that they land safely, but their ordeal is not over as they have to wade through the cold water to get to life rafts (more difficult for people traveling with the elderly and with babies) and some of them have to stand on the wing to stay out of the water.
We meet some of the ferry captains who came to rescue the passengers and all the people who came to help. I had to smile when Otfinoski relates the conversation between Sullenberger and the operations manager of the airline he was flying for.
"This is Captain Sullenberger."
"I can't talk now. There's a plane down in the Hudson!"
"I know. I'm the guy."
The book uses larger font, spacing between lines, small pages, and photos to break up the text to make the story less daunting to read. It reminds me of the Magic Tree House nonfiction companions in size and scope.
It includes all kinds of the finding tools we see in nonfiction books, including a table of contents and index, along with a timeline, a glossary, critical thinking questions, internet sites, and further reading.
When Sue Found Sue by Toni Buzzeo
AR Reading Level 5.1, Grades 2-5, 32 pages
This is a book for the quiet kids in your class, the ones who like to read and to take a close look at the world around them. It will interest kids who like dinosaurs and also show them some of the kinds of work involved in making discoveries like this.
In When Sue Found Sue, author Toni Buzzeo tells us “Sue Hendrickson was born to find things: missing trinkets, prehistoric butterflies, sunken ships, even buried dinosaurs.” Turn the page, and we see Sue as a small girl, out in her neighborhood with a magnifying glass looking for little treasures, and finding things like little brass perfume bottles. “Sue wasn’t like other kids,” Buzzeo tells us. “So shy and smart, Sue gobbled up books the way other kids gobbled up gingersnaps.” One of the things she liked to do was to visit the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and see all the treasures other people had found.
On the next page, we are with Sue at age 17 as she set out on her life, joining teams that dove in the sea to find tropical fish and lost boats; who searched Dominican amber mines for prehistoric butterflies, or explored the hills of South Dakota for dinosaur bones. The dinosaur excavation kept Sue going for four summers, digging in the rock for duck-billed dinosaurs. Sue had always been drawn to a bluff near the dig site, and finally she followed her curiosity and hiked for four hours to get to the rock face. After walking around the base of the cliff, she noticed what looked like bones on the ground, then she looked up. “She stared up at three enormous backbones protruding from the cliff eight feet above her.”
She had been in the business long enough to know that bones the size she was seeing must belong to a T. rex, and that is what they turned out to be, the “largest, most complete, best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex fossil discovered so far.” The team named the dinosaur skeleton Sue, in honor of the woman who found it.
In a nice twist, the Field Museum ended up being the one who bought the skeleton at auction, and now it graces the museum. Here is a little five-minute video from the museum that tells its story and shows how big it is.
This book is in picture book format with full page illustrations and 3 or 4 sentences on each 2-page spread, making it a quick read to a group of children. The back matter includes an author’s note that gives more information on Sue and her T. rex, and a short list of resources for children along with additional resources. Her website is worth taking a look,
Guitar Genius by Kim Tomsic
AR Reading Level 4.3, Grades 2-5, 48 pages, 2019
How is this for a tale of resilience? A boy’s music teacher sends a note home to his mother, “Your boy, Lester, will never learn music, so save your money. Please don’t send him for any more lessons.” But this boy learns to play, well enough to get on the radio. Then over the years, he tinkers around with instruments enough so that he invents a harmonica stand, the solid-body electric guitar, and even the process for recording 8-track tape. As the years go on, he is inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, and also the National Inventors Hall of Fame. As author Kim Tomsic tells us in this picture book biography of Les Paul, Guitar Genius, the boy had grit.
Can I just say how much I love the illustrations by Brett Helquist? Probably only people my age will appreciate the book cover which hearkens back to the album covers from the 50’s. Throughout the book, his illustrations bring Paul’s story to life. I especially like that they are big enough to share with a large group of children.
And, the turns of phrase that Tomsic uses make this a fun book to read aloud. When she describes how Paul learned to play his first guitar, she says “He fumbled through the chords. His fingers floundered over the fret board. He even blundered through the B notes. His hands weren’t big enough to reach all six strings, so he removed one.”
Kids who love gadgets will also be intrigued by this book. Paul starts out by learning to make his own radio. Then he builds a device that lets him record his music using “a Cadillac flywheel, a dentist’s belt, a nail and other pieces and parts...” Next, he comes up with a device that would hold a harmonica so that he could play it together with his guitar. Then, when audience members complained his guitar wasn’t loud enough, he figured out a way to amplify the sound and also to create a solid body to eliminate the echo and feedback that a hollow body would make.
For anyone musical or mechanic al, or for anyone who has been told they are no good at what they dream to be, this is a great book to read.
The Only Woman in the Photo: Frances Perkins and Her New Deal for America by Kathleen Krull
Lexile reading level 950, Grades 3-6, 48 pages
The Only Woman in the Photo serves as a biography of a strong woman figure in Frances Perkins, but it is also an excellent introduction to the social and labor movement in the United States.
Many children--and indeed, many adults--don't know how dirty and dangerous working conditions were for the people in factories and other workplaces across America. Once they read this book, they will certainly remember author Kathleen Krull's description of bakeries of the time: "Rats nibbled on bags of flour, and cats had kittens on the counters. Dirty water, instead of chocolate, dripped onto pastries." Frances Perkins wrote it all down in her report to New York's Board of Health, and they forced bakeries to make conditions cleaner and better for the works, and for the public. We can all be glad that there are regulations for how food should be prepared.
I'm getting a little ahead of the story, so let me go back to the beginning when we learn that Frances Perkins was quiet when she was a little girl, too shy to ask for what she wanted or at the store. However, she was inspired by her grandmother who would say, "Take the high ground if someone insults you & when someone opens a door to you, go forward." Perkins was the kind of child who watched and listened and felt empathy for anyone who was poor or having a difficult time.
Her father realized how smart she was and encouraged her to learned, even though some people at the times were afraid that "women's 'delicate bodies' would suffer if their brains go too big." Perkins went to college, and a part of her assignment for her classes was to observe the working conditions in the mills nearby. She was horrified at how people were treated, especially the children, and she moved to New York City to begin a career in the developing field called social work. She said "I had to do something about the unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty. It was sort of up to me."
Perkins overcame her shyness to speak out, especially for the cause of women's suffrage. After witnessing the terrible fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, she entered politics and took a position heading up a committee Theodore Roosevelt started to investigate workplace safety.
From there, she took increasingly responsible jobs with the state of New York and then with the whole United States, accepting control of the Department of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt. The title The Only Woman in the Photo refers to the fact that Perkins was the only woman in the president's cabinet, and thus, the only woman at official functions or meetings when photos were taken. She would study the men around her and figure out how to act to best persuade them. Krull tells us that she found she was more successful at work in her "staid three-cornered hat," that reminded the men of their mothers, she would have more success.
We learn more about her federal career, how she was one of the main architects of the New Deal and in charge of the Civilian Conservation Corps. I can see this book sparking more interest in the New Deal and what it did for America.
The illustrations are delightfully colorful and evocative. They have an old-fashioned, yet lively feel to them. The pictures take up the bulk of the pages, and they convey the feel of the times and the action of the story. Some of the main quotes from the book are expanded poster style with different typography.
The back matter includes more information about Perkins and a list of sources.
When Bill Gates Memorized an Encyclopedia by Mark Weakland
AR Reading Level 4.1, Grades 1-4, 32 pages
When Bill Gates Memorized an Encyclopedia is a picture book biography that uses kid-friendly details and illustrations a little reminiscent of cartoons to tell the story of Bill Gates's life. Kids who like working with computers will especially like learning about one of the most successful computer nerds in history.
The book spends quite a bit of time on Bill's childhood relating some funny family stories: how his grandparents bought everyone matching pajamas every Christmas and hung them on the Christmas tree; how the family would play games after dinner and the winners wouldn't have to do the dishes.
Parents and teachers will be glad to see how voracious a reader young Bill was, and how he won a school reading contest for several years. We also learn that he liked to compete in sales, a young man selling nuts for the Cub Scouts, going door to door and making notes as to why some people would buy his nuts and some wouldn't. And, of course, he read a whole set of encyclopedias when he was eight and remembered many facts from it.