Adele has been a youth services librarian in public libraries for 20 years.
What Is Narrative Nonfiction?
The kind of nonfiction most of us have seen is called “expository nonfiction.” These are the texts that tend to break apart into logical topics and subtopics and explain each one, such as a book on the "Bill of Rights" or the planets of the solar system.
But there is another way to introduce our children to the universe of facts, a technique called narrative nonfiction. Simply put, it’s a way to get factual information across by using many of the techniques of storytelling. Authors of narrative nonfiction will typically introduce an actual person (perhaps an inventor or a zoologist) and narrate some sort of journey that the person has taken, all the while teaching kids a thing or two about history or science along the way.
When they use a narrative structure (first this happened, then that, and that, and that), writers can bring nonfiction material to life using many of the techniques of the storyteller: characterization, dramatic tensions, plot, foreshadowing, etc.
Narrative nonfiction provides kids with information in a format that is familiar and interesting to them.
A Note About Reading Levels
There are several reading level formulas that assign a number to indicate the level of a given piece of writing. The system I’ve chosen is Accelerated Reading, also known as AR Reading Level.
The AR Reading Levels roughly correspond to grades. For example, if something is a 3.5 level, it would be generally be readable by third graders halfway through the school year.
Make a note, though, that the AR level is just a general guideline. Children progress at different rates. Some third graders may read at a sixth grade level, and others may struggle to read a text which is labeled AR 2.0. The best thing to do is to find a book which your child can read comfortably, and then look it up to see which reading level it is assigned. Then try to find others that are a point or two within that level.
In some cases, I’ve only been able to find the reading level according to the Lexile system. In those cases, I’ve included the Lexile number and its approximate AR number. If I couldn't find the reading level, I still indicated the grades for which the book would be appropriate.
Keep in mind that nonfiction tends to turn up as a higher grade level since it uses more unusual vocabulary. Many of these books, though, use small blocks of text and make use of numerous large pictures to break up the reading. They may actually be less daunting to a hesitant reader than a fiction book which mostly consists of large blocks of words on each page.
If You Are Looking for Even More Narrative Nonfiction
I have another article with 37 more narrative nonfiction titles, mostly ranging from those published 2014-2017.
1. Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson
AR Reading Level 3.8, Grades K-5, 40 pp., Published in 2018.
Little by little, I'm getting to know more about the Civil Rights Movement, but there are still a number of things that I don’t know a lot about. This book, even as brief as it is, gives quite a bit of information about the context and content of The Children's Crusade in Birmingham, 1963.
It would be an ideal read-aloud for a grade-school class to introduce them to the issues and the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. The fact that it centers on children will make it even more relatable to them.
Let the Children March is narrated by a girl who looks to be a young teenager. She starts by telling how she couldn't play on the same playgrounds as the white kids, or go to the same school, or drink from the same water fountains. One evening, she and her family went to church to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak and urge the people to become peaceful protesters and march. The girl recounts that her parents don't want to protest because they fear for their jobs, but she notes that she and her brother can join the march because they don't have bosses to fear.
At first, King was reluctant to include children, but he realized that young people had even more at stake in the future than his generation. And so, the children marched, about a thousand of them. The police eventually turned the fire hoses on them and set dogs on them, but the children continued to march. Over time, many of them were jailed, including the girl telling the story in the book. She recounts that they sang protest songs in the overcrowded cells.
The protests gained quite a bit of media coverage, and President Kennedy received calls from all over the world about the children. Eight days after the March started, the leaders of Birmingham agreed to desegregation.
In her Afterword, Clark-Robinson describes the impact of the Children's Crusade. Dr. King credited it for providing much-needed impetus. President Kennedy called for Civil Rights legislation a month later, and the next year, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The artwork in the book is just luminous, portraying the emotions of the people who fought for equality. The brief text makes this book accessible for children as young as first grade, and still provides good information for children in upper elementary school.
In case you are looking for more books to help teach about the civil rights movement, Social Justice Books has a good book list which also has resources for all ages.
2. A Leap for Legadema by Beverly and Dereck Joubert
Grades K-3,32 pp. Published in 2018.
A Leap for Legadema is a gorgeously-photographed fairly easy-to-read little book about a leopard cub who is born in Africa and learns how to hunt and other life lessons from her mother.
We learn that Legadema's name means "light from the sky" in the Setswana language and that she is the first cub of her mother's to survive. From this fact we learn how dangerous life is, even for a young leopard who will eventually be close to the top of the food chain.
The book is written in fairly simple language with only two or three sentences per page. It describes how Legadema's mother shows her cub how to keep her guard up and stalk her prey. There is a brief moment of drama when the mother leaves her cub to go and hunt and returns to find a lion taking quite an interest in her cub. The mother grabs the lions' attention and leaps into a tree, giving her Legadema a chance to run and hide. Since lions don't generally climb trees, both mother and daughter come out of the experience safe and sound.
Soon we see Legadema all grown up and hunting on her own, but still communicating with her mother when they happen upon each other. The book ends when Legadema has her own offspring, two adorable cubs named Pula and Maru--named after the rain and the clouds.
The photos are what you would expect from a National Geographic book: large, colorful, and clear. This will be a hit for children who love big cats and can serve as a good introduction to how animals raise their young.
Here is a the National Geographic video about Legadema entitled Eye of the Leopard. Like any Nat. Geo. production, it talks about predators and prey--and mating but you might want to queue up a piece of it so the kids can see Legadema in action.
3. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
AR Reading Level 5.8, Grades 1-5, 40 pp. Published in 2018.
This story of four African-American women who rose to positions of responsibility in the space program has shed light on important history for adult audiences, and now there is a way to introduce the story to children. This is another book that would make a good read-aloud to introduce the class to the topic. I can see all kinds of extensions in the classroom, from learning more about the space program to finding out about the Civil Rights movement. STEM and social science, all in one book.
Hidden Figures takes the inspirational story of four black women who worked as mathematicians for the US space program and does a nice job of turning it into a picture book for elementary-school readers. Perhaps the most important thing when writing this story for children is to provide some context on how segregation affected the lives of African-Americans in the time period. Accordingly, Shetterly tells her audience how many strictures existed on black people, especially in the South. They couldn't eat at the same restaurants, drink from the same water fountains, use the same restrooms, attend the same schools, play on the same sports teams, sit near whites in movie theaters or marry someone of a different race.
When the children know this, they will find it all the more remarkable that one of the women, Dorothy Vaughan, was able to get a job as a "computer" for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. She was really good at math. (Shetterly helps to clear up the confusion around the use of the term "computers" as well. Back in those days, people who did computations were called computers. Nowadays, machines do most of the computing work, and we call them computers.)
After introducing readers to Dorothy Vaughan and her work, the author goes on to tell us how Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden all came to work for the space program and gives a little description of the type of work they did.
My favorite sequence describes how Johnson persisted until she was allowed to go to the meetings and help the group prepare its research reports. At first her boss told her that women weren't allowed at the meetings, but she kept asking and he finally invited her to them. She knew she was really good at the math and could be of help to the team. She became the first woman in her group to be able to sign her name to one of their reports.
The author also tells a little about the history of the space program: Kennedy's call to put a man on the moon, John Glenn's orbit (and how he insisted that Katherine Johnson double-check the mechanical computer's calculations), and the moon landing.
The back matter of the book provides valuable extras: a timeline from the Wright Brothers to the moon landing, short biographies of each woman, and a glossary.
I can't say enough about the illustrations in this book. They are colorful, yet refined, and convey the dignity of each woman. The illustrations dominate each page and help to convey the place, the mood, and the sense of progress the story projects.
And, here is a guide to resources provided by Christy Crawford on Scholastic’s teaching blog.
4. A Seal Named Patches by Roxanne Beltran
Grades K-3, 40 pp. Published in 2017.
Cute seal picture alert! A Seal Named Patches tells the story of tracking a Weddell seal by a team of scientists who have traveled to Antarctica to check on one of the oldest seals to see if she has had a prosperous enough year to give birth to a pup. If she doesn't get enough food, or conditions are otherwise harsh, she won't produce a pup in a given year.
The seal, which they have named Patches is remarkable because she is 30 years old and has given birth to 21 pups. The scientists are on a mission to see if she is with pup number 22.
The text is written at about a second-grade level with large type and just a few sentences on a page. The authors also provide some context, describing how cold it is in the Antarctic, even during their summer. We learn that the temps range between 0 and 30 degrees F. That’s as cold as your freezer at home!
The book is illustrated with lots of large, high-quality photographs that show the scientists' equipment, the landscape, and especially lots of adorable seal face photos.
This book would serve as a nice introduction to Antarctica, the work that scientists do, and--of course--seals.
5. The Boo-Boos That Changed the World by Barry Wittenstein
AR Reading Level 3.9, Grades K-3, 32 pp. Published in 2018.
If there is one thing that can capture the interest of young children, it's band-aids. So, how cool is it to have a book that tells us the story of the invention of band-aids?
The Boo-Boos That Changed the World tells us about a husband and wife who lived in New Jersey in the early 1900's. The wife, Josephine, was accident-prone and often managed to cut herself in the kitchen. Amazingly at the time there was no way to efficiently cover a small wound. Josephine would grab a rag to stop the bleeding, but then it was even harder to do cooking with a bulky rag.
Her husband, Earle, wanted to help. His father had been a doctor, and fortuitously, Earle himself worked for a company that made hospital supplies, so it was up to him to come up with a prototype. He laid down some adhesive tape, put some squares of sterile gauze on top and then put a layer of something called crinoline on top to keep the whole strip sterile. Now Josephine could simply cut off a hunk whenever she needed it.
They were so happy that Earle went off to the company president to show how it worked, and they created the name Band-Aid from a mashup of the words "bandage" and "first "aid." But, the first batch they manufactured didn't go so well. They were slow to make and came in lengths 18 inches long and three inches wide. Rather unwieldy for a small bandage. But, the company kept innovating and eventurally came up with a machine that makes a band-aid more like the one we know today.
Even so, the band-aids weren't exactly flying off the shelf until the company got the idea of giving away samples to the boy scouts who were always scraping and cutting themselves. Mothers recognized a good thing when they saw it, and the band-aid finally caught on, going with the troops during WWII and eventually coming in all the sizes and decorations we see today.
This book would make a wonderful read-aloud. The author teases us by pretending to end the story several times, but then going on to tell us another important part of the band-aid's evolution. It has a kind of "Wait, there's more" feel to it, and I think it will make the kids giggle.
Another part that amused me was the description of the ridiculously long and wide band-aid. When I was in school, for some reason the nurses didn't seem to have simple little band-aids. They had gauze and tape, which they must have thought seemed more seriously medical. I remember going to the nurse with a run-of the mill skinned knee. By the time she was done with me, I had a 4-inch square of gauze and about 3 feet of tape wrapped around my knee. I tried to avoid going to the nurse after that. She made you look like you'd just come back from a war. I would go home, rip the whole thing off, and put on a little band-aid.
The author's note is also well worth reading. Sure, this is a little story about how band-aids came to be, but it's also a story about how the right expertise has to come together, and how a person needs to keep refining a product and then finding ways to market. This book would be a great introduction to a unit in which children are going to try to make their own inventions.
The back matter also has some interesting stuff. There is a timeline which tells us when the first Band-Aids went into space, among other things. Another lists other medical inventions of the time and challenges students to research their story.
At the end of the book, we have a list of websites that will give more information.
The illustrations are whimsical and the text is kept short and conversational. This is one of the best narrative nonfiction books I have seen.
6. Dog On a Bike by Moira Rose Donohue
AR Reading Level 3.9, 111 pp. Published in 2017.
All you need to do to hook kids into Dog On a Bike is to show them a clip of Norman's Greatest Tricks.
Norman is a dog, a special kind of herding dog called a Briard which has long wavy hair and weighs about 75 pounds. Though they seem like big, goofy dogs, they are actually quite smart and loyal. In the section of the book that focuses on Norman, Donahue goes into a fair amount of detail about his trainer, Karen Cobb, and the steps she went through to obtain a Briard and train him. It would provide a good overview for a child who is interested in training his or her own dog.
I'll have to say that I was impressed by the breed when I learned that the 8-week-old puppy was able to refrain from peeing for over 15 hours when they took a plane ride from the breeder's back to Cobb's home. I once had an eight-week-old puppy who couldn't seem to hold it for two minutes. Lest you think the trainer was cruel, she did bring puppy pads on the airplane and try to get Norman to do his business in the airplane bathroom, but he wasn't having any of it.
Cobb found Norman easy to train, and soon she had him able to ride a scooter. I would say, you just have to watch the footage of this big, furry dog making time on his scooter. He's really good at it. The bike seems a bit of a stretch for him, but he can really scoot. Anyhow, soon Norman was offered a segment on David Letterman and a spot on the reality show Who Let the Dogs Out? He also broke the speed record for dogs on the scooter and the bicycle (yes, they have them for dogs.)
All of this is narrated in a style that reminds me of an early chapter book. The story is mostly text, but the pages are small, the type is fairly big, and the sentences are fairly short. It could be a perfect book for a 3rd or 4th grader who isn't that much in to fiction, but likes reading about animals.
There are two other stories in the book, one about a sea otter that can shoot a ball into a hoop, and a full-grown gorilla who can walk a tightrope. This book was published by National Geographic Kids, and it has the signature right graphic design and well-chosen little photos to go along with the stories.
If you have children who like dog on a bike, they might also like Adventure Cat! by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld, a book that is part of the same series.
Zoehfeld tells the story of three unusual cats. One, a Maine Coon Cat, actually serves as a "hearing ear cat" for a man who is deaf. The cat can alert him when the phone rings, or when someone is at the door. But her real claim to fame is that she's a sailing cat. Her owner, a man named Paul Thompson, has sailed around the world once with another cat and is planning a similar journey with this one. She is polydactyl, which means she has extra toes, so she has even more grip when she walks on a the moving surface of a ship at sea.
Another cat has brought home things he finds lying around the neighborhood; toys, gloves, towels. Hi prolific "thieving" earned him an appearance on an animal show. These days, the neighbors all know that if something's missing, they should check at that cat's house.
7. Hawk Mother by Kara Hagedorn
Grades 1-4, 32 pp. Published in 2017.
Hawk Mother would make a good read-aloud to a group, or an introduction to birds of prey. Children can't help but be drawn in to a story of someone who takes care of a hurt animal and comes across a surprise along the way. The area where I live in Colorado is frequented by many red-tailed hawks, and I've looked at them with new eyes after reading this book.
If you have a class that has brought in an incubator of chicken eggs from your local extension office so that the children can watch the chicks hatch, they are likely to be especially interested in this book.
Hawk Mother tells the story of young red-tailed hawk who was injured by gunshot and taken in by local zoologist Kara Hagedorn. The steel shot had pierced the female hawk's wing and leg, leaving her unable to fly or fend for herself, so Hagedorn named her Sunshine because of her bright personality and built her a large aviary where she could watch other birds and hunt lizards and gophers.
One day, the zoologist was surprised to see that Sunshine was building a nest (and expecting her human to help), and even more surprised when she laid two eggs. Unfortunately, the eggs were infertile because the hawk didn't have a mate, but Sunshine still proceeded to incubate them and expected Hagedorn to help out with the duties. Several times a day, Hagedorn would walk over to the nest and put her hands on the eggs while Sunshine went out to hunt and eat. In the wild, both the mother and father hawk also share the duties in this way.
For seven years Hagedorn help to "incubate" the infertile eggs and then would eventually take away the nest and the eggs, knowing they would never hatch. She remarks "Sunshine seems confused when I do this, but if I don't tear up the nest she will sit on the eggs all summer waiting for them to hatch."
So, all of a sudden, this book became much more poignant than I had thought it would be. We see a picture of Sunshine,looking at the scattered leaves and twigs, all that remains of her nest, and we realize how much she has lost with her injury. It has taken away her ability to fly and to reproduce, two things that one could argue are central to a hawk's being.
Finally, Hagedorn hit on an idea. A neighbor brought her some fertile chicken eggs, and she picked the two that looked the most like hawk eggs and traded them out for the hawk eggs in Sunshine's nest. The hawk didn't seem to take notice of any changes and settled back down to incubate them. Then one day, the eggs start to crack and the chicks hatch. Hagedorn has a little trepidation about how things will work out because chickens are different from hawks. For one thing, baby chickens are able to walk and forage for food within a day of hatching. Baby hawks are more helpless, staying in the nest and opening their mouths, waiting for their parents to feed them.
And then there is the fact that hawks will eat chickens. Things were tense for a moment when Hagedorn saw that Sunshine had that look like she was sizing up prey. But, it turned out that she was going after a snake, which she offered up to the chicks once she had killed it. The chicks gamely pecked away at it, even though it's not a common thing for them to eat.
The story has a happy ending, with the hawk and chickens all agreeing to act as a family as the baby chicks turn into full-grown roosters.
In her afterword, Hagedorn explains how she took on quite a commitment because hawks can live for up to 30 years. She takes sunshine around to school groups to talk about birds in the wild. And each spring, they both still build a nest and incubate eggs.
The photos are big and clear, and the text is large. The back matter includes more info about hawks and also a glossary of the terms used in the book.
8. Tunneling to Freedom by Nel Yomtov
Lexile 680 (AR 4.0), Grades 2-6, 32 pp. Published in 2017.
People of a certain age might remember the movie The Great Escape which dramatized the story of a massive escape attempt from the Nazi prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III. It starred quite a few prominent actors of the day, and made escaping from a prison camp look like a bit of a lark and a great adventure.
Tunneling to Freedom is the story of that great escape told for children in a hardbound comic book format, and I have to say that it injected more information and reality into the story than the movie did. It would be a good choice for a reader who is daunted by lots of text and likes to read about bravery in war.
At the beginning, we find a couple of pages of exposition explaining how the men at this particular Stalag were pilots who had been shot down and taken prisoner. Stalag Luft III was thought to be "escape-proof" due to the sandy soil which made it difficult to tunnel and the sensors in the ground meant to detect any tunneling activity.
By 1943, them men had tried dozens of escapes and they had all failed. This section ends with the sentences that will hook readers into the rest of the book "As the months wore on, the prisoners' plans of escape became ever more bold and courageous. The time was ripe for a plan to finally succeed.
Turn the page, and we have full-color, full-page graphics that tells the story with comic book conventions, dialogue bubbles and short blocks of explanatory text to fill in the story. The drawings are well-done and give readers context and a sense of the setting of the story. Even though the amount of text is small, the story coheres and tells us of the men's cleverness, from singing to cover up the sound of digging, to having the men sneak out the dirt they've dug by dropping it from inside their pant legs and spreading it throughout the prison yard.
The story maintains the tension as we learn that only 200 men are given permission to try to escape since they don't think they'll have time for more. As I read, I wondered what would happen to the men remaining. It took bravery to remain behind and know the punishments could be severe.
On the night of the escape, the men ran in to several difficulties that slowed them down. For one thing, the exit for the tunnel was too close to the guard house, and they had to post someone to let the men know when they could safely run to the woods. In addition, a portion of the tunnel caved in, and some men got jammed in the tunnel if their blanket rolls weren't tied right.
This being war, the ending isn't as happy as we'd hope. The Nazis captured 73 of the prisoners who escaped. Of those, they executed 50. The books tells us these figures matter-of-factly, and then focuses on the 3 who still had a chance for freedom. They all managed to escape Germany and find their way back to freedom. At the end, we go back to text, and the book explains how the breakout achieved its goal, tying up numerous personnel in the search for escapees. It also has a brief account of the lives of the 3 that escaped. Though it doesn't go into wrenching detail, it does mention that one of them men learned that two brothers had been killed in concentration camps and his father had been blinded. The man who escaped later moved to the US and worked for NASA. The other two moved to Canada and later worked for Norwegian airlines.
The back matter includes a glossary, critical thinking questions , a list of additional books, and a code number for the site facthound.com which allows children to find safe, authoritative sources on the internet.
9. Library on Wheels by Sharlee Glenn
Grades 3-7, 56 pp. Published in 2018.
Most of us think of a library as a big, stationary building with lots of books, but in Library on Wheels, we learn that the concept of the bookmobile evolved pretty early on along with the idea of free public libraries.
The author, Sharlee Glenn, tells us the story of Mary Lemist Titcomb, a girl who had ambitions in life but was constrained by the times because there were few opportunities for girls born in 1852. Fortunately, Titcomb's parents believed in giving their girls an education, and Mary and her sister were allowed to attend an institution of higher education. When Mary's brothers started out on their careers, Mary wanted to get going on something too, but about the only things open to her were teaching and nursing, and neither one seemed like a good fit.
Then, she heard about being a librarian, and it was a perfect match because she had always loved to read. Her first library was in Vermont, but she was eventually recruited to develop a library in Maryland. It was one of the first county-wide libraries, set up to serve not only the people in town, but also those who lived in the outlying rural areas. Ms. Titcomb started with setting up seventy-five book deposit stations around the county where people could take from a small supply of books and then return them, but she still felt like she wasn't reaching everyone.
So, she came up with the idea of commissioning a wagon, fitting it with shelves, and driving the books out to see the people. The trustees of the library thought it was a rather crazy plan, but apparently they had enough faith in their librarian to approve it. She had the wagon painted black with staid lettering, and in one of the more amusing stories in the book, she realized that she needed to add some cheery red because some people mistook it for a wagon that came around to pick up the dead.
The wagon was a success and lent out over a thousand books in its first six months. Children who hadn't come into much contact with books now found that they could check out several at a time.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could get today's children as excited about books as those children must have been in their day?
This book includes lots of large pictures and illustrations to give readers the flavor of the times. We have nice portraits of Ms. Titcomb, pictures of her library, one of the book deposit boxes, and, of the course the book wagon and subsequent book trucks that the library used. Most of them are in black and white, of course, but they are usually of good quality and convey the times. One set of photos I especially like is one that shows the original covers of some children's classics like Little Women and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
The print is big, but the vocabulary can be rather challenging at times. The whole story is cast as that of a woman who was determined to make a difference and persevered with her vision. As Mary said in an interview in 1923 "The happy person is the person who does something."
10. All That Trash by Meghan McCarthy
AR Reading Level 5.0, Grades 2-5, 48 pp. Published in 2018.
With all the emphasis on carbon dioxide buildup and global climate change, we tend to forget the eye-popping amount of resources we are using, especially in the US, and the sheer volume of trash we are generating.
All That Trash takes us back in time to 1987 and the infamous garbage barge that brought our waste problem into such sharp relief. It starts with an entrepreneur who, ironically, was trying to help cut down on waste and generate energy. His idea was to take New York City's trash, dump it in North Carolina, and create methane from it. But, the State of North Carolina objected when they saw a barge the size of a football field full of garbage coming their way. They went to court and stopped it from landing in their state. From there on, the barge tried Alabama, Mississippi, Mexico, Belize, and the Bahamas before it was finally just incinerated back in New York.
Along the way, the garbage barge garnered lots of press and visits from people like popular talk show host Phil Donahue and environmental activist groups like Greenpeace.
I'm of an age when I remember hearing about the travails of the garbage barge, but I hadn't ever heard what happened to it, so it was nice to see the story wrapped up in this book.
This is a book that could have quite a few applications in the classroom, aside from the obvious recycling theme. I can see the students learning a little about geography, how trash is now turned into methane, some math about how much garbage is out there--and especially in the ocean. The back matter has all kinds of interesting facts about the garbage barge, recycling, garbage itself, and ocean garbage. One of the things that surprised me is that the ones who bought the garbage (and had ties to the mob) lost money on their "cargo," but the captain sold T-shirts that said "Tour the Seas with Capt. Duffy Garbage Barge Cruise Lines" and made $100,000 from his enterprise.
The back matter also contains photos things that have been made from recycled objects and a long bibliography of sources.
The text is relatively short, and the illustrations fit the story well, making this a good short read-aloud for a class.
Recommended for You
11. Moto and Me by Suzi Eszterhas
AR Reading Level 5.3, Grades 1-5, 40 pp. Published in 2017.
Moto and Me has a nice, conversational style that will draw readers in. It may also have them dreaming about doing what Eszterhas did: spend three years living in a tent in Kenya. In many ways her first chapter "My Life in a Bush Camp" is the most interesting.
Even as a child, she would tell her mother that she would grow up to live in a tent in Africa. Several years later, she moved to a wildlife reserve in Africa to photograph the animals there. She tells of living the first year without electricity and falling asleep to all the animal sounds. In the daytime, a variety of animals wandered through her camp, including hippos, hyenas, and a bull elephant. My eyes widened when she talked about how she often saw poisonous snakes like mambas and cobras, one of the latter even curled up and spitting on her desk. She wanted to get close to the animals, and she apparently succeeded.
The story she wants to tell, though, is about Moto, a serval cat she raised after it was separated from its mother after a wildfire. She includes lots of large, high-quality photos of Moto, and he is of course adorable. Serval cats are somewhere between housecats and leopards in size. They get to be about 30 pounds and have larger ears than the typical housecat.
A ranger brought Moto to Esterhas to raise because he knew she had spent quite a bit of time watching and photographing the cats. She wasn't to raise him as a pet, though. She needed to raise him so that he was able to go back to the wild. She tells the story of figuring out what kind of milk to use, how she brushed his hair with a toothbrush, and how she kept him close at first to comfort him. She explains how most cats are born with sisters or brothers, so she got him a stuffed duck to play with and cuddle with as he would a sibling. The pictures of Moto playing with his duckling or riding in the shirt pouch made for him will elicit lots of "aw"s.
Of course, on the next few pages, you see Moto catching mice, which is not as warm and fuzzy a picture. But, this is still a scientific book after all, and the realities of wild cats is that they need to catch prey to live. Moto seemed to take to hunting pretty naturally, and Eszterhas describes the process of weaning him off milk and letting him roam independently. Then came the day when Moto left and didn't come back At first Eszterhas was worried for him, but then she saw him out in the wild, surviving on his own as she had hoped he would.
This book would make a nice read-aloud for a group. I imagine it would take 20 or 30 minutes. The text is fairly large, and the pictures are big, colorful, and sharp. They illustrate tender and interesting moments that will draw children in to the story. It would serve as a great introduction to animal development and the fauna of Africa. The author includes a page of facts about servals in the back, which will be a help to any children preparing reports or posters.
12. Dazzle Ships by Chris Barton
AR Reading Level 6.1, Grades 2-5, 40 pp. Published in 2017.
Dazzle Ships is a book that will appeal to children who are interested in military history, and also possibly to those who are interested in art.
The setting is World War I and how desperate the British were to keep German submarines from sinking their ships. As an island nation, they simply had to keep supplies coming in so their people didn't starve.
Submarines were new to warfare and the author, Chris Barton, spends some time explaining how they changed the ways wars were fought. He describes how the British tried to brainstorm ways to stop the sub attacks. They thought of training seagulls or sea lions to spot the boats and of having swimmers (divers maybe?) swim up to the periscopes and smash them. One of the more successful ideas, was, of course, to use depth charges to explode when they reached the submarine.
One fellow, Norman Wilkinson, had a different kind of idea. He thought they could paint confusing patterns on a ship so that the subs would have a hard time tracking the ship's course. If they could convince the German sub commanders that a boat was headed in a different direction, the sub might waste a torpedo aiming for the wrong place. Since the German subs didn't have many torpedoes, each one lost meant that more ships would get through unharmed.
The military named the project "Dazzle," and soon they were painting almost all the ships with odd patterns.
My favorite little story from this book tells how King George V, who had joined the Royal Navy when he was just 12 years old, came to take a look at the project. Wilkinson had him try out the concept by looking through the periscope at a "Dazzled" model and predict which way it was heading. The king took a look -- and then got it wrong, predicting that it was going the opposite direction than it really was. To his credit, the king was impressed that the technique could fool someone with so much seagoing experience.
Strangely enough, no one really knows how effective "Dazzling" really was. It's the sort of thing that's hard to prove. Yet, the author points out that it's always good to use creativity and think outside the box.
The illustrations fit the text with a sort of surreal quality that includes lots of lines that make many of the pictures look dazzled themselves. It's also a little reminiscent of old comic book styles. They do a find job of dramatizing the story and keeping interest.
13. Sea Otter Heroes: The Predators that Saved an Ecosystem by Patricia Newman
AR Reading Level 6.9, Grades 4-8, 56 pp. Published in 2017.
What better to hook kids in than with a picture of a sea otter? Not only are they cute as can be, but they also fulfill the role of valuable predators in the ecosystem.
In Sea Otter Heroes, Newman presents this story as a mystery (though the title kind of gives away the solution.) She starts with a question that intrigued marine biologist Brent Hughes: why was the sea grass thriving in a slough near Monterey Bay when our current knowledge about the area would predict that the grass should be choked out by an overabundance of algae? As she describes it “his journey to discovery would zigzag like the slough itself, requiring crafty detective work, the scientific method, and a smidgen of luck.”
I’m a landlubber who lives on a high mountain plain, so I had a lot to learn from this book. As she weaves her story, Newman explains how valuable sea grass is to protecting the coastline and how fertilizer runoff leads to an overabundance of nutrients, which in turn leads to a huge amount of algae. The algae prevents the grass from performing photosynthesis. She describes how the biologist methodically looked for clues. A certain kind of slug was eating the algae, but why were there so many of them in this slough?
Large pictures fill each page as we follow the scientist in the process of observing, testing, and gather data from other sources. It turns out that otters eat clams which prey on the slugs, and therefore the slugs were able to keep up with eating the algae.
Newman also includes interesting sidebars about topics like how the otters were almost hunted to extinction, or how otters are specifically built to be good hunters.
This would be an excellent book for any unit on ecosystems, and would be of special interest to children who live near the sea. It will also help them understand what scientists do, how they think, and how they put together information.
This book won a Sibert Honor award for best nonfiction for the year 2018. It is a detailed and a bit challenging narrative for older elementary students, but the big text and large pictures should be able to draw reluctant readers in.
14. Impact! Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World by Elizabeth Rusch
AR Reading Level 7.2, Grades 4-8, 80 pp. Published in 2017.
Just in case you thought a book about asteroids would be a boring book about space rocks, author Elizabeth Rusch starts Impact! Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World with a literal bang, giving us an account of an asteroid that streaked across the Russian sky in 2013, exploding glass out of windows, rattling buildings, collapsing roofs, and setting off car alarms. Many people thought a bomb had exploded, but it turned out to be an asteroid about the size of the Eiffel Tower falling to earth across Russia until it crashed through the ice of a frozen lake. Along the way, it had burned up and split apart until the largest piece left was about the size of a chair.
She goes on to explain that most of the asteroids that come to earth come from a belt between Mars and Jupiter. Most of them stay there for millions of years, but every now and then, one gets nudged out and comes towards earth. The one that struck Russia in 2013 is actually considered one of the smaller ones. The belt holds more than 200 asteroids that are at least 60 miles wide, and close to a million are half a mile wide.
When you see what kind of damage a relatively small asteroid can do, you understand the reason that scientists are trying to learn more about them, and --most importantly--how to stop a catastrophic one from hitting the Earth.
Rusch follows the scientists and tells how they track and find meteorites and how they analyze craters where asteroids fell millions of years ago. She includes a chapter on the asteroid that is thought to have changed the climate on earth enough to kill off most of the dinosaurs. She also shows how scientists are trying to identify asteroids they see in the sky by using infrared cameras because many asteroids don't reflect much light.
Once you've read about how many giant asteroids are out there, you may start thinking about what we would do if we knew that one big enough to be catastrophic was coming right toward us. Rusch has some answers for that as well. Some scientists think we should blow it up, while others think we should send something to crash into it or push it, vaporize it, or tug it out of the way. . Interestingly, the Europeans are going to do some tests on asteroids coming by in 2020 to see if they can bump a couple of asteroids off their orbits.
While this book has lots of technical information, it's highly engaging and includes all kinds of photos, artwork, charts and models to get its point across. Children who read it will come back knowing more about space in general and asteroids in particular. The author includes quite a bit of supplementary material at the end which would lend itself to classroom extensions. She includes sites that NASA has set up to allow amateur astronomers to help find asteroids and help figure out what to do if a big one were coming towards us. She includes tips for meteorite collecting and additional sources, as well as a glossary and notes.
15. Camp Panda by Catherine Thimmesh
Grades 4-7, 64 pp. Published in 2018.
The photo of the cute little panda on the cover of Camp Panda might make you think that you are in for a cute book about the "panda kindergartens" you see on the internet, places with toddler pandas playing on swings and slides while their human caregivers look on.
While it's true that there are plenty of photos of pandas looking adorable in this book, it's actually a rather comprehensive explanation of how staff at the Wolong Nature Reserve are developing a program to breed pandas and return them to the wild.
The author, Catherine Thimmesh, starts with some general information on the pandas' habitat, diet, and method of taking care of their young. She then talks about the threats the wild panda faces, especially loss of habitat. Giant pandas have evolved into a peculiar ecological niche. They eat only bamboo, which does not provide them with much nutrition, so they have to eat constantly. And the bamboo forests act as essentially one plant, and when the plant dies, the whole forest dies. The panda needs to be able to make it to the next bamboo forest before he or she starves, a feat that is more difficult to pull off as humans destroy what bamboo forests there are.
Fortunately, China is aware that the panda is their most visible and beloved symbol, and so they are working on reforestation and captive breeding programs. Now, they are working on an extensive program to raise the cubs so that they can survive in the wild on their own. Baby pandas prove to be an especially tricky subject for such a thing. They are born helpless and amazingly fragile. They only weigh about 4 ounces when they are born, and they are hairless. They can't see, move themselves from place to place, feed themselves, or even poop on their own--a fact which is sure to fascinate many a classroom student. (The author doesn't go into details about how the baby accomplishes it, but a little searching on the internet told me that the mother helps out by licking the area.)
Thimmesh describes the process the team went through to determine how they could prepare the cubs for the wild. One thing they do is to have people wear panda suits when they interact with the cubs, which make for some pretty interesting pictures. The suits are rubbed with panda urine and excrement so that they smell more like a panda than a human. They explain that they're not really trying to convince the little pandas that they are adult pandas. They just don't want the animals to bond with the humans. They need to fear humans if they are going to protect themselves in the wild.
As she tells her story, Thimmesh works in information about other endangered species and the effects of habitat loss, complete with some pretty impressive pictures of animals like tigers and polar bears.
As with any scientific endeavor, the panda reintroduction team faced setbacks, and I feel I need to tell you that one of their early releases survived for a while, but then died when he climbed a tree to get away from other males in the area and fell to his death. But the news gets better. The team analyzed what happened to the first panda, changed their procedures, and released another one who seems to be doing well so far.
This book has quite a lot of text (which is broken up with lots of big high-quality pictures), but Thimmesh does an excellent job of writing and keeping her story moving along. From the first paragraph, she draws readers in, describing a female adult panda. "She's plopped herself on the forest floor, and she munches bamboo shoot after bamboo shoot. It's hard for humans to cut through bamboo with an ax, but the panda peels and eats a single bamboo shoot in forty seconds!"
This is an excellent book for an older reader or one who is especially interested in pandas. It conveys the hard work and ingenuity of scientists as they work to solve problems and succeed at returning panda cubs to the wild.
16. Snowy Owl Invasion by Sandra Markle
AR Reading Level 6.6, Grades 4-8, 48 pp. Published in 2018.
Snowy Owl Invasion sets out to solve a mystery. Why did snowy owls travel so far south during the winter of 2013-4? People in Newfoundland Canada were spotting four times as many owls as usual in the area, and they were seen as far south as Maryland.
The author, Sandra Markle, set out to track the scientists who were tracking the snowy owls. Markle gives a little background on the life cycle of a snowy owl and explains how important the lemming life cycle is to the snowy owl population.
She outlines a number of ideas for why the snowy owls ventured so far south that year. One idea is that there was more competition for food, and they had to travel farther. Another is that the strong winds that blew towards the southeast. Whatever the reason, she points out that it is hazardous for the owls to come to more populous regions and she details the efforts to track the birds and find out where exactly they were going so that they could come up with strategies to protect the birds in the future.
The photos of the snowy owls are just beautiful, and I can imagine that children who have come to know the birds through the Harry Potter series would be interested in learning more about them. This is a book that is meaty enough to have the information needed for a school report. And even though the photos are large, there is still quite a bit of text on each page, so this book would be suitable for an older child or a prolific reader.
The book contains all kinds of nonfiction extras like maps, source notes, a glossary, additional resources, and an index.
17. Women Who Dared by Linda Skeers
Lexile 950 (AR Reading Level 6.7), Grades 3-8, 112 pp. Published 2017.
This is a book that will satisfy a common type of school assignment, the kind in which the teacher wants the students to do a report on the same topic, but use different examples. In this case, it would be an assignment about strong and accomplished women. You'll find lots of books about people like Helen Keller and Clara Barton and Eleanor Roosevelt, but after a while the choices gets pretty slim if you have a large number of children in a class.
Enter Women Who Dared. It contains 52 stories of women who were "fearless daredevils, adventurers, and rebels." Most of them are people you've never heard of, but they managed to do amazing and important things. And, even if your child doesn't have a report looming, this is still a wonderful book for learning about the kinds feats outstanding women have been able to do throughout the past century, in spite of entrenched prejudices against them.
I don't know if children will read ever one of the stories contained in this book, but I imagine they'll be interested in browsing until they find a woman who interests them.
I was personally taken by the tale of the very first one in the book, a Mrs. Annie Taylor. Back in 1901, she was a widow and an etiquette teacher, but unfortunately the market for her business started faltering. Faced with the prospect of living with no money, she decided to try for fame and fortune. When she saw that Niagara Falls was getting to be quite the tourist destination, she decided she would attract attention by going over the falls in a barrel. With a sturdy barrel, a fair amount of pillows, and a great deal of publicity, she took the plunge.
Now, this is the truly amazing part--the woman was 63 years old! And, yes, she survived it. And what did she have to say about the experience? "I prayed every second I was in the barrel except for a few seconds after the fall when I was unconscious." After that, she got some postcards and booklets about her life and sold them at a souvenir stand near the falls. I told one of my colleagues about Mrs. Taylor's story, and she said "Good for her! She figured out how to support herself; she had her merch all lined up and she kept going!" Indeed.
The book is laid out with the story of each woman on one side of the spread and a full-page illustration on the other side. The women profiled are from several different countries (Brazil, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Poland, and Iraq among them), though they are predominantly from the US. And we have all sorts of accomplishments: ship captains, war photographers, around-the-world bicyclists, Medal of Honor winners; the list goes on with daring and interesting exploits.
The narratives are clear and vivid, and the illustrations have a bit of a folk art feel that include borders that remind us of each woman's accomplishments. Thus, we had sled dogs for the musher, coral for the diver, mermaid tails for the champion swimmer who worked for a while putting on a mermaid show. You get the idea.
My only quibble with the book is that the print is rather small, and it takes a little effort to get started on a story. But once a child gets through the first couple of sentences, I'm willing to bet they will keep reading, curious to see what's going to happen next.
18. Frenemies in the Family by Kathleen Krull
Lexile 980L (AR Reading Level 7.1) Ages 8-12, 240 pp. Published in 2018.
The subtitle of Frenemies in the Family indicates what will draw children to this book: Famous Brothers and Sisters Who Butted Heads and Had Each Other's Backs. Everyone who has ever had a brother or sister knows how they can be your best friend one minute and your worst enemy the next.
What will keep kids reading this book is the lively, boisterous, and personable style of the writing. Krull's mix of humor and vivid details kept me turning pages in a "can't-put-it-down" sort of way, not an easy feat to accomplish with nonfiction.
In the introduction, she begins, "Siblings! You can't live with them; you can't launch them into space. Revelry, rivalry, a rumpus of emotions, whipped into a froth of teeth gnashing and hair tearing. Unless you're an only child (oh, boo-hoo), who doesn't have a juicy sibling story?"
She starts with perhaps the most extreme rivalry: Queen Elizabeth I and Mary I, two of Henry VIII's children who were almost fated to harbor ill will towards each other. The title of the chapter is "Your Sister Wants to Kill You--Really." She explains how Henry doted on Mary until he decided he really wanted a son and threw over her mother for Anne Boleyn, who became the mother of Elizabeth. Each felt she should be favored, and the two sparred their whole lives.
The illustrator provides large black and white drawings that illustrate the drama. Each section has a nice little touch which includes a short comic-style interlude with several little facts that to the interest of the period.
After telling the story of the murderous sisters, Krull moves on to one of her more harmonious subjects, the cojoined twins, Chang & Eng Bunker. I had heard about these so-called Siamese twins and the stir they caused when they toured the U.S. Mark Twain became intrigued with them and used the idea of cojoined twins to write one of his (unfortunately, less successful) books. But I had no idea how resourceful and successful these men were. From and early age, they worked on stretching the link between them so that they could see the world face out rather than face-to-face. They came to the west as curiosities and were put on display, but they maintained control of their finances and were able to become American citizens (choosing the name Bunker), and marry the two blonde sisters that lived near them in the South. One of the men had 10 children and the other had 11.
Of course, everyone wanted to see how they reacted to things. In a detail that will delight lots of children, Krull relates a doctor's experiment that had one eat asparagus and determine if the other's urine would have that distinct asparagus smell. It didn't. But if one had a toothache, it would keep the other awake. And if someone tickled one brother, the other would complain and tell the tickler to stop.
I became so interested in the two that I did some additional looking online to learn more about them. One thing I discovered is that Krull has, of course, toned down some details in people's lives to make the stories appropriate for children. She reports that the people of the US had surprisingly little resistance to the idea of Chang and Eng getting married. But what I read on the web said that some people highly disapproved. Still, they were probably in the minority, so Krull's statement could be true.
While telling her stories about siblings, she does sometimes mention some of the tougher things in the children's lives, so be aware that children may come across details they could find a little disturbing. For instance, she relates how Michael Jackson's father could be demanding to the point of abusive. It's not vivid or dwelt upon, and I don't think it will keep any children up with nightmares. But if you have a particularly sensitive child, you might want to wait until they are a little older.
Besides the queens, the twins, and the Jacksons, Krull has chapters on Edwin & John Wilkes Booth, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, Wilbur & Orville Wright, Walt & Roy Disney, the Romanov siblings, the Kennedys, Stephen Colbert's family, Peyton and Eli Manning, Serena and Venus Williams, Princes William and Harry, Demi Lovato and Madison de la Garza, and the eight Gosselin children.
The chapters are short and fascinating, and I think this is my favorite narrative nonfiction book of the year. Kids will surely be able to find a sibling set in this book that interests them.
19. Twelve Days in May by Larry Dane Brimner
Lexile 1080 (AR Reading Level 8.6), Grades 5-12, 112 pp. Published in 2017.
In narrative, chronological form, Twelve Days in May tells the story of the 15 (13 original and two replacements) Freedom Riders who traveled by bus and by airplane from Washington D.C. to New Orleans in 1961. The book first gives some needed context, explaining the situation of African-Americans in the South and briefly explaining court decisions like Plessy vs. Ferguson and Brown vs. Board of Education. What I found most affecting are the black and white photographs of life in the south, like a young man drinking from a water station that is labeled "colored," and a group of students huddling around a stove in a black-only school.
The rest of the book tells the story, day by day, of the Freedom Riders: where they traveled, which actions they undertook to demonstrate de-segregation, and the reaction to them. The courts had said that buses and lunch counters should not be segregated, but in most of the South, people still followed segregation rules, and a variety of Klan members and other white men took it upon themselves to intimidate people who did not follow the law.
This book does not shy away from disturbing reactions, but it doesn't seek to overplay them, either. What we are left with is a profound respect for the people, both black and white, who committed to non-violence and demonstrated their rights even in the face of beatings and angry mobs chasing them in cars.
I had heard of the Freedom Rider before, but hadn't known that their tormentors actually threw a gasoline bomb into their bus and then tried to block the exits so that they couldn't get out. Meanwhile, the police didn't do anything to help. Fortunately the riders all survived and made it to New Orleans.
I found it interesting that John Lewis was one of the Freedom Riders, as he has been in the news quite a bit lately.
The text of the book is fairly large, and you can tell that the editor put effort into not making the text overwhelming. There are large photos every two or three pages, and they serve to illustrate their points well.
The book includes short biographies of each rider, a bibliography, an index, and source notes.
If children are having trouble understanding what the civil rights movement is about, this book serves as a good narrative that focuses on a short period of time but touches on many of the issues.
20. They Lost Their Heads! by Carlyn Beccia
Lexile 1030 (AR Reading Level 8.0), Grades 5-9, 192 pp. Published in 2018.
Beccia has found the perfect hook to interest quite a few kids in science and history. She finds the unusual, the bizarre, and--yes--the gross things that make your eyes widen, and in between she tucks in some pretty interesting and useful information.
In They Lost Their Heads, she tells you, as the subtitle indicates "What Happened to Washington's Teeth, Einstein's Brain, and Other Famous Body Parts." Oh my goodness, I didn't know there were so many lost body parts out there. Apparently, people would keep things like Galileo's finger, George Washington's teeth, and Franz Haydn's skull sitting around their house. The stories are macabre, often disturbing, but also fascinating. They involve famous people like Beethoven, Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, Van Gogh, Mata Hari, Einstein, Elvis Presley, and Edison, among others.
What really makes this book is the rollicking tone of the author, mixed in with a big dose of humor, which is oddly appealing. But, she doesn't write just to shock. She also wants to show that the stories illuminate the lives that the people lived. As she tells us at the beginning "Every jarred heart, preserved bone, lopped-off ear, or lock of hair has a story to tell. So sit back, grab a snack, and let's hear what those rotting bits of flesh have to say."
A couple of notes about this book: I wouldn't really suggest eating while you read. I read some of it on my lunch break, and some of the details just aren't too conducive to a pleasant meal. This book is definitely not for the sensitive child. But for the ones who love spooky stories and zombie shows, this book will fit the bill.
My other note is that you want to make sure that you have a child (or parents) who's ok dealing with a little innuendo. When Beccia is describing King Louis XIV's life, she says, "Let's just say that Louis had a lot of girlfriends. He was always jumping behind the shrubbery and doing goodness knows what."
As I've said, don't let the subject matter fool you into thinking that no one will learn much from this books. We learn quite a bit about the lives of great scientists and artists. We learn about the social norms of the day. We learn how people figured out that different areas of the brain control different functions.
I have to admit, I took this book home to my family to show them some of the more amazing things. Who knew that the mother of Robert E. Lee was buried alive because she had a disease that made her look like she was dead? Who knew that Beethoven likely died of lead poisoning? They apparently put it in just about everything back then. Who knew that Edison's last breath was captured in a test tube, sealed, and give to Edison's good friend, Henry Ford?
Beccia also has a flair for drawing and his illustrated the book with black and white drawings that match nicely with the slightly off-kilter tone of her book.
21. Crash by Marc Favreau
Grades 5-10, 240 pp. Published in 2018.
Crash tells the story of the United States from the stock market crash to the end of World War II in a clear, personable, and very readable way. I can easily picture this being the text for a unit on this time period. It could lead to a variety of projects that extend and deepen students' learning about this period.
At the back of the book, Favreau gives lots of resources for children to delve deeper into the 20's, 30's & 40's. His notes are extensive and often include the names of books and the addresses of websites he consulted. He also includes a section on selected primary sources which include online multimedia exhibits, visual sources, audio sources, and printed interviews and oral histories.
The possibilities for further research abound. Children could listen to the actual audio recordings of interviews that Studs Terkel used for his book Hard Times and conduct their own oral history interviews of the times their parents or grandparents lived through.They could look at a collection of WPA posters and design their own. They could call up The Living New Deal on the web and find out which projects from that era are still standing in their community. I found out that the charming local post office in the town where I live was built with federal funds in 1939 and that a mural was commissioned to decorate it. That mural now hangs in our city hall.
The book itself covers the major happening of the era: the stock market crash, Hoover's refusal to get the government involved, the election of FDR and the role that his wife, Eleanor played, the labor movement, the New Deal programs, the Dust Bowl, the treatment of immigrants and minorities, and finally how WWII ramped up manufacturing in the US and ended the Depression. Favreau makes sure to to find accounts of everyday people affected by the times and to describe their lives and struggles to make his points more memorable for the reader. He includes lots of black and white pictures and documents to illustrate his points.
I found myself wishing that I could get every 6th or 7th grader to read this book and show them the parallels with our times now: the growing power of big business and the very rich; the way ordinary people had to strive and fight for such things as 40-hr work weeks and safe working conditions; the way immigrants are scapegoated when times are hard in a country, and the way that government programs, if well-designed, can help the living standards of its citizens. It seems that we have become complacent about what got us here and we are allowing the progress from that era to be pushed back.
This is a good, solid book that will give children and overview of the Great Depression. I find myself wondering if there are some good books out there that provide a shorter and more colorful way to kickstart interest in the time period. It would be worth looking for some items in a sort of graphic novel format to introduce the topic.
© 2018 Adele Jeunette
christina aldridge on September 14, 2019:
Regarding "The Story of the Red-Tailed Hawk".
My question: Had there not been a book written
with the same title in 1943?
I believe the author's name was Helen Geritt, I am not sure about the correct spelling of her last name.
Would anyone know ?