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Guest Post: Nonfiction for the Win! Choosing Books Kids Will Love by Melissa Stewart, Cynthia Levinson, and Jennifer Swanson

Melissa Stewart was kind enough to answer my questions about her book 5 Kinds of Nonfiction last week. Now she returns with Cynthia Levinson, and Jennifer Swanson to discuss a recent news article that had some real gaps. Take it away, folks!

In a recent The Washington Post article titled “Summer reading struggles? Here’s how to help your child now and into the school year,” author Kendra Stanton Lee stresses that when children have the chance to read what they like, they keep reading. The article focuses almost exclusively on fictional chapter books (aka middle grade novels) along with graphic novels. Lee also briefly discusses magazine and internet articles. But as we perused the piece, we couldn’t help noticing a glaring omission: Lee fails to mention a single nonfiction children’s book.

Sadly, Lee isn’t alone. Even some children’s writers have a tendency to ignore nonfiction. A post on the Book Riot website by young adult author Tirza Price on “Why adults should read middle grade books” recommends only fiction titles.

We have written about this unfortunate oversight before. In response to December 2020 The Washington Post article “Will my grandkids still love me if I buy them nonfiction?” by Jay Mathews, we wrote an article stating that we were dismayed—though not surprised—by Matthews’s statement that “the books students choose to read are almost always fiction.” We went on to share multiple studies indicating that many children enjoy nonfiction books as much as or more than fiction. An additional study, published in July 2021, shows that 55 percent of girls and 51 percent of boys “like reading nonfiction a lot.”

Yet, despite the data, many adults—parents, grandparents, even educators—seem to believe that the children in their lives favor fiction. Too often, teachers automatically opt for made-up stories for read-alouds, book talks, book clubs, and even science and social studies lessons. When a class of twelve teachers working toward their master’s degree in education at the University of Texas at San Antonio were asked to name their favorite nonfiction children’s books, only one could do so! And a study evaluating elementary classroom book collections revealed that only 17 to 22 percent of the titles were nonfiction. This sends a powerful negative message to students—that nonfiction isn’t as valid and valuable as fiction, that it’s not meant for everyday enjoyment.

We want to remind everyone that finely crafted nonfiction children’s books have the power to inform, to inspire, and to get kids fired up about learning. They feature stunning visuals and rich language that captivate curious minds and invite children to think about topics in new and exciting ways. Quite simply, these books are the perfect way to engage kids—of all ages. And research supports this by clearly showing that nonfiction can play an important role in a child’s literacy development and fuel their natural sense of wonder about the world and how it works.

So, as the school year gets underway around the country, we’d like to recommend an array of true books that tell it like it is, from cozy bedtime reads to awe-inspiring teen dramas.

For preschoolers consider:

Beware of the Crocodile by Martin Jenkins and Satoshi Kitamura

Dream Big, Little One by Vashti Harrison

Full of Fall by April Pulley Sayre

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez and Felicita Sala

The Nest that Wren Built by Randi Sonenshine and Anne Hunter

Yummy Yoga: Playful Poses and Tasty Treats by Joy Bauer and Bonnie Stephens

For elementary-aged readers check out:

13 Ways to Eat a Fly by Sue Heavenrich and David Clark

Giant Squid by Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann

Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Megan McCarthy

Wacky and Wild! Guinness World Records by Calliope Glass

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac

Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton and Don Tate

For the middle-school crowd, take a look at:

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat

Code This! Puzzles, Games, Challenges, and Computer Coding Concepts for the Problem Solver in You by Jennifer Szymanski

How We Got to the Moon: The People, Technology, and Daring Feats of Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Adventure by John Rocco

Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Road Kill by Heather L. Montgomery and Kevin O’Malley

Together We March: 25 Protest Movements that March into History by Leah Henderson

Torpedoed: The True Story of the World War II Sinking of “The Children’s Ship” by Deborah Heiligman

And, for teens, try these titles:

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime that Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater

Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust by Doreen Rappaport

Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians But Were Afraid to Ask Young Readers Edition by Anton Treuer

Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real about Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America, edited by Amy Reed

Whoppers: History’s Most Outrageous Lies and Liars by Christine Seifert

Why’d They Wear That: Fashion as the Mirror of History by Sarah Albee

Most of all, remember, when you are buying or borrowing books for the children in your life, donating books to their schools or libraries, or just talking up books: add a few nonfiction books to your list. The kids will love it! (and you may, too).

Award-winning nonfiction authors Cynthia Levinson, Melissa Stewart, and Jennifer Swanson can’t imagine any better job than exploring topics they’re passionate about and sharing what they’ve learned with young readers.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.